Classic Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter D

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

TitleThe Deer Hunter
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: Michael Cimino
Production Company: EMI

The Deer Hunter is a movie I’ve long been aware of but only had a vague idea that it was about Vietnam, involved Russian Roulette, and starred Christopher Walken.  I had no idea that the lead actor is actually Robert De Niro, who seems to be in every prestige film of this era, or that it is prominently set in a steel mill town of Western Pennsylvania.  I kind of figured that this movie fit in with films like Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon, which it kind of does, but it’s also very much its own thing.

The movie centers on a trio of young men who decide to enlist in the army to fight in the war in Vietnam – Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Steve (John Savage).  The cast also includes John Cazale in the last of his five films before dying of cancer (all of which were nominated for Best Picture) as their friend Stan, and Meryl Streep in one of her earliest films as Linda, a woman that Mike and Nick are both in love with.  The first part of the film focuses on the group of Russian-American friends who work together in the steel mill in a very busy 24-hour period where they work, go out for drinks, attend Steve’s wedding and reception, and then go hunting (except Steve, of course, who goes to his wedding night with his wife).  Like The Godfather, this film uses an extensive wedding reception setting to establish the characters and the culture they live in.

The first segment goes on so long, in fact, I thought maybe that the Vietnam War may be more of a theme of the movie than actually seeing them go to war. But suddenly the film transitions to battle scenes and we enter the second act.  I kind of wish the movie had focused entirely on that 24-hour period before Mike, Nick, and Steve left for Vietnam.  Not only is it the best part of the movie but it would also be considerably shorter than the 3+ hour slog Cimino gave us.  The movie descends into gratuitous violence, impossible leaks of logic, heavy-handed messaging, and a really racist depiction of Vietnamese as cruel and sadistic.  The Russian roulette sequences in this movie are not based on any reality of how the Vietnamese treated POWs nor were there Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon. For Cimino it’s supposed to be a metaphor but it really strains credulity.

The third act of the movie brings Mike home with considerable PTSD and a need to “save” his friends, Steve from a facility for wounded veterans and Nick from the aforementioned Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon as the city falls in April 1975. This part could’ve have been an affective look at the way the trauma of war changes people, a la The Best Years of Our Lives, but the heavy-handedness and ludicrousness of the plot twists just makes it a slog.  I honestly wonder if the people who decided that this movie deserved a lot of awards and accolades only based it on the first hour or so.  Because it started off so good and I really thought it was going to be a very different film than it ended up being.

Rating: **