Although famous as a Vietnam war film, Michael Cimino's finest hour - the multi Academy Award winning (including Best Picture and Director) The Deer Hunter, is more an audacious study of friendship and the personal impact of war on a blue collar community. Like Apocalypse Now, another late seventies epic, the Vietnam war is the backdrop to another story. Indeed the Vietnam scenes in The Deer Hunter take up only a third of the running time and of that, most of it is taken up by the harrowing Prison of War scenes and, of course, the film's legendary set piece - the Russian Roulette sequence. A sequence both lambasted for it's perceived racism and lack of authenticity, and lionised for it's nerve jangling intensity and metaphorical punch.
The first act, and first hour, of the film is devoted to getting to know the cast. We meet a group of high spirited buddies, very much painted as your all American good ol' boys, emotionally retarded and living for the weekend, who all know each other through their love of hunting and their work at a steel plant. Of these men, three are imminently going to war, namely Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken). They are all leaving behind many friends and loved ones in the steel belt town that they grew up in. Early on, the film revolves around a hunting expedition where we see Michael emerging as a natural leader, quiet and stoic, qualities that will serve him well in the tropical hell that is to come, and an extended Russian-Orthodox wedding sequence that while interesting and necessary for a sense of community, does seem to go on forever. After all the joy and celebrating in the first act, the film then very abruptly segues to Vietnam where the three friends are captured and interned in a savage Vietcong prison camp. The experience of captivity leaves them with terrible physical, mental and spiritual wounds and only Michael returns back to the town with a semblance of his old self intact, and after fitfully trying to ignite a relationship with Linda (Meryl Streep), the girl that he could never have as she was Nick's fiancé, he returns to Saigon to fulfil a promise, only to find himself in another maelstrom of horror and madness.
The Deer Hunter is skilfully and sensitively directed by Michael Cimino and is a wonderful example of Seventies grandiose cinema that is epic in every sense, but be warned, it is slow and ponderous, it does shamelessly manipulate your emotions, and while the action scenes are visceral and exciting, you have to wait a long time for them. But when they come they are almost surreal in their brutality. The cinematography throughout is framed in a reverent widescreen splendour by Vilmos Zsigmond; and the acting by an ensemble cast is exemplary with four transcendent performances by De Niro, Savage, Walken and Streep, as well as tremendous support by the likes of the late John Cazale doing his patented weasel act, and George Dzundza as a gregarious oaf. They all shine with character and vibrancy but it is De Niro as the enigmatic Michael, and Walken as the soulful Nick in career defining form, that will linger with you. The Deer Hunter is one of the best war films, but it's certainly not a conventional one - to quote De Niro's Michael, “This isn't something else. This is this.”
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