The Deer Hunter: 40th Anniversary
There’s no smoke without fire and Michael Cimino’s reputation stands for itself. Brooding or chin-scratching cannot reappraise him as a misunderstood auteur, nor Heaven’s Gate as a misunderstood masterpiece. It’s a beautiful mess that brought down United Artists all by itself. The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, swept up at the 1979 Academy Awards and is a glorious achievement. Nonetheless, viewed in the context of Cimino’s body of work, it is almost as undisciplined as his other, more notorious epic. It works for the story and is as essential as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Cimino’s unsteady hand and clumsy narrative bluntly emphasise the tragic confusion of Vietnam. Its voice still carries for the working man thrown to the wolves during and after the conflict.
The melancholy theme by Stanley Myers (Cavatina) sets an indelible tone within the opening credits, before giving way to a truck thundering down the gritty industrial roads of Pennsylvania. A sadness underpins the film throughout; the members of this small Russian-immigrant community are representative of an America in pain. There is no misplaced or trite patriotism, no exposition, just people living their lives with a faith in their country and each other creeping through the gaps. They are preparing for a wedding and the reception will double as a farewell party. The groom, Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Mike (Robert De Niro) are due to leave for Vietnam. Mike has one more hunt to fit in; he's an intense loner, barely tolerating most of his friends, apart from Nick and to a lesser degree the younger Steven.
Along with the marvellously odious John Cazale, friendly George Dzundza and a luminous Meryl Streep, the cast is wonderful. De Niro holds the camera with the merest gaze, the scenes pivoting around him; it's a sad thing that we never see him achieve that these days, especially as he has said one scene in particular was the most emotional he had done. And you can tell, that emotion is invested in the screen, so too from Christopher Walken who gives a performance of depth he has rarely matched since either.
If you thought the wedding in The Godfather went on a bit, well buckle in. It’s nearly an hour before the hunt and your attention may understandably wane. It’s a ruse to lull you into getting to know these characters because we are suddenly and rudely dropped into Vietnam and the three guys are in a world of trouble, far away from home. We don’t know how long they’ve been there, but we instinctively know they’ve changed (except maybe Mike, whose ruthless ability suggests he might have found his calling). The juxtaposition is upsetting and one of the most memorable depictions of war.
The Vietnam scenes continue indistinctly. If you’ve never seen the film, there’s a good chance you’ll know about the terrifying Russian Roulette the men are forced to play by their Vietnamese captors. Steven losing his mind, Nick looking like a cornered animal and Mike, taking a gamble to control the situation; the scene retains an astonishing power to this day and the tension is unbearable.
Eventually, the guys are split up and Mike returns to Pennsylvania alone. He struggles to fit back in without the AWOL Nick, though finds some solace with Nick’s equally lost girlfriend, a brilliant Meryl Streep, and an unspoken narrative thread coalesces before us; one of infidelity and maybe even an illegitimate child, hinted at via one line of dialogue and noting the kid's hair colour. Why Steven's marriage is awkward, why Mike can't stay away, why Nick can, all begins to make sense without ever being discussed. Mike hears that Nick is still alive and he returns to a collapsing Saigon. The final act is devastating, the imagery chaotic and sobering.
"Does war create the cruelty in the men fighting it? Or does war merely allow men to air the cruelty that has always lurked within?". It might seem strange to quote an episode of Rogue Trooper in 2000AD, but it rang true as a potential tagline for The Deer Hunter, not that it would ever use one. The soul of the film is a family drama in which Vietnam is a phantom, demanding responsibility be taken or suffer the consequences.
The Deer Hunter is a long film and even at its most lucid there's a sense an edit would make little difference. Overstuffed with technique, yet key elements hold true and the result is powerful and occasionally disturbing. Its sprawling style can be maddening given that the story has a succinct point and the elegance is muddied. It is at its most effective in what it doesn’t say and spends three hours avoiding a conversation.
It feels disingenuous to underplay Michael Cimino’s part in this beautiful, infuriating film, but controversy has surrounded it’s production since its original release and its authenticity repeatedly challenged. He provided a sandpit for some of the most iconic actors of the 1970s, in roles you are unlikely to see repeated, with a viewpoint other war films have failed to capture. Its message is relevant today with a truth that echoes.
There are few who can comment on what Vietnam was actually like, least of all me. Everything I know about the conflict I learned from Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Quiet American, etc. In the end, you can only bring yourself to The Deer Hunter and if you fall for its spell, it will haunt you. We might question Cimino’s method, but it worked for this heartbreaking enigma and, like Robert De Niro’s Mike, you might not be able to stay away.
The new 4k transfer from the 35mm film is phenomenal and will be available on Ultra HD in October. The scenes in Pennsylvania are suitably murky, but the impressive transfer and natural lighting drag out detail and colour. The film has never looked better and the scenes with the hunts that bookend the story are achingly beautiful. Vietnam is a mess, as you’d expect, but when appropriate it pops with vibrancy and the famous scene depicted in the fantastic cover art for this release is brilliantly claustrophobic. There are moments of inconsistency because some actual source footage from the era was used, but these are occasional and unavoidable.
The cast is from the era of mumbling improvisation, but they were the best at doing it and their dialogue is distinctly reproduced. This isn’t a film that tries to wrap you into a soundscape like Coppola would do and the score can be uneven, but considering the narrative, and the effect of the crystal clear, sparingly used Cavatina theme, is clearly to a purpose. The messy source goes some way to explaining why we have a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track and a Six-Track Dolby Stereo. It might seem counterintuitive for such a film, but the former is the best choice.
This is a stunning release from StudioCanal and truly definitive, stretching over two discs. There’s a gem of a commentary by Michael Cimino, which you might find yourself arguing with, depending on your sensibilities, or a safer choice with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Journalist Bob Fisher. A bit dry, but full of technical detail.
The rest is a treasure trove of archive material. There is also 17 minutes of deleted scenes, which amounts to not very much at all and rather indicative of the film proper that could easily have survived some cuts without any of us noticing.
Michael Cimino Audio Commentary
Vilmos Zsigmond and Journalist Bob Fisher Audio Commentary
1979 ITV South Bank Show Interview with Michael Cimino (18m)
New Interview with David Thompson - Film Critic (24m)
Realising The Deer Hunter - Interview with Michael Cimino (24m)
Shooting The Deer Hunter - Interview with Vilmos Zsigmond (16m)
Playing The Deer Hunter - Interview with John Savage (16m)
Deleted and Extended Scenes (17m)