Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Deer Hunter – War Is Hell

Written by Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, and Louis Garfinkle
Directed by Michael Cimino

I grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam war. The time I came of age in was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when communism was still considered a deep threat to us as a people and a culture, rather than a source of cheap labor and financing our growing national debt. At the same time, our conviction that we were the strongest country in the world was a bit shaken by what had happened in that country in Southeast Asia. Unlike movies like Rambo which attempt to take on the aftermath of the war by changing the ending, movies like The Deer Hunter dealt with the harsh reality of what happened.

The movie opens by introducing us to a group of Pennsylvania steel workers. The buddies are quite tight, as exhibited by their behavior prior to the wedding of one of the men. What’s more important is that these men are indicative of many during this time. they could have been defense workers on Long Island, textile workers in Massachusetts, oil workers out in Texas, etc.

More than an hour is spent showing the bond between Michael, Stan, Steven, Nick, Axel, and John before they head to Vietnam. As Steve is married in an elaborate Greek Orthodox ceremony, they make plans for a last hunting trip together as well.

Once in Vietnam, Michael, Nick, and Steven become prisoners of war. Their Vietcong captors use them for entertainment, forcing them to play Russian roulette with partially-loaded pistols. They escape and make their way back to the safe zone. However, Steven elects not to leave and gets swallowed up into the underground world where they play Russian roulette for money.

Michael does return home and has trouble adjusting. Not only must he deal with the guilt over a blossoming relationship with Steven’s girlfriend, Linda, but also with the guilt for having left his friends behind. After talking with Steven at a Veteran’s hospital, Michael returns to Vietnam, determined to find Nick and bring him home.

I’ll get the film’s faults out of the way first. It’s long; really long. There are plenty of times where the length bogs the story down, especially in this world now where movie viewers have become conditioned to fast-paced, action-packed war movies. However, once I got past expecting a war film and instead accepting it as a character-driven film about the group of friends, my expectations changed as well.

As a character piece, it’s excellent. The group of young men transcend boundaries and speak to the innocence of the time, both in their age and of us as a country. In a documentary I recently watched on World War II, one of the testimonials from a veteran states how wars are always fought by young men because only they have the mentality to believe they are invincible. This is exemplified by the attitude of the steelworkers in The Deer Hunter.

It also takes on a different perspective knowing what happened to the U.S. steel industry in the decades following the war. In the beginning, it would seem that these blue-collar workers had strong jobs in a community where they had good roots. However, knowing how things would change over the years, the promise of the American dream was not going to hold up at home, either.

The acting is superb. Robert DeNiro is excellent and carries much of the film, even if it’s an ensemble cast. His counterpart is Christopher Walken. Watching him in the series of campy horror film roles he’s taken of late makes me cringe when I think of the stellar performance he gives here. The POW scenes with these two men made me feel the anguish and I was holding my breath waiting for the outcome. Few films and performances can do that.

Meryl Streep was only in her second big-screen role in The Deer Hunter and holds her own on a screen crowded with men. She doesn’t come off like Scarlett O’Hara following the Civil War when she’s with Michael, something the role could have ended up being. Instead, she’s got an inner strength that seems to be like she’s moving towards something she has always felt is inevitable. This is a must-see to really get a feel for why she is considered such an amazing actress.

The cinematography is great. From the grittiness of the Pennsylvania steel town to the bleakness of the foreign country, the right atmosphere is created over and over. I could see the bright spots, especially during the wedding, but at the same time these were people who were never going to rise to the top of the pile in life. The hunting scenes where they go on their trip are brighter, creating a time of more optimism and happiness.

Director Michael Cimino cut more than an hour from his final cut, and I wish The Deer Hunter had either been allowed to flow naturally and tell the story the way he wanted it to unfold. Yes, It would have been longer, but I think the pace would have been better and it wouldn’t have felt as long. I did watch the deleted and extended scenes in the extras, but I found it was really hard to envision the film complete with them and would have preferred a Director’s cut release.

The Deer Hunter won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, among others. It deserved it. It’s a powerful film that doesn’t come off as either pro or anti-war, but just shows how the experience affected the men who went over believing in what they were doing. If you didn’t know we had lost the war, you wouldn’t after watching this as it doesn’t do anything to try to convince one way or the other. It is a powerful testimonial as to what those we ask to lay their lives on the line for this country experience, both during and after the fight.


” Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Film Journalist Bob Fisher
” Deleted and Extended Scenes
” Original Theatrical Trailer
” Production Notes

4 replies »

  1. Ditto I watched this one when I was in college – it made a deep impression on me. And like many others that have affected me, I have not felt inclined to watch it again….