#243 The Deer Hunter
(1978, Michael Cimino)
“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about”
It seems odd now, but once upon a time, Hollywood was reluctant to talk about Vietnam. While WW2 movies started springing up while the war was still happening, Vietnam movies took a while to appear, possibly due to the questionable nature of the whole affair. Then The Deer Hunter came along, and dared to represent the harsh realities of the war, shocking the world.
The Deer Hunter is in three parts – the first being a wedding in a small Pennsylvania town where Steven (John Savage) is getting married, with his wedding doubling as a send-off party for him and his friends Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken), who are about to be shipped out for duty in Vietnam. The second part is during the war, where the three become prisoners of war and forced to play Russian roulette. The third part is the aftermath, and the effects of war on people.
The Deer Hunter gets talked about a lot for its Russian roulette scenes, where Vietnamese soldiers place bets on which of their captives will die during the game they’re being forced to play. These scenes are incredibly harrowing, with De Niro playing a man desperately trying to find the courage to be a leader, while Walken and Savage put in excellent performances as damaged men. Walken is especially great in some of the following scenes, where he wanders the Vietnamese streets suffering from PTSD and ultimately losing his mind by getting involved with a French gambler.
There’s a reason these scenes are the most remembered, however, and that’s the fact that the rest of the movie is so goddamn boring. As a three-hour movie, I was concerned anyway, but it really didn’t help itself.
The first act of the movie, featuring the trio as part of their small town Russian-American community, was much longer than it would ever possibly need to be. It features a wedding reception pretty much in real time, and spends a lot of time just watching people dancing. I’m sure it was great fun to film, but the only real enjoyment I got out of it was realising one of the traditional Russian folk songs played in the background would later be used as the music for Tetris on the Game Boy ten years later.
The final scenes were worse. Much of act 3 was just De Niro wandering around town looking moody. While De Niro did put in an excellent dramatic performance, the pacing just felt terrible. It felt like things were being padded out just to make a three-hour movie. The message of the struggle to move back into civilian life came across very quickly and a lot of the following scenes seemed to be just labouring the point rather than adding substance to it.
I’ve mentioned before how much I dislike movies that like to overstate the horrors of war, and The Deer Hunter is no exception to this. While the middle section is excellently paced, and with a few surrounding scenes could have worked as its own movie, the first and last sections featured a lot of hanging around wondering what to do next.
This poor pacing killed the movie for me. The actors put in some fine performances, but ultimately I didn’t really care about what was happening. It didn’t engage me and I just couldn’t wait for it to end, to the point where trying to write a review of it is hard. My thoughts just come back to “I was pretty bored” and it’s hard to sustain a review on that alone.
Overall, The Deer Hunter felt like two completely different movies – one a harrowing tale of PTSD in the Vietnam War and the other a pondering on small town life, and neither particularly fit together very well. It may have received a lot of critical acclaim, but I honestly wasn’t impressed outside of the Russian roulette scenes.
Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep & George Dzundza
Written by Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle & Quinn K. Rederker
Produced by Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino & John Peverall
Music by Stanley Myers
Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Peter Zinner
Favourite Scene: The scene with Christopher Walken’s character failing to answer simple questions in a military hospital because he’s become so messed up from his experiences is absolutely fantastic.
Scene That Bugged Me: The scene where the trio acted threatening towards a veteran who turns up at the wedding didn’t seem to have a lot to do with anything.
Watch it if: You have more patience than me
Avoid it if: You want the movie to be exclusively about the Russian roulette