The Deer Hunter: 2-Disc Special Edition Review

This review contains plot spoilers

Claireton, Pennsylvania, the late 1960s. Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro) and his friends Nick (Christopher Walken), Steve (John Savage), Stan (John Cazale) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) work in a steel mill. After hours, they get drunk together in a bar and now and again go deer hunting in the mountains. But soon things will change: Steve is getting married the next day, and soon after that he, Mike and Nick are off to Vietnam…

During the Vietnam War, Hollywood had produced John Wayne’s notoriously gung-ho The Green Berets. But by 1978, enough time had passed for American cinema to readdress the subject in a much more thoughtful way. In that year was released the underrated Go Tell the Spartans, an old-fashioned, solid war movie that could have been set in World War II or Korea but was set Far East. Coming Home examined the legacy of the conflict, winning Oscars for its stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and being nominated for Best Picture. But the big winner was Michael Cimino’s three-hour epic, The Deer Hunter.

Trained as an architect, Cimino had entered the film industry as a scriptwriter, having credits on Silent Running and Magnum Force. Before The Deer Hunter, he had directed one film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The Deer Hunter put him at the top of the heap. Of course it didn’t last long: his next film was Heaven’s Gate, which infamously went wildly over-budget before flopping utterly at the box office, and bringing about the end of an era where directors like Cimino had thrived. Cimino has continued to make films, but his career never really recovered from that debacle.

The Deer Hunter is structured in three sections, each around an hour long. It’s a war film in which there is only about five minutes of fighting. Although this is well made and graphic – a village is blown up, grenades are thrown into underground hideouts and a man is set on fire – but there’s something perfunctory about it: Cimino’s interests lie elsewhere. This is a film about community: not just the small, blue-collar town where the lead characters – mostly of Russian immigrant stock - live and work, but the communities you make, with your friends. This is very much a male milieu: the only women in the film of much significance are Linda (Meryl Streep) and to a lesser extent Angela (Rutanya Alda), Steve’s bride. (Having said that, Shirley Stoler – best known to cultists for her roles in The Honeymoon Killers and Seven Beauties - has a funny scene as Steve’s mother.)

The film takes its time to show the rituals – the drinking, the singalongs – that bond these men together. That especially includes the wedding of Steve and Angela. This sequence has achieved some notoriety for its length (though it actually takes up around half an hour, not the three-quarters or even an hour that has been quoted). I know of people who claim to have “watched” The Deer Hunter who deliberately skipped the first hour. Nearly thirty years later, popular culture has become even more fast-forward than it was in 1978. This sequence, indeed the whole first hour, does serve a number of purposes. Cimino and his masterly DP, Vilmos Zsigmond, do lovingly record this Russian Orthodox wedding, which brings together not just a man and a woman but the entire town. This is also character development, establishing these men (and Linda, who loves both Mike and Nick) and their relationships to each other – done Altman style, with “live”, slightly rough sound and overlapping dialogue. There are portents of disaster – the spilling of a drop of wine from the wedding cup (unnoticed by the characters but seen by us in a close-up), the Green Beret who sits in the bar and whose only response to the men’s questions about Vietnam is a two-word answer: “Fuck it.” It’s also a shameless visual and aural spectacle: the lavish architecture of the church, the beautiful music, the dancing. If you don’t see this film in its correct aspect ratio, this sequence may well seem slow – you have just sixty percent of the visual information (even allowing for the difference in resolution between a cinema screen and a TV set) in the same amount of time. In this light, the following morning’s deer hunt is another ritual, another sacrament. In a landscape that seems elementally bleak and grey, with only the red-orange of Mike’s jacket standing out, Stanley Myers’s choral music swells as Mike makes the kill.

Mike is at once part of this community – the larger one of the town and the smaller one of workmates – but even early on apart from it. Cimino emphasises this in his framing, which once again can only be appreciated if you watch this film in Scope. Frequently he will separate De Niro from the others within the shot, or by including him in another shot entirely. On his return from Vietnam, it’s a sign (“Welcome Home Michael”) that prompts him to skip the homecoming ceremony and spend the night in a motel. He can’t go home again. Although he’s not physically wounded, like Steve, he’s psychically wounded, and it takes a return to Vietnam in search of Nick to give him some kind of healing. The final scene, as the men, and Linda, drink to Nick’s memory is key to this. The singing of “God Bless America” has been widely interpreted as jingoistic in a film sometimes condemned as right wing. Quite how a film so obviously on the side of the ordinary working man can be seen as right wing is not clear. But this is the last of the film’s many ceremonial setpieces, and love of their country is another bond they share. (Don’t forget the scene where Nick is asked about his full name, Nikanor Chevotarevich and answers that’s an American name.) I don’t see this song as jingoistic: it’s a low-key, wounded rendition without any undue breastbeating. But look how Cimino frames the scene: he arranges the actors around a table in a perfect semicircle across the whole of the Scope frame, with De Niro sitting to the right. He’s part of this community now, and has finally come home again. It’s genuinely moving.

