As the Oscars approach, Film Threat writers review films from a time when Best Picture was actually Best Picture.
The deer hunterwhich won the Best Picture Oscar in 1979, is a one-of-a-kind war film.
Maybe it’s because, in a sense, it was never intended to be one. The film’s genesis was a screenplay by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker, set in Las Vegas, in which characters gambled with their lives playing Russian roulette. Only this last element survived when director Michael Cimino and writer Deric Washburn attached themselves to the project, and it remains the most memorable and – arguably – most controversial aspect of the three-hour Vietnamese epic that he would eventually become.
It’s easy enough to see how Cimino and Washburn were able to find, in the barbaric practice of Russian roulette, a potent metaphor for the experiences of so many young Americans ruthlessly chewed up by the war machine. The unfathomable horror of staring immediate death in the face, the detachment from its innate value to human life, the utter and extraordinary absurdity of it all – what more perfect symbol for all of this than a loaded pistol leaning against the head of a desperate man? Detractors – and there were many – derided the idea of captured prisoners of war being forced to play Russian roulette as nothing more than a historically inaccurate fabrication by the filmmakers. But these sequences, which are absolutely central to the narrative, have a visceral, allegorical power that resonates far beyond any question of their verisimilitude.
“…Mike, Nick and Steven imprisonment and torture by the Viet Cong…”
Russian roulette was by no means the only bold and brilliant start that The deer hunter brought to the canon of Hollywood war images. It is surprising, to begin with, how very little of its long lifespan was spent in Vietnam. It is because the does so much, and with so much specificity and grace, to instill a sense of residence. The ramshackle Pennsylvania steel town where its characters have spent their entire lives might not be pretty, but it’s undeniably theirs – a place where the children of Eastern European immigrants can live, work, love and die surrounded by their friends and traditions. As Christopher Walken’s Nick thinks in an unusual and beautiful moment of introspection, “I love this place.”
Nick is arrogant and carefree, while his best friend and roommate Mike (Robert De Niro) is more cerebral and practical. They are both in love with sweet Linda (Meryl Streep) – although she is ostensibly “with” Nick – and they are both about to be deployed to Vietnam alongside their pal Steven (John Savage ). Their close-knit group also includes Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren), and John (George Dzundza). All those wide-eyed, rowdy blue-collar youngsters who fuck and drink too much are somehow extremely endearing and endearing despite everything — or maybe because of it. We get to know them and, in a very real sense, love them in the rambling but carefully orchestrated first hour, which follows them on the day and night of Steven’s wedding and one of their regular trips to the mountains. to hunt deer.
Each chapter – the wedding; The imprisonment and torture of Mike, Nick and Steven by the Viet Cong; a dark return home; an ultimately futile effort at spiritual atonement – is delivered with jaw-dropping assurance by Cimino in what is incredibly only his second directorial effort. There’s an operatic weight to the whole film, and it’s packed with unforgettable moments: De Niro running down a moonlit street in his underwear; a splash of ceremonial red wine disturbingly spoiling a wedding dress; a merry booze-soaked chant for “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”. There’s a wedding sequence that, in scale and dramatic omen, rivals The Godfather. The closing scene is one for the ages too; it’s moving and emotionally overwhelming in the moment, but philosophically much more complicated after reflection.