1978 – The Deer Hunter


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The Deer Hunter – 1978

This was a very intense movie.  There were two scenes in particular that were very disturbing to watch.  The game is called Russian Roulette, and even though I knew what I was watching, knew what to expect, I still cringed during those two scenes.  That is the mark of effective film making.  It was the movie’s goal to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, to make you squirm in your seat.    But we’ll get back to that in a bit.

This was a drama on several levels.  It starred Robert De Niro, who we remember from The Godfather Part II, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, and John Savage.  As you might expect, De Niro was great, Streep was captivating, and Walken was incredible.  But John Savage, who was not as big a name as those three, gave a particularly inspired performance.

The film is just over three hours long but it was so involving, it didn’t seem that long.  It takes place in Clairton Pennsylvania where Stevie, played by Savage is getting married to his girlfriend who is already pregnant, though we learn that the baby is not his.  His friends Michael (De Niro) and Nick (Walken) are, of course, part of the wedding party.  Streep plays Nick’s girlfriend, Linda.  She lives with a physically abusive father, and attends the wedding with a bruised cheek.

The story really revolves around these three friends. With Linda playing a larger part later in the film.  Mike is the partly crazy and unspoken leader of the gang.  He has feelings for Linda which he keeps to himself.  Steve is described as the young lover of the trio.  Nick is the quiet and introspective one.  Mike and his two friends, we learn, are going to fight in the Vietnam War.  Nick makes Mike promise not to leave him while they are in Vietnam.  After the wedding, and before they are shipped out, Mike takes Nick and some other co-workers on a hunting trip.  Thus we get the title of the film: The Deer Hunter.  This is actually important because a running theme throughout the plot is the idea of “one shot.”  Mike liked to kill a deer with one shot when hunting.

Interesting note:  A stag which Mike hunts in the later half of the film was the same stag which was used in the Connecticut Life Insurance Company commercials.  And just to be sure, the deer which he kills in the first half of the movie was not actually killed, though it appeared to have actually been shot.  In fact, it had been – by a tranquilizer gun.

The horrors of the Vietnam War that the three friends are forced to endure and witness are enough to leave terrible emotional scars.  But when the three of them are captured by the North Vietnamese, they are subjected to a very specific form of mental and physical torture.  For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette.

For anyone who does not know this sick and twisted game, it is where a single bullet is inserted into a chamber of a six-shooter gun.  The players take turns pulling the trigger with the gun pointed at their heads until one of them dies.  If they do not participate, they are threatened with execution.  It isn’t long before their sanity is nearly obliterated.

I can’t even imagine what the characters were going through, what kind of mental breakdown I would have at even the prospect of such a grizzly game.  De Niro, Walken, and Savage were incredible.  Savage nearly kills himself in his game with Mike.  At the last second he turns the gun and the bullet grazes his skull.  Then Mike plays Nick, but his plan to get them out is so obvious.  He asks for three bullets to be put into the gun.  He points the gun at his head and pulls the trigger.  Nothing.  Nick is in tears and Mike has to slap him to get him to do the same.  He finally pulls the trigger, and nothing happens.  Then, of course, when the gun is again in his hand, Mike turns the gun on his captors.

Just watching such a horrible event on the screen is like mental torture.  But that is why it was so effective.  The director did a fantastic job of making the viewer feel like he was actually there in the prison camp.  I was practically sweating and my heart was beating fast when the three friends made good their escape.  Like I said, it was very disturbing.  But they are all separated.  Steve is injured and sent home, Mike finishes his tour and is also sent home.  But Nick, thinking that his friends are dead, is sent to a hospital.

This is where Walken really stood out.  The evaluation officer at the hospital tries to interview him, and Nick can barely bring himself to even speak.  Walken really did a great job of making you feel for him.  His sanity is just about gone.  His memories of home and family are gone.  He looks at a picture of Linda and doesn’t even seem to even recognize her.  It was heart-wrenching to watch.  Walken won the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor.

Later, we see Nick wandering the streets of Saigon.  He finds a gambling den in which the game is… you guessed it: Russian roulette.  But strangely enough, Mike is actually there.  Unfortunately, Nick has a mental breakdown and runs away before Mike can get to him.  After that, Nick goes AWOL and disappears.

Without going through the rest of the plot, I will say that the scene I described in the prison camp was only the first of two Russian roulette scenes.  The second took place later in the film between Mike and Nick.  Nick did not survive.  But the second scene was made even more poignant because, each for their own reasons, they were both willing participants of the game.  When it ended, I was nearly in tears.

Meryl Streep is currently one of my favorite actresses in Hollywood.  The Deer Hunter was only her second movie of note, her first being Fred Zinnemann’s Julia.  Her part was actually a fairly small one.  But the scenes in which she did participate were very memorable.  In the last part of the movie, she becomes Mike’s love interest while grieving over Nick, whom she believes to be dead.  She is such a versatile and professional actress, and I think I am safe in saying that she is one of the greatest actresses in the history of cinema.  Her emotions are so raw and realistic that she demands attention.  She was born to be in front of the camera.

Interesting note:  In the screenplay, which was for the most part written by Derek Washburn and the film’s director, Michael Cimino, the role of Linda was negligible.  Cimino explained the set-up to Streep and suggested that she write her own lines.

On the surface this was a war film, and it certainly did a good job of portraying that aspect.  Of course the Academy of Motion Pictures has a history of choosing war films as their Best Picture winners.  Each of them has their place.  This just happened to be the first major film to deal with the Vietnam War.  But beneath the surface, the film really had a lot to do with the deep friendship between the three men, and how their shared experience of physical and mental torture, inflicted upon them irrevocable change.  They were each severely damaged in their own ways.  Even Mike, who’s emotional injuries were more subtle than his friends, did not walk away unscarred.

Interesting note:  While there is no evidence that Russian roulette was ever employed or played by the Viet Cong in their prison camps or in Saigon, as depicted in the film, it has come to be accepted in The Deer Hunter as a symbol of the physical and psychological horrors of war in general.

De Niro and Streep both did a fantastic job, and I was surprised to learn that though they were both nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively for their roles, neither of them won.  Again, I didn’t see their competition, but I thought they both deserved to win.  Aside from Best Picture, The Deer Hunter took home Oscars for Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Walken), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

It was not always an easy movie to watch, but I’m glad I did.  Ultimately, I enjoyed it, but it really was an intense and disturbing film.

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