Sixty-six minutes into the film, we cut to Vietnam, and a raid on a native village. As I say above, this seems a little perfunctory, a way for Cimino to get to the most notorious sequence in the film, where Mike, Nick and Steve and others are captured and forced to play Russian Roulette. In terms of running time as well as theme, this is at the centre of the film: another ceremony, but a dark one that binds the three men together. But it destroys Nick’s mind, cripples Steve and, as I say above, leaves less obvious scars on Mike. It’s an incredibly intense sequence, and of course it’s more so because we have come to know these men over the last hour and a half. Controversy rages to this day about this sequence, with many people claiming that no incidents of captors forcing prisoners to play Russian Roulette ever took place, and Cimino claiming documentary evidence. I am in no position to prove this one way or another, but as a dramatic device its power is undeniable. Even so, it does strain credulity in the film’s latter stages – either that or Nick has a charmed life.

De Niro gives a commanding performance, though in this film he’s more part of an ensemble rather than showy soloistic performances such as those in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. (This is not to disparage those great performances in great films, but The Deer Hunter is a different film which demands more self-effacing work.) This was a major breakthrough for Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Oscar, and for Christopher Walken, who won, both early in their film careers. John Savage is fine in the smaller role of Steve. This was the fifth and last feature film that John Cazale made: he was dying of cancer, and when the financiers found out they insisted he be replaced. Cimino refused, and so did Streep, who was living with Cazale and nursed him through his terminal illness. In his short but distinguished screen career (all five of his feature films were Best Picture nominees, something not likely to be repeated) he specialised in men who were beta males with aspirations towards higher status that will never be fulfilled. He completed the film, and died shortly afterwards. Many of the minor characters were played by non-actors who merge seamlessly with the professionals, notably Chuck Aspegren, a real-life steel mill foreman, as the big bear-like Axel in his only film appearance.

Technically, the film is a marvel. Hungarian-born DP Vilmos Zsigmond was one of the most adventurous cameramen of the Seventies – he’s still very much active – and his deliberately desaturated camerawork is a vital contribution to the almost documentary-like realism of the film. Some scenes, such as night-for-night work shot in Bangkok, push at the limitations of anamorphic lenses. I’ve mentioned Stanley Myers’s score; the film’s theme, “Cavatina”, played on classical guitar by John Williams, became a hit single. Peter Zinner’s editing gained the film another Oscar, and it’s precision itself.

The Deer Hunter has been issued on DVD before, most recently in the Special Edition issued by Warners in 2003 and reviewed by Eamonn McCusker here. With the purchasing of Optimum by StudioCanal comes the reissue of much of their catalogue. This is basically the same Special Edition, with the addition of a 5.1 soundtrack and the loss of the DVD-ROM material (the original pressbook). It comprises two discs, a DVD-9 and a DVD-5, encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 anamorphically enhanced. As I say above, this has to be seen in its original ratio or not at all: panning and scanning is detrimental to this film in so many ways. The Deer Hunter comes from an era when a director could compose over the full width of the frame without regard to how well the film would play on television. This would soon change (by the evidence of my eyes, circa 1980), probably due to the Heaven’s Gate debacle (which prompted a shift of power away from the directors to the studio heads) and the rise of homevideo as a popular medium. The result was that directors became contractually bound to make films suitable for television viewing, which meant that any film shot (anamorphically) in Scope had to be composed, more or less obviously, so that it could be easily cropped to 4:3 without losing anything vital. In its most blatant examples, a film in “TV Scope” would place the characters in the centre of the frame with nothing but dead space around them. This is a practice that continues to this day with anamorphically-shot films: you only have to look back thirty years to The Deer Hunter (or almost any Robert Altman film from the period) to see how to use the wide Scope frame. As for the transfer, it’s first rate: faithful to Zsigmond’s generally low-key colour scheme, and with good shadow detail in some genuinely dark scenes. The later scenes in Vietnam feature some noticeably grainy stock footage.

The Deer Hunter was an early Dolby Stereo film, primarily so that it could be shown blown up to 70mm. That had a six-track soundtrack (five front channels and a mono surround) which is the basis of the 5.1 soundtrack on this DVD. Although there’s no doubt that most people who saw this film in 35mm heard a mono soundtrack, a 4-track (matrixed) track did also exist: the 35mm print I saw at Southampton University in 1986 (my only cinema viewing of the film) had such a soundtrack, which is the basis of the Dolby Surround alternative. Either way, the film does not have the most elaborate of sound mixes: much of it monophonic, with more left and right directional sounds than use of the surround. The subwoofer does get called into play when dealing with explosions. There’s much use of overlapping dialogue, as noted above, which makes all the more regrettable Optimum’s seeming policy not to include subtitles on their English-language releases.

The only extra on the first disc is an audio commentary by Michael Cimino. Interviewed by film critic F.X. Feeney, Cimino provides a consistently interesting talk, describing his filmmaking methods, defending the film against accusations of racism, and providing plenty of anecdotes over the three-hour duration.

Disc Two is single-layered, and contains four extras. First off is the original trailer (3:03), which effectively tells the whole story in short snippets with a title card appearing between them. Needless to say, this is full of spoilers. It’s presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1; there’s a rumbling sound behind the title cards that sounds quite distorted.
The remaining extras are three interviews produced by Blue Underground for the 2003 release. The interviewees are Michael Cimino (23:34), Vilmos Zsigmond (15:36) and John Savage (15:40). Savage is the most enthusiastic and emotional of the three, talking about his father in World War II and at one point breaking down in tears.

Nearly thirty years on, The Deer Hunter stands up very well indeed, a peak Cimino, for one, never regained. Optimum’s Special Edition is well worth your time and money.

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