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On Dec. 8, 1978, Universal released the 183-minute Vietnam war drama The Deer Hunter. The Michael Cimino film went on to win five Oscars at the 51st Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
No point in beating around the bush. For me, The Deer Hunter is the great American film of 1978. I realize that we still have a few major releases yet to come, like Superman, but I can’t imagine anything more timely, more important, more uncompromising than this Universal-EMI production. It reaffirms that Robert De Niro is one of the finest actors of our day, and it catapults Michael Cimino into the front ranks of our best young directors — especially since Cimino receives credit not only for directing, but for story (with Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker) and for production as well (with Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley and John Peverall).
With such a spread, one might anticipate a dilution, a watering down of the point of view. I didn’t find that the case at all, and would prefer to think that all the contributive talents merely enhanced and strengthened what Cimino had in mind from the start. For until Francis Coppola comes along to refute us with his long-awaited Apocalypse Now, this has to be the definitive story of our disastrous involvement in the Vietnam war. It isn’t bitter — the survivors end up singing “God Bless America,” and they mean it. But it makes all of us reflect upon the price we paid for a war that few of us wanted.
Certainly, the young men in this film — De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken — weren’t eager to go. They were no “Hell, no, we won’t go” demonstrators, but they were quite satisfied with their lives in a small Western Pennsylvania steel town — content with their jobs, their girls and an occasional weekend off for deer hunting. When their time came to enter the service, they went quietly. In fact, the script catapults them directly into combat from the noisy aftermath of Savage’s Russian Orthodox wedding to Rutanya Alda.
It’s a very carefully balanced script. (At 183 minutes, it had better be.) As written by Washburn, it divides itself into three almost equal parts: life at home, the war experiences and the homecoming. In the first hour, we meet our three protagonists and their pals — steel mill workers who work hard, drink hard and give their girls a hard time. Cimino is in no rush. You get to know them and to like them. Even the wedding sequence, although unduly prolonged, brings us closer to the men who will soon be combat soldiers.
It is typical of Cimino’s technique that he cuts directly from the post-wedding high jinks to men leaping from a helicopter in Vietnam. No nonsense with induction centers or rookie training: All of a sudden, the men are there. And just as suddenly, they are surrounded and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese forces. In the film’s most harrowing sequence, they are caged in rat-infested cells and forced to undergo an obscene form of Russian roulette by their captors. All three survive and make their way back to Saigon; but Walken, the youngest and most vulnerable, has come unhinged in the process. He stays on in Saigon, drugged and still playing the deadly game for survival.
The final third of The Deer Hunter centers on De Niro, the leader and the only one of the trio who has come through relatively intact (although he has lost his taste for deer hunting). He manages to cozen Savage, now an amputee, out of the V.A. hospital and back to the almost catatonic wife who is waiting for him. Then De Niro returns to Saigon, on the eve of the American departure, to liberate Walken. It’s the film’s one descent into melodrama — De Niro playing Russian roulette to reclaim his drug-rotted friend. It all works out, but just a shade too neatly.
This is really a small quibble in a film that I admire greatly. It has much to tell us about a war that produced no heroes, even though individual actions may have been heroic. It has more to tell about a generation that went into that war trusting the rightness of our being there, and the disilusion that followed. But beyond that, unless I am very much mistaken, it is the affirmation of an ultimate belief in this country. These young men have ventured beyond our borders and witnessed at first hand the savagery and corruption that rule there. Their “God Bless America” is fervent and heartfelt. If we find it ironic, we’d better goddamned well be able to spell out why.
As director (and part-writer, part-producer) of this movie, Cimino has done an incredible job. There is a unity of vision here that not only balances the script, but the performances and the look of this film as well. It makes De Niro a shoo-in for an Academy nomination (and also Walken for a Best Supporting), Vilmos Zsigmond for the gritty feel of a steel town and the sweat of a sun-drenched jungle and Stanley Myers for a score that effortlessly switches from the ethnic to the dramatic.
To my mind, The Deer Hunter is a major achievement in American movies. And I fervently hope that the American public won’t vote me wrong. — Arthur Knight, originally published on Dec. 1, 1978
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