Universal // 1978 // 183 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // February 12th, 2007
One shot, one kill.
The Deer Hunter was the first film to tackle the subject of Vietnam and the human toll that it wrecked on the American psyche. Michael Cimino's film was grand in vision, tackling every possible aspect of the war, at home and on the front, and deals with the fragile souls that fought and waited for the fighting. Universal has made the decision to release the film on HD DVD, how does this stack up?
Written by Cimino and several others, The Deer Hunter follows the lives of three main characters. You have Mike (Robert De Niro, Mean Streets, Heat), the rather gung-ho member of the group, Steven (John Savage, The Thin Red Line), who is about to be married, and Nick (Christopher Walken, True Romance, Wedding Crashers). Nick is going out with Linda (Meryl Streep, Adaptation., The Devil Wears Prada), and Michael is the loner of the group, who manages to sneak a peek at Linda every so often. The story picks up with Steven about to be married in a large ceremony in a Pennsylvania steel town, and the trio is days away from joining the military to go to Vietnam. After the wedding (and one last celebratory deer hunt with friends Axel (Chuck Aspegren), John (George Dzundza, No Way Out) and Stanley (John Cazale, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon), the three go to the bush, but are split into different units. The group is reunited under adverse circumstances and forced to play Russian roulette at their jailers' whim, and after this experience, things change for each of the men in various extremes.
There are few great films that have been dismissed because of their directors' eccentric behavior like that of The Deer Hunter. Cimino was eviscerated so wholly for his incoherent Heaven's Gate that this view seems to have bled into other more heralded titles in his filmography. In this reviewer's humble opinion, other notable Cimino films like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Year of the Dragon are a couple of gems, with aspects of humor, action and tight suspense running through either one of them. And although his excesses destroyed Heaven's Gate and to a larger extent, his professional career, they are part of what makes The Deer Hunter compelling and heartbreaking, sometimes simultaneously.
What Cimino does by making the film a three hour tour is you get to know the people that Michael, Nick, and Steven connect with, the lesser characters. The reason for this (I think) is to show you the collateral damage at home. The supporting characters all interact well with one another. John is a choirboy who helps operate the local tavern that seems to stay open all day and night to accommodate the steel workers after their shifts, whenever they end. He wanted to join the Army, and even knows many of the words to some of the songs, but was unable to go because of physical issues. Stanley remains distant from the group, respects their decision to go, but you never can really tell if he agrees with it or not. Cazale was suffering through cancer during filming, and in one scene where he forcibly carries De Niro into the main hall during Steven's reception at the American Legion, you can imagine that he's doing it with as much strength as was in his body at the time. Cazale died shortly after the film was released, but few have had a career as short and have appeared in as many legendary films.
The performances by the main characters are electric, brimming with an emotional rawness that I've rarely seen. When Michael sees one of his friends after coming back from the war, it is an emotional experience that De Niro is still touched by a quarter century after it happened. The Russian roulette scenes are harrowing, but Michael helps his friends through it with reassurance. But how does one adapt after going through an experience like that? Some put forth a stoicism that may be brave on the outside but is a heavy burden, and others just don't. Despite the extreme nature of the circumstances he crafted, Cimino helps to show just how difficult it can be returning to the "real world" after experiencing something like that, and it's something that no other war film since has come close to doing as effectively. One could make the case that the Vietnam veteran was looked at differently after the film's release, and the most effective symbol of this can be found in Washington, at the powerful memorial honoring that war's dead and captured, which was reportedly inspired by the film itself.
A couple of things about the film, and the first is that it's not perfect from a storytelling point of view. There are a couple of portents that are so ominous and so obvious that you could drive a truck through them. I would have hoped that Cimino didn't do one of these to basically telegraph his ending (which didn't come for another two and a half hours), but that type of thing does insult a movie viewer's intelligence. The ending has struck some as a little bit odd. The characters sing "God Bless America" in a bar at the end of the film, and my thoughts on it are that the characters live in a very localized area that hasn't been exposed to the rest of the more modern America. And even as some of their citizens come back in pieces, the thing that seems to keep them going at their base level is their belief in America. The problem is that the people of Clairton, Pennsylvania are looking for a 1955 America in 1975, one that will probably never again see the light of day.
I've seen some discussion on both sides of the board as it relates to the quality of the picture on this HD version of the film, and for what it's worth, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) does state that he wanted to try and make the film look a little bit gritty. This intent does come through on the picture from time to time, but it still looks damn good. The steel mill scenes have a lot more depth to them, and the hunting scenes have a backdrop that is simply breathtaking, providing for a more three dimensional image than I recall seeing from the film in recent memory. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is average, but considering the age of the film, it's not horrible.
The extra material is a port from Universal's Legacy Series collection. While the deleted and extended scenes are fairly justified in their omission, like Judge Joe Armenio, I was left numbed by the commentary with Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher. The information that is provided on this track is sometimes worthwhile, but is really nothing more than "well, was this scene rehearsed or real?" The UK standard definition version has interviews with Zsigmond, Savage and Cimino, along with a commentary by the director on the film that is interesting and informative, and disappointing that it's not here.
The Deer Hunter remains one of the best war films because it shows the effects of war on several different fronts, with a variety of amazing performances by a young group of actors whose names would vault into various different heights of the stratosphere. The film looks great and tells a fascinating story, and one would hope Universal does this film a larger justice down the road.
Not guilty for Cimino and cast, guilty for Universal for still neglecting this long-revered title in their library.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 183 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Film Journalist Bob Fisher
* Deleted and Extended Scenes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Original DVD Verdict Review