1 Year, 100 Movies #53 The Deer Hunter (1978)

by Trey Hock on December 10, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

The AFI list has made a recent dash into war. Rushing out of the trenches and straight into the crazed action, we move from funny to heavy as we go from #54 “M*A*S*H” to #53 “The Deer Hunter.” Gone are the lighthearted days of sexually pointed pranks just off the frontline. This time we’re right smack in the middle of the fight.

Set during the Vietnam conflict, “The Deer Hunter” follows three friends as they go off to war. The film breaks into three distinct pieces. There is the time before war, the war itself, and the time after the soldiers return. The film gives us insight into not only how the war affects each individual soldier, but also how it affects the community that these young men come from.

Michael (Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are close friends, who have grown up in the small steel town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. The options for jobs, fun and relationships are limited, so Nick and Michael decide to head off to Vietnam with mutual friend Steve (John Savage). Before they leave, Steve is going to marry his girlfriend, who’s pregnant with his (?) child, and they want to cram in one last hunting trip.

In this scene, Michael and Nick prepare for the hunting trip, and discuss the upcoming wedding.

Michael and Nick are too thoughtful for their surroundings. The philosophy of one shot to take a deer gives Michael a humane resolve. He wants to do what he feels is right, even though the right option may be the more difficult. The parallel between the hunt and the war they are about to join is apparent. Nick and Michael are both deer and hunter.

Nick’s favorite part of the hunt is the trees. He tries to describe it to Michael, but catches himself as he becomes too sensitive and too vulnerable. Director Michael Cimino does an elegant job of nearing sentimentality, but never quite fully employing it. By creating a film that, for the most part, lacks any forced, overly sentimental moments, Cimino can explore life in a small town and the effects the war has on it, without choosing a side. He tries to present a moment without totally manipulating the viewer.

Steve’s wedding is a huge event, which is used to develop our characters, and explore life in this Northeastern working class town. It’s a long multi-scene part of “The Deer Hunter.” It might feel boring to some, but we need this time so that we can understand what’s at stake. The wedding shows us what can be lost.

As the reception concludes Michael takes off running through the streets of Clairton. He strips to his bare skin and ends up on an abandoned basketball court. Nick catches up to him, and covers him with his jacket. Careful, there is brief male nudity at the beginning of this clip.

The weight of Vietnam is closing in on these two, and it gives them a heightened awareness of where they are and what their friendship means. There is also the plea, from Nick for Michael, not to leave him over there.

But before they’re off to the front, there is one last hunting trip. Friends, Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren), and John (George Dzundza), join Nick and Michael. The dynamics of the group accentuate the personalities of our main characters. (Sound starts at 8 seconds.)

Stan can’t understand what Michael means by “this is this.” Michael’s focus on what hunting requires, his mental communion with his surroundings and the deer, his need to take the deer with one shot, isolates him from his friends. Hunting is not partying with your friends. It is hunting, and in Michael’s mind the two are not analogous. This is this, and it’s not something else. This clarity and presence of mind will save him and his friends later.

The three young men ship off to Vietnam, and it’s not long before they are captured and held as prisoners of war. Their captors force the prisoners to face off against each other in games of Russian roulette, all while the captors place wagers on who will find the bullet filled chamber.

When Nick and Michael are called to play against each other, Michael comes up with a dangerous plan for escape.

With three bullets in the gun, all Nick and Michael need is the next chamber to be empty, and they’ll have three shots to use on their captors. Luck is with them, but the pressure of being forced to play proves too much for Nick.

After the escape, the three are separated. Michael returns home alone, unsure of the fate of his friends, and unable to connect with the others back in Clairton. Linda (Meryl Streep), Nick’s former girlfriend, suggests that she and Michael take comfort in each other.

This small scene tells so much. Michael is unable to stay in his own home, in his own town. He doesn’t fit anymore. Instead he goes to a hotel across the river. He is an outsider to the life he once had.

Even when he goes hunting again with his friends, his whole outlook has changed.

This moment is similar to Hemingway’s veteran holding gutted trout in the moving river. Michael is more than a shell, but he has lost two friends, if not physically, then spiritually. His own loss makes him question the hunt, and cry out for something, anything, even just for the pain to stop.

As Michael attempts to reintegrate the wounded Steve into life back in Clairton, he learns that Nick is still in Saigon. Michael goes back to Saigon, and finds his friend in a gambling den that pays men to face one another in Russian roulette.

Did you check out that amazing tracking shot when Michael approaches the table to face Nick? There are a number of really incredible shots throughout “The Deer Hunter.” One that’s truly surprising happens in a bowling alley after Michael’s return. I won’t go into a thorough discussion in this article, but this is definitely a movie worth watching for its use of the cinematic frame.

Cimino uses Russian roulette throughout “The Deer Hunter” as an allegory for war. It is the spin of the cylinder that decides who lives or dies. Some are able to escape the bullet, but for Nick, facing the barrel of the revolver is his breaking point. He can never return home after that. He forgets his friends, his past. Now it’s just him and the gun.

This isn’t a perfect film. There are flaws in the storytelling, and scenarios that call for an exceptional leap of faith. As an example, we are to believe that Nick has survived for months in the gambling den. There are also loose ends that never get resolved. Is it Steve’s baby? Perhaps, but that storyline gets lost in the shuffle. Even with its flaws “The Deer Hunter” maintains its power and ability to draw the viewer in.

“The Deer Hunter” is a hard movie. Not just for the violence and content, but Cimino refuses to give the viewer any easy answers. He shows us that war is terrible, but stops short of condemning war. Perhaps there are goals worth sacrificing our friends and ourselves for, but Cimino doesn’t tell us that either. Instead he leaves us with members of a broken community singing “God Bless America.” Perhaps they sing because of their loss, or a need for comfort. Perhaps they sing out of anger or condemnation. They may even sing out of hope. It’s hard to tell, but that’s exactly what makes the final moment of this film so poignant.

Next on the list #52 Taxi Driver (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #54 M*A*S*H (1970)

1 Year, 100 Movies #55 North by Northwest (1959)

1 Year, 100 Movies #56 Jaws (1975)

1 Year, 100 Movies #57 Rocky (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #58 The Gold Rush (1925)

1 Year, 100 Movies #59 Nashville (1975)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed December 11, 2010 at 11:29 am

Great review, Trey. It’s been about ten years since I’ve seen this one. I remember it being almost interminably long, especially the wedding scene.

Also, I saw the Russian Roulette scene (the first one) when I was about seven years old. Yet I was not allowed to watch The A-Team because it was too violent. Still not sure how that happened.

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2 Trey Hock December 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Thanks, Reed. Yeah the early part of the film is long, but I think drawing out those early scenes gives power to the war and Russian roulette scenes.

Perhaps your parents thought that B.A.’s fear of planes would scare you more than self-inflicted gunshots.

“I ain’t gettin’ on that plane, Face!”

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3 jack duhamel December 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm

i had this a couple spots higher

- Jack Duhamel

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