Tuesday, May 22, 2012



After the light hearted charms of ANNIE HALL, the academy plunged into far darker material with its pick of THE DEER HUNTER in 1978.  Made just three years after the official end of the Viet Nam war, it would be the first best picture winner to deal directly with the war, and the first mainstream Hollywood film to do so at all (except for John Wayne's much maligned pro-war 1968 film THE GREEN BERETS).  Therefore, this is a historically important film that deal with the nation's difficult healing process after its first real military loss.  And, while the film is well acted,  and wonderfully, hauntingly shot, I find its mix of searing realism and outright fantasy uneven, and its running time far too long.  I don't think it brings the Viet Nam experience to the audience as effectively as later films like PLATOON and APOCALYPSE NOW would.
It's long journey to the screen began in 1968 when the British record company EMI started an off shoot film company and producer Michael Deely purchased a script by Louis Garfinkle and  Quinn K Redeker called THE MAN WHO CAME TO PLAY, about a wounded Viet Nam veteran who gets involved with a Russian Roulette game in Las Vegas.  The script bounced around for years with no takers, mainly because of the war element.  Eventually it came to the attention of  Michael Cimino, who at that point had directed only one film, 1974's likable  heist film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.  Cimino liked the script and worked on it with Deric Washburn, whom he had collaborated with on the screenplay for 1972's Sci fi film SILENT RUNNING.  They boldly decided to throw out the Las Vegas setting, split the personality of the main character into three separate men, and to play up the war elements of the script. (Cimino and Washburn would eventually have a falling out, leading to a fierce debate as to the actual authorship of the script.  Arbitration by the writer's guild awarded Washburn sole credit, but gave story credit to Cimino, Garfinkle and Redeker).
 Deely loved the new script, but felt that he needed a big star to get it made; luckily for him, he was able to interest Robert De Niro, who was then riding high after THE GODFATHER II and TAXI DRIVER.  Along with De Niro, other young up and coming actors like Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken were cast, and the movie was green lit with Universal Pictures co funding it with EMI.  The exacting Cimino took six months to shoot the film (with Thailand standing in for Viet Nam), and its initial budget of  eight and half million dollars swelled to over thirteen.  After much battling with the studio, Cimino managed to get the film released his way, with a running time of just over three hours, even though that length would cut down on the number of possible daily screenings at theaters.   Despite this, it would go on to make almost fifty million dollars.

Robert De Niro

It tells the story of three young steel workers, Michael (De Niro), Nick (Walken) and Steven (John Savage) in Pennsylvania who are drafted into the Viet Nam war in the late 60's.  While there, they are captured and forced to play Russian Roulette by the Viet Cong.  After a bloody shootout, they all escape, but the shell shocked Nick remains while Michael and the now crippled Steven return to America.  Eventually, Michael returns to Viet Nam to attempt to save Nick.
The film opens with shots of the three main characters working in a still mill, with bursts of flame and molten steel, nicely presaging the violence that is to come later.  Then there are scenes of the three men joining other friends and heading to a local bar, and Cimino really shows a flair for portraying the foul mouthed, rough camaraderie between the men, who are immediately believable friends.  Then comes Steven's wedding, a long scene with much dancing and singing, which the studio felt should have been shortened, and while I agree that it does go on too long, I think it makes the audience like the characters more, that it doesn't really hurt the film.  One thing that I think is missing in these early scenes is any serious discussion by the men of the war that they are about to go fight; by the late 60's, the war had been going on for years and was being heavily protested all around the country, but we never hear how they feel about it, other than a few drunken gung ho shouts. An odd scene in a bar in which they try to talk to a green beret who ignores them hardly counts as a serious discussion.  I get the impression that Cimino wanted to a avoid politics in the film, but surely these men would have felt something about the war, and I think that should have been shown.

The moments of combat and capture in Viet Nam are actually comparatively short to the rest of the film, but they are the most memorable, leading up to the famous (some might say infamous) Russian Roulette scene, in which Michael and Nick are forced by their guards to play against each other.  It is so well acted by De Niro and Walken, and so intensely made by Cimino that is difficult to watch.  It caused some controversy, with some claiming that the Viet Cong never actually forced anyone to do such a thing.  Personally, I don't have a problem with it because  of the scene's undeniable power and Russian Roulette's  metaphorical resonance for the horror and madness of the Viet Nam war, and really, war in general.  (Sadly, it would lead to several copy cat suicides after being shown on television). My only real problem with the scene is that there is over an hour of film left after it, none of which holds up to it.

