The Deer Hunter (1978)

2016 #181
Michael Cimino | 176 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English, Russian, Vietnamese & French | 18 / R

The Deer Hunter

One of the first movies about the Vietnam war made after it ended, The Deer Hunter was controversial before it was made (no American company wanted to touch it, leaving British group EMI to put up the initial funding), controversial when it was released (Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war, called the use of Russian roulette “simply a bloody lie”), and remains controversial today (Mark Kermode called it “one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self-indulgent, self-aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion”), but is cited by some as one of the best movies ever made.

The plot concerns three Pennsylvanian steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who have been conscripted. It follows their final days before joining up, then some of their time in the conflict, then how they react once home — this is a Vietnam movie where under a third of its running time actually takes place in ‘Nam. But, as per producer Michael Deeley, the film “wasn’t really ‘about’ Vietnam. It was something very different. […] It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently.” It takes its time getting there (this is a long movie that feels long), but that’s what the famed Russian roulette stuff is all about, really — a way of coping with some kind of mental collapse; of leaving suicide up to chance.

Walken a fine line

It’s certainly a problematic film, with its depiction of the Vietcong particularly tin-eared — they’re an old-fashioned baddie, cruel and evil without any apparent provocation. Coupled with a final scene that sees the cast singing God Bless America, it comes across a bit too right-wing to be wholly palatable. It’s also a slog, particularly the first third and its never-ending wedding sequence.

These things can’t completely negate the qualities Deeley highlighted in the above quote, or that many viewers clearly see in it. That said, if I’m completely honest, I think Kermode may be closest to the truth.

4 out of 5

The Deer Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

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3 thoughts on “The Deer Hunter (1978)

  1. I’m with Kermode on this, a long, long movie that feels very long and in which very little happens, to the extent I sometimes feel as though I’ve watched something completely different to those who extol its virtues. Just didn’t do very much for me sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw this movie long after it came out (since I wasn’t alive at the time). So I already knew Walken as this caricature, larger than life, so it was weird to look back through time at this movie. Quite startling.

    Like

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