The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino (1978)

I’ve wanted to look at this again, partially but not only because I’ve been thinking so much about the after-effects of combat. Still, I kept putting it off, remembering it as a three-hour meat grinder of the soul. And it is that. But it’s also fresh as a daisy.

“They don’t make ’em like they used to.” I hate that kind of facile sentiment. But this movie is solid evidence for it. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary film with a ensemble cast of such a caliber, a frame of reference of such scope, and crucially, above all, such incredible patience. Cimino famously melted down after this picture, but none of that can ever mar his achievement here. He lets each scene play out to its conclusion, whether it takes place on a battlefield in Asia or in a grocery store in Pennsylvania, and every scene matters.

Those raised on a irony-rich diet are saying about now “Oy, come on, this thing is tur-GID to the max.” To which I say yes, and God bless America.

Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, George Dzundza. It’s beautiful and excellent. I’d put it up there with The Godfather and Badlands, for real. Have a cup of coffee after dinner and go there.


  1. Hi Joel. I like your film and music blog quite a bit, and don’t get to read it as often as I’d like to. A couple of things about The Deer Hunter.The cinematography is flooring. Even the truck charging into town in the opening scene. And as a depiction of working class people of Eastern European descent (the sort of people I grew up around) it is both true and fascinating.I wonder about the dialogue in many places, though. It strikes me as almost too raw, too cliched in places. Although, “This is this” and “You’re talking like a goddamn traffic cop” (in response to Dzundza’s character’s shock at his friend’s dipping a Twinkie in mustard).And what about the depiction of the Vietnamese? While the film is made from the POV of the American troops, there is none of the huminazation here which a greater director like Malick achieves of the Japanese in The Thin Red Line. Between depicting the Viet Cong as bad guys who impersonated American soldiers before killing their own countrymen and framing the Russian Roulette scene to resemble Eddie Adams’s infamous photo (H. Bruce Franklin’s observation, not mine), Cimino may have made the common, self-indulgent artistic error of prizing a vindictive political statement over a more universal vision of coming of age, suffering and alienation, and loss.On a separate note, why did Hollywood let Walken go to waste after this?

  2. Hugh, Thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely right about the orientalizing of the Vietnamese in the movie. Are there any Asians in the movie that aren’t protrayed as sadistic, inscrutable, and/or hysterical? (Of course, the French guy comes off just as badly.) It’s an unfortunate canker on the movie. Then again — and I don’t mean to be an asshole here, I’m just thinking out loud — since the scenes in Vietnam are so clearly meant to be seen from the point of view of the Americans we’ve already come to know, how could Cimino have humanized the Vietnamese even if he wanted to?

  3. Hugh

    I’m actually interested in this question–I’m with you on wondering how to humanize the bad guys. Let me point again to The Thin Red Line, in which Malick is doing more with characters than registering their mettle on a cowardly-to-courageous continuum (which is the line along which Cimino’s soldier characters shake out–they are the brave and unsung heroes etc. who go and fight and are forever damaged). There’s a scene after the US troops have taken the bunker in the hill on Guadalcanal and have managed to take control of the Japanese encampment. We never get much of a sense of what the Japanese characters are feeling (except for shame, remorse, and impotent rage–though this is waaay more than the big-browed bloodlust that characterizes Cimino’s VC) until one of the US troops reclines on a pile of dying enemies and begins using his survival knife to cut out dead men’s teeth. One of the dying men rails at him a bit, and the American simply ridicules him. Later in the film, this same US trooper is one of the last awake in the dawn after they have received a whiskey ration. Disgusted with what he doesn’t understand in his own nature, he rips off the necklace he’s made of the teeth and throws them away. There are no good guys or bad guys, just confused soldiers, each of which is a bundle of both good and evil, trying to survive. Also, the fight scenes in this flick are put to an artistic use which Cimino’s fight/struggle scenes are not.The Caviezel character is the moral center of the film (which you no doubt know if you’ve watched it), and I think it’s fair to say that the images of a masculinity encompassing the paternal, maternal, brotherly, and homicidal he amasses by the film’s end makes Cimino’s characters look minor and simple.Of course, the big diff. is that James Jones created these characters after fighting in a war, whereas Cimino did not.Having said all that, I have to admit that I love The Deer Hunter–I can’t think of a Nam movie that matches it in execution or soul. I just wish it were a smidgen better.Thanks for the chat.HP

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