The Deer Hunter (1978) – Micheal Cimino

Micheal Cimino’s examination of the effects of war, framed around the Vietnam conflict and a small industrial town in Pennsylvania is the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Apocalypse Now.

Laying out the scars, physical, mental and unseen that affected those who fought in it, lived through it, and waited at home, Cimino’s epic film is engrossing, and worthy of the recognition it receives.

The film walked away with five Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Sound, and Best Editing and its impact still resonates to this day.

From the opening shots to the closing eulogy of ‘God Bless, America’ the film lets its characters find its way through the horrors of war. The tale follows three friends, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and newly married Steven (John Savage) as they leave their hometown for war.

They leave behind their Russian Orthodox church, their drinking, carousing, and their deer hunting. The juxtaposition of the steel town against the mountains, the grandeur of the view from the rocky outcrops, and then the jarring impact of Vietnam (actually shot in Thailand) contrasts the sections of the films vibrantly.

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Our first moments with Michael in the war are horrifying beyond belief, and when the three friends are captured and stuck in a room where they are used in a sadistic game of Russian roulette… some of them never escape that room, no matter if they get home or not.

When Micheal returns home, he can’t adjust reconcile what has come before with what he now is, even with the support and love of his friends, Linda (Meryl Streep), John (George Dzunda), Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and Stan (John Cazale). When he learns the fates of Steven and Nick, he realises he may not be able to escape the effects of the war either, no matter how well hidden his scars are.

The film, clocking in at three hours, takes its time exposing us to the horror of wars, the first hour of the film establishes character relationships, building a number of moments as we enjoy Steven’s wedding, and then a last hunting weekend before shipping off to Vietnam.

This sequence is important, not to create nostalgia, but to establish the reality of their lives. None of them are perfect, and there are problems, but they all fit. After the return of their soldiers, they try to find a way back to the way things were, but none of them are the same now, it’s only easier to notice with those who left to fight.

Cimino has made a powerful film about the effects and damage caused by war, and how those that return from it, may never truly escape it, or recover from it.

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