I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1978 winner, The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. I first watched this movie about 10 years ago.
The Deer Hunter is a dark drama about a group of friends from an Ohio steel town and how the Vietenam War impacts their lives. This film can be difficult to watch because of its unflinching look at the brutality of war.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, and An Unmarried Woman. The Deer Hunter also won Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Walken), Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
The film is split into three main sections. The first establishes their lives in the steel community. The guys work hard at the steel mill during the day and relax by shooting pool in a bar, singing along to the pop songs, or by taking weekend journeys into the woods to go hunting. Of this group, the only one who really cares if he shoots something is Michael (De Niro), who takes hunting seriously, insisting it should only take one shot to kill a deer.
The friends get ready for the wedding of Steven (John Savage), and there are long scenes of them preparing, joshing around, participating in the ceremony, and dancing at the reception to Russian folk music. Meanwhile, three of the guys Michael, Steven, and Nick (Walken) are about to ship out to the military for basic training for Vietnam. So the reception doubles as a farewell party.
The second section takes place in Vietnam, opening with Michael, Steven and Nick facing the psychologically-damaging realities of a POW camp. Michael's strength is the only thing that keeps Steven and Nick going, despite the cruelties of their captors.
A final section takes place after the war. Having been discharged from the military, the friends have gone their separate ways, with Michael returning home. But seeing how much their absence is hurting their loved ones such as Nick's fiancee, Linda Michael uses his hunter's instincts to track down Steven and Nick and try to convince them to come home.
The hardest scenes to watch are the scenes of Russian roulette. Of course, those scenes are the centerpiece of the film, and are frequently referred to in pop culture. Initially, this brutal game is forced upon the men in a POW camp. Then, later, it becomes a symbol for hopelessness and desperation. These scenes take viewers out of their comfort zone. In this modern age, we are used to war films, to scenes of people getting shot. But to watch somebody put a gun to their own head and pull the trigger, that produces a sort of unease that cannot be underestimated and helps to bring home the terrible realities of war.
Russian roulette serves as a metaphor for the men's experiences. Whether they were drafted or volunteered, once they entered the military, they had no control. Instead, their wartime experiences were a matter of playing the odds: while many soldiers survived, some were not so lucky. And yet, they must keep going.
The version of the movie I watched did not come with a making-of documentary, but it did include production notes, which I read through. According to Cimino, it didn't matter whether it was a war or some other big event in their lives; this was a movie about testing people's strength. Obviously, Michael, the deer hunter of the title, is the one who has the mental fortitude to make it, while his other friends experience various problems as a result.
It's interesting to note that Savage and De Niro did their own stunts for a scene where they grab onto a helicopter's runners. De Niro, known for taking his roles seriously, studied for his part by socializing with actual steelworkers. Coincidentally, Aspergen was not an actor when he was cast, but rather the foreman at a steel works visited by De Niro and Cimino. They were so impressed with him, they offered him the role.
Sadly, Cazale, who also appeared with De Niro in The Godfather II, was terminally ill during the making of the film and died of cancer shortly after filming was completed.
The fact that this film came out in 1978, five years after the last American troops left the country, makes this film easy to read as social commentary. Like other Oscar-winning post-war films (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridge on the River Kwai), the film asks us to consider the pointlessness of war and the impact on the men who fight it. The movie was inspired in part by actual news footage of the war. After viewing it, Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, a counselor with the U.S. Department of Labor, was inspired to build a National Memorial for Vietnam Veterans and began operating the memorial fund that eventually paid for it.
Despite the suspense-filled Russian roulette scenes, most of The Deer Hunter is fairly forgettable: slow-paced, with little dialogue. The cinematography is rather passive: showing lots of wide shots and rarely focusing attention on the details that might have helped us understand these characters better. A sprawling film, with too many characters, only a few of which are drawn with any vividness, the film is front-loaded with exposition.
That doesn't mean it's a bad movie. Sometimes movies that are difficult to watch are still important, because of the statements they make. And of course, De Niro, the heart of the film, is worth watching, as is Walken, in his first major role.
Rating (3 1/2 out of 5): *** 1/2
Even when you know what happens, it's hard to watch Russian roulette.