The Deer Hunter is the first Best Picture winner about the Vietnam War. Made at a time when the war was still a controversial subject. Making The Deer Hunter the first major Hollywood movie to truly capture the harsh reality of the war. Predating Apocalypse Now by one year. The Deer Hunter has similarly been called one of the greatest movies of all time, but I knew I needed to work myself up to it. My only knowledge of the film was its use of the deadly game Russian Roulette. A game where a player puts a single bullet in a revolver, spins the barrel, and has 1 to 5 odds of dying. You can imagine the controversy when several impressionable youths decided to take part in the game.
The Deer Hunter was always meant to center around Russian Roulette, but the Vietnam part came later. It originally took place in Vegas with the title The Man Who Came to Play. Whether the game’s presence in Vietnam was factually accurate or not doesn’t stop it from being a powerful theme throughout the 3 hour movie. Lesser known director Michael Cimino was apparently very difficult to work with on set. Taking control of both the writing and editing process. The Deer Hunter is way longer than it needs to be, but events are split into a distinct three act structure…
Mike and Nick play Russian Roulette
The Deer Hunter takes place before, during, and after Vietnam. The first act is dedicated to establishing the characters before they’re shipped off. Since Cimeno wasn’t a big name at the time, the movie needed an all-star cast to draw attention. The Deer Hunter managed to secure Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale. They all play Slavic-American members of a tightnit steel worker community. This was sadly Cazale’s final film since he was dying of terminal cancer at the time. Cazale has the rare distinction of only acting in Best Picture nominated movies. Including The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Streep mostly took a role because she was with Cazale at the time. This was only Streep’s second movie, yet she managed to get nominated for her first of several Oscars.
The three primary servicemen are De Niro as Mike, Walken as Nick, and Savage as Steven. Mike and Nick are best friends, but they’re both in love with Streep’s emotionally damaged character Linda. Steven gets married to Angela before being sent to Vietnam. A lot of time is spent on every little detail of the wedding. Though it is important to see the characters in happier times. That includes everyone singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in a bar and going on the titular deer hunt. All three friends are joined by Cazale’s Stan, George Dzundza’s John, and real life foreman Chuck Aspegren’s Axel. The first deer hunt sees Mike kill a deer no problem. The second act abruptly shifts to Vietnam. Mike, Nick, and Steven think honor and glory is waiting for them, but they should’ve listened to the soldier they met earlier at the wedding.
Explosions and civilian casualties aren’t given nearly as much attention as the first game of Russian Roulette. Viet Cong are depicted with a ruthless fixation on the game of chance. Steven breaks down completely and Nick is forced to play against Mike. It’s incredibly tense, but Mike manages to get them out of the situation. Mike keeps a levelhead throughout the conflict, but Nick isn’t so lucky. Although De Niro was rightfully nominated for Best Actor, it’s Walken who deserved his Best Supporting Actor win. Nick’s PTSD gets to him and he goes AWOL in Saigon. The third act sees Mike return home a changed man. He can’t face his own welcome home party, he deliberately fails to kill a deer, and he makes a move on Linda.
Steven winds up alive, but he faces the all too common loss of his legs and confinement in a veteran hospital. When Mike searches for Nick in Saigon, he finds another changed man. Nick’s transformation into a despondent heroine addicted professional Russian Roulette player is haunting. The scene has just as much tension as the earlier scenes, but this time it doesn’t end so well for the fallen soldier. Though I’m sure ending with his friends gathered to sing “God Bless America” wasn’t trying to make a statement. The Deer Hunter was up against another Vietnam war movie called Coming Home, but the former had a greater impact that earned it Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. The Deer Hunter leaves an impression.
Mike goes deer hunting