Christopher Walken

In the latter part of the film,  Michael, thinking both of his friends are dead, returns to his hometown and hooks up with Nick's girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) while having trouble readjusting.  The story beings to meander a bit here, but the acting is strong enough to keep the audience's interest.  Then the film takes an odd turn: first, Michael discovers that the disabled Steven is alive and in a hospital.  Even more surprising, when he visits Steven, he finds out that someone in Saigon has been sending him money, and he's convinced that it must be Nick.  Michael travels to Saigon, which is in chaos as the war is drawing to a close.   After some realistic shots of the city in turmoil, he finds out where Nick is, and the movie takes a turn to the surreal as he takes a boat ride through a shadowy, flaming river that resembles the river Styx.  While the boat ride is beautifully shot, it is in such jarring contrast to the documentary like feel of the preceding scenes that it seems like something from another movie.  And then things get even weirder, as Michael discovers Nick, who has no memory of him, and who, apparently, has been successfully playing Russian Roulette for some time and has made quite a bit of money at it.  Michael bribes his way into a game with Nick, which briefly jars Nick's memory, but ends with him shooting himself.  Since the idea of someone consistently winning at Russian Roulette is, of course, impossible, the only way this can work in the story is as a metaphor, and while I've previously stated that I'm alright with the use of Russian Roulette earlier in the film as metaphor for the self defeating madness of war, here I think it completely unravels, pushing the film into far too unreal territory after setting up a mostly realistic world.  It appears that the implication of this entire sequence, beginning with the boat ride and ending with Nick shooting himself, is that Michael is traveling into hell to rescue his friend, only to find him already damned, an interesting idea, but one that I think is both unnecessary and damaging to a film with more than enough story going on without this surreal trip. 
Despite my reservations about the final part of the movie, this is still too good a film to dismiss, mainly because of the performances; after playing gangsters in MEAN STREETS and THE GODFATHER II and a psychopath in TAXI DRIVER, its great to see Robert De Niro prove that he could play a decent, normal blue collar guy (in his customary way, he spent time socializing with steel workers before shooting). De Niro's macho male Michael (who obsesses about killing a deer with one shot when hunting) and Walken's more sensitive  Nick (who admits he mainly likes to go hunting just to see the trees) play well off each other in the early scenes, and they're both still good even in the more unreal scenes towards the end.  I like the way that the strong Michael desperately reassures Nick that they will survive during their capture, or the tentative way that he later romances Streep's Linda.  De Niro is on screen in almost every scene in the film, and he's never less than compelling.  On the other hand, Streep, who reportedly wrote her own dialogue, does what she can with her small role, but lacks enough screen time to make the kind of impression she would in later roles.  Like most war films, this is mostly a story about men.
Finally, I think its important to mention another controversy about the film: racism.  When this film played at the Berlin film festival, Russia and other Soviet bloc countries withdrew their films in protest of the depiction of the Viet Cong.  While I personally don't object to the scenes in which the Viet Cong torture the prisoners, since, even if they didn't specifically force prisoners to play Russian Roulette, there are definitely many accounts of them torturing American soldiers.  What I do object to is the complete lack of a single sympathetic Asian character, combined with the absurd notion that there are bars in Vietnam where Vietnamese men enthusiastically make bets on men shooting themselves, and that they will continue to make those bets even as their city appears to be collapsing around them.  So yes, the racism charge I think does have some merit, but not enough to ruin the film.


While this was a bold and controversial choice for the Academy, there was another movie about the Viet Nam war that came out that year that was better:  Hal Ashby's COMING HOME, which wasn't afraid to be political about the war, and was far more realistic.  I also prefer Terrence Malick's THE DAYS OF HEAVEN to THE DEER HUNTER.  Still, it's a strong, well acted film, and therefore not a bad choice for the Academy to have made.