Deer Hunter, The (1978, Robert De Niro, John Cazale)

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter

Cimino’s Oscar winning The Deer Hunter is one of the handful of genuine anti-war movies, showing how the Vietnam war affected those who went, those who stayed behind, the friends, the families and even the towns they came from.

The film opens in a typical Pennsylvania steel town where Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken are preparing to serve their tour of duty. A final hunting trip with friends John Cazale, George Dzundza and Chuck Aspegren is their final bonding and an augury of things to come.

The action then switches to Vietnam, where the three soldiers have been taken prisoner and are forced to play Russian roulette. De Niro tricks their captors into allowing him more bullets and the three escape but Savage is seriously wounded and Walken unhinged by his experiences. Separated, De Niro returns home where he strikes up an affair with Meryl Streep, Walken’s girlfriend. But realising he can never lay the demons to rest, he first seeks out Savage, now in a veteran’s hospital and then, back in Saigon, Walken, a drug addled psychotic who plays Russian roulette for a living. The final denouement is both tragic and chilling as Cimino shows what the war did to three ordinary American guys who become a metaphor for all the men who did their tour of duty.

Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter

Christopher Walken

The film won Oscars for best picture and director, and Walken won best supporting actor – De Niro was pipped by Jon Voight in Coming Home, ironically another anti-war film. De Niro was, as usual, meticulous in his research, spending weeks anonymously mixing with steel workers at Gary, Indiana, to get a feel for their lives and morals while Cimino’s decision to use Russian roulette as a metaphor for the stupidity of war remains at the heart of the film although the actual sequences are actually less shocking than memory allows. There was no actual evidence that the North Vietnamese troops had ever inflicted the ‘game’ on prisoners but Cimino wanted to show how it, like war, blurs the lines between bravery and cruelty, friends and enemies, sanity and madness.

All reviews were unanimous in praise of both the film and the cast, who all seemed to reach the peak of their talents in the film in what ranks as one of the finest ensemble pieces of acting ever seen on screen. Despite the passing years, The Deer Hunter still stands as a film that shocks and moves the motions without ever resorting to gratuitous techniques.

USA / 1978

Director: Michael Cimino
Writer: Deric Washburn

Cast: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep