Stream On: Michael Cimino’s one shot, ‘The Deer Hunter’

By on November 30, 2023

The Deer Hunter, today one of the more obscure films set during the Vietnam War, has been featured on lists of the best films ever made, being named the 53rd-greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute in 2007. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996, as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


/Amazon /Streaming /🍅86%🍿91% /Trailer /1978 /R

In the 1970’s British film producer Michael Neeley (he knew his stuff—in 1969 he produced The Italian Job, a riveting streamlined caper comedy starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward) bought an unproduced screenplay called “The Man Who Came to Play” by Louis A. Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker, about Las Vegas and Russian roulette.

He must have seen something in TV commercial director Michael Cimino’s first film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (which I didn’t—despite starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, it bored me silly) and hired Cimino to direct the screenplay. Cimino brought in Deric Washburn, with whom he had co-written Silent Running, a sci-fi potboiler (66% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes) to rewrite it. Washburn—or Cimino—took the Russian roulette element and placed it in the Vietnam War, which had finally ended in 1975. (Cimino fired Washburn, but gave him sole screenwriting credit after Washburn took it to arbitration. Both claimed to have written everything.) The Deer Hunter was one of the first postwar films to place it in the context of its impact on American society.

Had I known that The Deer Hunter was from the same director as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I probably wouldn’t have seen it in a theater in 1978, but I didn’t, and I did, and I and my date were profoundly moved—and changed—by the experience. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan the war had been an unpopular annoyance (I had been passed over for service, being classified 4F), but after seeing Cimino’s film, we started to “get it” (to say how, might constitute a spoiler).

The Deer Hunter opens in Western Pennsylvania, where three friends work in a steel mill, the insides of which looks like Hades. Steven Pushkov (John Savage) is about to get married, and then, with Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro, Mean Streets et al.) and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken, Pennies from Heaven et al.), will report for service. They are excited about going to Vietnam, in spite of several omens that they, being young men, ignore.

The first third of this three-hour epic covers Steven’s Eastern Orthodox wedding to Angela and the first of two hunting trips taken by the guys; the guys including Stan (John Cazale, The Godfather), Alex (Chuck Aspegren, not an actor, but foreman at an East Chicago steelworks visited early in pre-production by De Niro and Cimino. They were so impressed with him that they offered him the role) and John (George Dzundza), who owns a local bar, their hangout.

At the wedding reception Nick impulsively proposes to Linda (Meryl Streep) and she accepts. Linda lives with her abusive alcoholic father, but arranges to stay at the trailer shared by Nick and Mike while they’re away. Nick and Mike accost a Green Beret drinking alone at the VFW bar, wanting to drink to the war that they are excited about joining. The Green Beret stares at them for a few moments, finally saying, “F___ it.”

The second acts drops us outside of a Vietnamese village where Staff Sergeant Mike Vronsky happens upon corporals Steve and Nick, but the three are captured by the Viet Cong and imprisoned with other prisoners in a bamboo cage in a river. Whenever the guards are bored they bring two prisoners into their hut and force them to play Russian roulette with each other while the guards bet on the winner.

This scenario generated a lot of controversy even back in the day. In 1979 the New York Times recounted that the group Vietnam Veterans against the War called The Deer Hunter “a racist attack on the Vietnamese people” for the idea that the Viet Cong would force anyone to play Russian roulette.

Nowadays millennials and younger, who have apparently made their peace with authority—any authority—say, “Could they do that?” I’m pretty confident when I say that the high command of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong) probably didn’t include Russian roulette in their tactics. But could it have happened? Absolutely! The Deer Hunter is not a history; it’s a fable.

The writing is loose (see “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” above), but the scenes are short and well-connected; the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond (The Long Goodbye, Deliverance, etc.) is very fine, and the cast is one of the best ever. De Niro, Walken and Streep especially had some of the best scenes of their careers, in my opinion.

This was their mentor John Cazale’s (Stan) final film; he was dying of lung cancer. (Here is a short documentary about the great actor, “I Knew It Was You.”) Cazale’s brief career included only five full-length feature films, all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Deer Hunter all won.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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