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I Believe in Ammunition?

By Drew Morton | Posted Under Overappreciated Gems | Comments (18)



the-deer-hunter1.jpg

I was drawn to the idea of watching Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) after watching HBO’s documentary I Knew it Was You. The awfully brief but touching documentary covers the tragically short career of actor John Cazale. Cazale, who appeared in only five films (the first two Godfather films, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter), all of which were nominated for best picture, was diagnosed with bone cancer leading up to the production of The Deer Hunter. The studio, reluctant to cast Cazale in the film, was pushed into a corner when Cazale’s fiancée, Meryl Streep, threatened to walk off the project if he was replaced while Robert De Niro allegedly paid the insurance to ensure his friend’s participation in the film. Cazale’s scenes were shot first and the actor passed before the film premiered.

I begin my review with an account somewhat tangentially by referencing the production history of Cimino’s film as based around the actors for two reasons: one personal and subjective, one professional and less subjective. First, I stand in admiration of Cazale’s work, specifically as Fredo in the Godfather films (1972, 1974) and Sal in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), so I’m always willing to find an excuse to sing his praises. Secondly, because after reading about Cimino, his follow up debacle of Heaven’s Gate (1980), and pruning through all the other baggage that came along with watching The Deer Hunter for the first time, all I was left with was awe of the performances. This probably isn’t exactly a surprise considering the cast Cimino was able to rope in, yet I felt incredibly conflicted and ultimately disappointed by the film. I admired the goals Cimino set for the endeavor, but it never quite nailed the landing for me.

The Deer Hunter follows the classic pattern of a three-act cycle of order, disorder, order, devoting an hour of screen time to each act of the epic. The film begins in a small town in the late 1960s with a group of friends and co-workers at a local steel mill including Michael (De Niro), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken), Stanley (Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) as Steven prepares for his marriage to his girlfriend on the eve of being shipped for a tour of duty in Vietnam along with Michael and Nick. The narrative set up, particularly when executed with the participation of De Niro and Cazale, reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s structuring of the Godfather films: start with a big family event (wedding, first communion, a charity celebration) that plants the seeds for coming events (for instance, the first Godfather puts so many little events in motion, such as the “requests” of both Johnny Fontane and Bonasera that pay off much deeper into the film). Cimino tries to do something similar by setting up the potential of a love-triangle between Michael, Nick, and Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Streep) and foreshadowing the tragic consequences of the war (the wine on the wedding dress, the Green Beret toasting “fuck it”) but, for the time spent on the wedding and the hunting trip, the narrative return is incredibly diminished.

I particularly found myself checking the time during the hunting trip sequences, as the friends decide to play a prank on Stanley that lasts for minutes. I understand the purpose of the sequence and Cimino’s use of temporal duration to get us into the mindset and rhythm of small town life, I’m just not sure if we needed more than forty to fifty minutes of it, particularly when the payoff is small and the execution is not incredibly subtle (the wine on the dress, Stanley Myers’s musical score). Following the deer hunt, there is a temporal ellipsis into the midst of the Vietnam War. Michael witnesses the atrocities of the conflict as a North Vietnamese soldier grenades civilians and guns down a woman carrying a baby, inspiring him to seek revenge with a flame thrower. The sequence has a surreal quality, as Michael awakens to see these events happening and by the time they conclude, he finds himself in the company of Nick and Steven again before the three of them are captured and held in a riverside prison.

It is in this camp that the three captives are forced to play Russian Roulette as a form of entertainment for the sadistic guards, providing the film with a, pardon the pun, loaded representation of the Vietnamese that seemingly wishes away our own sadism as exemplified by the My Lai Massacre. Yet, given the fact that the film was released just three years after the war, I’m not terribly surprised at the depiction as it is awfully difficult for a film (perhaps any piece of art) to be critical of a national trauma in such temporal proximity. For instance, just look at the relatively stacked representational deck that Catherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) provides towards Iraqis. In both films, I think there is a wasted opportunity to interrogate the necessity of the us vs. them mentality inherent in warfare, an aspect I admired about David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999). In any case, the trauma of the Russian Roulette sequences, the consequential escape from the prison, and its tragic aftermath change the lives of Michael, Nick, and Steven forever, providing the disorder of the narrative that bleeds into the film’s final act as Michael and Steven return home, nursing their personal scars (some emotional, some physical) while constantly keeping the fate of Nick in their minds.

This brings me full circle to the performances of the film. While the film benefits from the ensemble of talent (although Cazale, perhaps due to health concerns, does not have a huge role here), all the emotion and the best the film had to offer with regard to acting came in the final scene between De Niro and Walken, particularly in their eyes. While Walken is given little to say and De Niro is given a passionate plea, the tears, pain, and fear in their eyes helped dull Cimino’s earlier directorial missteps. When the film and Nick reach their foregone conclusion, bringing us back to order, there is a feeling of shock and sadness that keeps you from fully grasping what has happened. It is not until John weeps as he begins to make eggs for Michael, Steven, Linda, Stanley, and Axel on the bittersweet day that Nick has finally come home that the numbness of the entire experience starts to diminish and we are left to feel again. In the end, The Deer Hunter, like Apocalypse Now (1979) released one year later, is a flawed Vietnam film with admirable traits, memorable but for both better and worse.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.









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Comments

Except for the first time I saw it I've never been able to watch all of this movie in one sitting. It was my first exposure to Christopher Walken though, and for that alone this move is great.

Posted by: EricD at June 8, 2010 12:44 PM

It's been so long since I've seen the film that I can't properly add any comment. I just wanted to say this was a thoughtful analysis and a great read.

Posted by: Cindy at June 8, 2010 12:49 PM

The De Niro-Walken scene is one of the best ever. Both guys are chewing up the screen and daring each other to be great. Loved it.

