THE DEER HUNTER targeted raw nerves with a Russian Roulette of contrasting emotions back in 1978, when movies—a full decade after the sincere but foolish The Green Berets—finally began to tackle the fury, folly and fallout of the Vietnam War. That same year Coming Home, The Boys In Company C, Go Tell The Spartans and tangentially, Who’ll Stop The Rain and Big Wednesday, all took their shots, but this intensely personal and controversial epic, for better or worse, generated the most praise & criticism, awards & box-office. “This is this!”
With friends and family left behind in their Pennsylvania steel-town home, three close buddies serve in Vietnam. The War changes them. It changes everything. Starting with the exuberance of a wedding and the camaraderie of a hunting trip, the storyline switches to a horrific sequence of events in Vietnam, followed by episodes back home after their shattering tour of duty. Off to hell and back are ‘Mike’ (Robert De Niro), ‘Nick’ (Christopher Walken) and ‘Steven’ (John Savage). Left behind are ‘Stan’ (John Cazale), ‘Linda’ (Meryl Streep), ‘John’ (George Dzundza), ‘Axel’ (Chuck Aspegren) and ‘Angela’ (Rutanya Alda).
Direction was by Michael Cimino, who co-wrote the script. Originally budgeted at $8,500,000, cost overruns stemming from Cimino’s obsessive attitude (nearly 600,000 feet of film were shot, 110 miles worth) saw that it ended up with a tab of $15,000,000. But, with some damning exceptions, most critics at the time were wow’d, the Oscars landed full-force and grosses of $49,074,000 made it the 9th most-seen film of ’78.
The picture made careers. Streep and Savage were 28, De Niro and Walken, 34. It was Streep’s second film, Cazale’s sixth and last (he died after it wrapped, 42). Though the screenplay was credited to Deric Washburne, Cimino claimed he re-wrote it, and they worked off material done by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker—there was much bitter argument over who did what and how much.
Oscar time arrived and the film took Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walken), Film Editing and Sound. Nominations went up for Best Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actress (Streep–her first nomination of what–a hundred?), Screenplay, and Cinematography.
Lots of controversy was stirred up at the time—and still holds sway in Reviewerland today—over what the movie said/didn’t say about the Vietnam War experience, and how it did it, particularly in the specious but harrowing Russian Roulette sequences and one-sided, unflattering portrayals of Vietnamese.
Movies set in that war labored under the weight of audiences and critics assuming the film/s would be the one/s to explain, or at least make some sense of it; praise or condemnation was often dished out per that unrealistic wish. Though its action was set in SE Asia of the 60s, the traumas inflicted on the characters are universally applicable to War in general. If political stances can be put to the side, the main weakness of the story is a common enough one—logic and likelihood: how can De Niro easily return to a war zone, one that’s collapsing, somehow find his friend, and what are the odds that friend would possibly have survived “the games”? Watching it unfold as drama is gripping, thanks to the actors, direction, photography, editing and production design, but it just doesn’t add up. Plus, where’d Pennsylvania get those mountains? Answer: the hunting sequences were shot in the dramatic peaks of the North Cascades in the state of Washington.
Past all that, the 51-minute wedding party set-piece is superbly done,the acting throughout is stellar, the Russian Roulette scene is incredibly intense. Vilmos Zsigmond’s plush cinematography is exemplary, the sound crew fully delivered. It may not be real, but it sure feels like it when you’re watching.
The Vietnam sequences were shot in Thailand, on the Kwai river, and in the red-light Patpong district of Bangkok. Other stateside work was done in West Virginia and Ohio (so much for Pennsylvania).
With Pierre Segui (le slimy Frenchman), Shirley Stoler, Joe Grifasi, Amy Wright and Paul D’Amato (the “Fuck it!” Green Beret). Long at 184 minutes, but, qualifications notwithstanding, still an enthralling cinematic experience.