Friday, September 18, 2009

#467: The Deer Hunter (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage & Meryl Streep

Considered one of the quintessential Vietnam films in the industry, The Deer Hunter depicts the lives of three men from western Pennsylvania and how the war affected their lives. The film is told in three clear acts.

The first act shows the lives of the three men just a day before they leave for Vietnam. It’s the wedding day for Steven, whose fiancĂ©e is just showing signs of pregnancy, though the groom had saved himself for the wedding day. The men and their friends decide to go hunting on the same day. Michael, the clear leader of the group, has a discussion with Nick on how important it is to kill deer with just one shot.

The second act is entirely placed in Vietnam. In a disturbing scene, the three friends are shown to have become POWs, caged in waste-deep water, only to be brought out when it’s their turn to be placed against each other in a game of Russian roulette. Upon their escape, they soon become separated from each other. Michael doesn’t know what’s happened to Nick, and Steven is severely traumatized by the events that passed while imprisoned.

The third act depicts Michael’s return to his hometown. The return is celebrated by the townspeople, but Michael is a changed man. When he goes hunting once again with his friends, his mentality of the sport has undergone a radical change. Just as it appears he might be able to settle into his renewed lifestyle, he discovers that Nick is alive and still in Vietnam. He remembers a promise he made to never leave Nick behind, and makes his trip back across the world to bring Nick home.

The acting in this film is really fantastic. There isn’t very much dialogue, though each character’s personality shines through with apparent ease. The acting hadn’t gone unnoticed, leading to an Oscar win for Walken and nominations for Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep (her first nod – and her second film).

The most interesting thing about the film is its ambiguous stance on the war. Cimino never declares himself as pro- or anti-war in this film, but simply remarks on how it influences the individual people, including both those who served in the war and those left behind. The thing that isn’t left ambiguous is Cimino’s prioritization of personal relationships over politics.

The Russian roulette scene is certainly the one which will stick in most peoples’ minds, though it’s become a bit of a clichĂ©. Aside from that, and the films extraordinary length (three hours), this is a great watch, and a must-see for anyone interested in war movies.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • Director Michael Cimino convinced Christopher Walken to spit in Michael's face. When Walken actually did it, Robert De Niro was completely surprised by it, as evidence by his reaction. In fact, De Niro was so furious about it he nearly left the set. Cimino later said of Walken: "He's got courage!"
  • Meryl Streep improvised many of her lines.
  • During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors' tension. This was Robert De Niro's suggestion. It was checked, however, to make sure the bullet was not in the chamber before the trigger was pulled.
  • The slapping in the Russian roulette sequences was 100% authentic. The actors grew very agitated by the constant slapping, which, naturally, added to the realism of the scenes.
  • The scene where Savage is yelling, "Michael, there's rats in here, Michael" as he is stuck in the river is actually Savage yelling at the director Michael Cimino because of his fear of rats which were infesting the river area. He was yelling for the director to pull him out of the water because of the rats... it looked real and they kept it in.

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