Posted by: Kballs at June 8, 2010 12:53 PM

The first and only time I watched this movie was in film studies class in my junior year of high school. The movie ended just as the last minutes of class ran out and the bell rang. For the entire five minutes between classes, the whole class sat there in silence, unable to bring themselves to move or say anything.

I don't know if everyone in that class would have the same reaction today, but for a group of 16 and 17 year olds, it was the bleakest film we had ever seen.

Posted by: stardust at June 8, 2010 1:04 PM

You know, I think the Deer Hunter is one of those rare movies that really stick in the folds of your brain and grow on you over time. I like long, slow films (I'm a Malick fan after all), but even I was checking my watch when I saw the Deer Hunter for the first time. But there are images, indelible ones, and performances, excruciatingly potent ones, that cannot be forgotten. In that sense, I don't feel The Deer Hunter is overrated at all (not that you said it was). I just find it tremendously haunting, the way many films in that time period were and the way (GET OFF MY LAWN ALERT), so few films made these days are.

Posted by: coveredinbees at June 8, 2010 1:18 PM

I may have said this before, but if you get a chance, watch this as a double feature with Indian Runner with Viggo 'MyPretendBoyfriend' Mortensen.

Posted by: Viking at June 8, 2010 1:21 PM

I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I've never seen it. (Give me a break, I live on the barren prairie) I'm in the process of rectifying this oversight.

I really enjoyed your analysis, Drew.

Posted by: admin at June 8, 2010 1:23 PM

I first watched this film as the butt end of a prank; a friend told me that the secret of Rolling Rock's "33" was explained in the movie. About 3 hours and change later I realized the joke was on me. After smoldering about being conned (with a tip o' the hat to the clever con itself) and thinking that it was the most depressing thing ever created, I noticed that the movie really stayed with me.

It took another decade to get the fortitude to watch it again and I'm glad I did. Drew's review gives a lot more structure to the film than I realized, but it is a cinematic kidney punch.

Posted by: Tyzerman at June 8, 2010 1:47 PM

Another classic film I have never seen.....

Posted by: dammitjanet at June 8, 2010 2:20 PM

I've never revisited it, as I did find it to be something of a slog. However, that first Russian roulette scene remains one of the most tense scenes I've seen in a film ever.

Posted by: DarthCorleone at June 8, 2010 3:48 PM

The studio, reluctant to cast Cazale in the film, was pushed into a corner when Cazale’s fiancée, Meryl Streep, threatened to walk off the project if he was replaced while Robert De Niro allegedly paid the insurance to ensure his friend’s participation in the film.

If this is true, then my respect for both (and in the case of Streep, my latest pair of pants) have just shot up a massive amount.

Posted by: Vermillion at June 8, 2010 3:58 PM

I watched this film because it is considered a classic, my main feeling after doing so was annoyance at giving up three hours of my life for what I considered a meandering mess.

I think the review is perhaps too diplomatic on the portrayal of the Vietnamese. Admittedly, I could never bring myself to watch the film a second time, but one the first viewing it struck me as racism pure and simple. Of course, not being American I didn't have to give any consideration to how the US dealt with that particular bloody nose.

Posted by: csb at June 8, 2010 4:03 PM

first viewing it struck me as racism pure and simple. Of course, not being American I didn't have to give any consideration to how the US dealt with that particular bloody nose.

Good point csb. Just more evidence how American liberalism leads to racism.

Posted by: EricD at June 8, 2010 5:26 PM

Your "checking the time" comment surprised me. I just watched this for the first time about a month ago. I started early in the morning (couldn't sleep). I think I got up to take a leak right in between the wedding and road trip, and I checked the time. I was surprised how fast the time went by and how engaged I was in the story. I don't know, I just liked the characters. So giving me more time with them felt great. I suppose seeing more of Nick's descent would've been nice, though. All I got was "war is horrible", but I didn't feel it very much.

Posted by: pissant at June 8, 2010 7:30 PM

I'm beginning to realize I'm the kind of guy who CAN sit still through a dragger, though I'm not a Mallick fan. Deerhunter was a movie I watched several times, a consequence of an impulse buy at a video store a loooong time ago. Though it met the same fate of all my other VCR tapes, I remember the long deer chase scene as a real look into DeNiro's character, a man quite reflective and quite different than his best friends. A man driven. The type of man who would go back to find his lost buddy Walken. I remember thinking those type of men were too few and far between. One of his best roles, in my opinion.

Posted by: EJ at June 8, 2010 9:38 PM

The first time I watched this I was kinda tipsy on wine and my then-bf had just popped it in. Really not a good idea. I ended the film positively bawling, and it really scared the ex.

Which is to say that when you are physically vulnerable (senses dulled by wine and my ability to view things cynically is really hurt by that) this is not a movie to watch. It's incredibly powerful.

Drew, you said that you didn't appreciate the long running time, especially since he put so much time in the beginning. I didn't really like that either, but when he got to the end, I understood why he did that. The reason why the final scene is (as you said) the best is because of all that lagging exposition Cimino put in the beginning. I mean, the event in itself is powerful, but you keep in mind all that they did together before (stupid banal stuff like hunting), and what they've gone through together since (being in cages, seeing all they've seen and killing, playing russian roulette and surviving it), and then you get the final scene. It's like a very sick, very sad Full Circle. I just had to picture going through ALL OF THAT with a best friend and it hurts my heart.

Posted by: dene at June 9, 2010 12:31 PM

Great review. You nailed it good sir, and thanks for the great background research.

Posted by: jim at June 10, 2010 8:10 PM

I've never seen this, and was never pasticularly interested in seeing it. However, your review has made me change my mind. I'll be adding it to my Netflix queue post haste. Thanks!

Posted by: ariadne at June 17, 2010 1:41 AM














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