The Deer Hunter, Special Edition Review
Mike Sutton and Raphael Pour-Hashami have already reviewed The Deer Hunter for the film's previous releases on Region 2 and Region 4, respectively. For a further examination of this stunning film, one recommends that both of these reviews are read for, with a film as good as this, there can never be too much information.
Taking only the information presented on the back of the case with which this version of The Deer Hunter has been issued, it concerns three steelworkers - Michael (de Niro), Steven (Savage) and Nick (Walken) - who leave their hometown to fight in the Vietnam war. Captured by the Vietcong, they are locked into a cell that is almost submerged, being dragged out by their captors to play Russian Roulette against one another as the North Vietnamese bet on their survival. On escaping, their experience leaves them shocked, damaged both physically and emotionally but when Nick fails to return to the US, Michael goes back to Saigon to track him down.
Whilst The Deer Hunter is a difficult film to truly address, this description feels awfully flimsy, as though an editor had decided to slice two hours off the running time and post it as an episode of Tour Of Duty. That the back of the DVD case completes its synopsis with the promise of Michael going back to Vietnam, somehow as a spiritual brother to John Rambo, touching down as thousands of US troops leave and rescuing his buddy on his own seems at odds with the heartfelt sense of loss present throughout the latter half of the film. When Michael does eventually return to Vietnam, it is not as a conquering hero but as a lonely figure hiding in the shadows, leaving Vietnam having failed his mission and returning to the US more isolated than before. Michael is bent double with regret, his spirit broken and the willpower that never gave him the chance to admit defeat disappeared into the water of the river down which he escaped with his friends back in the jungle. One never even gets the sense he enjoys living anymore, having so many memories and experiences but incapable of expressing them. So much for a film accused of fascism, racism and jingoism.
The Deer Hunter began to be criticised soon after its release in 1978 with the vitriol directed towards reaching a peak following the derision that met Heaven's Gate two years later. Michael Cimino has, at times, tried to defend his film with newspaper clippings of instances of Russian Roulette but he need not have bothered - in a way, it's irrelevant. That The Deer Hunter offers so broad a scope with such an epic sense of humanity permits a wide range of interpretations, some of which are less favourable than others. Racist? For sure, given that the North Vietnamese are included as heartless foreigners, given dialogue without subtitles and happily loading live ammunition into a .38 revolver during a wartime game of Russian Roulette. Fascism and jingoism are fair accusations given Michael's Nietzschean drive to succeed and superficially successful return from the war singing, as the end credits roll, God Bless America. Other than the more outlandish claims made either for or against it, The Deer Hunter provides ample material with which any viewer can make of it what they will. Even on this one site, the two existing reviews offer alternative interpretations, focusing on one aspect of the film or another. This review offers one further one still, that of a belief that The Deer Hunter includes one of the most graceful, affecting and beautifully realised portraits of friendship yet seen in the cinema. These friendships are forged at home and carry through times of peace and of war, past events abroad and at home and, finally, through the joy of a wedding and the sadness of a funeral. Whilst the cast do indeed famously end the film with God Bless America, they do so having seen the atrocities their country is capable of yet find no alternative elsewhere in the world. Home is where friends and family are and life would be unbearable without them.
The Deer Hunter opens with an series of episodes showing life in a small Pennsylvanian town in which the main characters live, being descendents of Russian immigrants. The town itself is a rundown, shabby place with businesses and housing that look to be on the verge of collapse, hung over from the influence of a generation now middle-aged and living on history.
As played by John Savage, Steven is getting married to his pregnant high school sweetheart later that day and Nick, Michael, Stan (Cazale) and John (Dzundza) are celebrating his last day on his own. The guys do exactly what is expected of them, leaving work a little early and heading to a local bar in Michael's Cadillac for a few games of pool and several rounds of beer. The scoring of this sequence to Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, sourced off the barroom jukebox, is likely to be the best example of such a scene an audience is ever likely to get, building on the bump and swing of the song's rhythm to hear the guys singing along, tripping over the words as they sip beer and dancing around the pool table whilst trying to set up shots.
When Cimino does pull away from the bar, it is only to bring a female influence to the film, contrasting the appearance of Steven's mother at the bar to the trailer in which Nick's girlfriend lives. As Steven's mother drags her son out of the bar, shouting at his friends for being so reckless, Linda (Streep) is slapped down by her alcoholic father, reinforcing once more the gap between two generations - where is dominant, the other is subservient. Then again, the men in the town are quite the opposite - where Nick, Steven and Michael are young and energetic, their elders are pathetic drunks. Cimino gives the impression that these three men feel compelled to go to war simply in order to hold onto what makes them different from men like Linda's father, being not so much a duty to one's country as a duty to oneself.
Once past this opening, The Deer Hunter offers its first major set piece, being Steven's wedding in a Russian Orthodox Church followed by a reception in a local hall. Weddings are essentially family events but Cimino pulls in the core group of actors, pushing their blood relatives out of the action such that we identify with them as being the family we must be prepared to care for. Given that this is the first scene in which these characters are brought together onscreen at the same time, the bond is there from the beginning. The suggestion is already there that these people will be clinging onto one another for as much support as is offered before the film ends.
Building further on the relationships between Michael, Steven and Nick prior to their leaving for Vietnam, the wedding reception allows them one last reckless party before the arrival of a Green Beret brings an uneasy sense of reality into their lives. That this occurs in one part of the reception as the party continues in another - Nick, Steven and Michael in the bar compared to Stan, John and Axel on the dance floor - shows the separation that one group have already imposed on their friends. This distance between friends, which will be expressed both physically and emotionally for the remainder of the film, is next given form in the hunting trip that follows the wedding, taking place the very next day. Unable to carry Stan any further, unlike his hauling of Nick and Steven out of the Vietcong cell, Michael simply gives up on him over a lost pair of boots. Michael is incapable of expressing his feeling, coming up with a forcefully put but ultimately meaningless, "This is this!", to which Stan, incapable of even feeling what Michael does, asks "This is this...what kind of faggot bullshit is that?" Michael deliberately loses Stan here, drawing Nick and Steven ever closer to him, readying himself for Vietnam and using the one-shot kill of the hunt to clear his feelings and thoughts and prepare for what is to come.
As the hunting trip ends around a piano over which is heard the low thrum of helicopter rotors, the action switches abruptly to Vietnam, offering Michael, seen previously as an outsider in his own home town, a chance to be genuinely heroic. In battle, Michael finds a a physical expression to his personality that would have been impossible back home and sees that the emotional connection that he lacked with others becomes irrelevant as they may never live long enough to really know.
When captured, Michael dominates the lives of his friends, dragging Nick and Steven along with him in his push through fire fights, imprisonment, the notorious Russian Roulette scene as well as their escape down river and their eventual rescue. Never once does Cimino allow Michael's word to be doubted nor a flicker of doubt to pass across his mind. Instead, Cimino portrays Michael as the embodiment of the American soldier remaining honest to the ambition of his country. Whilst later films examined the Vietnam war through the eyes of soldiers strung out on LSD, raping pubescent girls in VC-friendly villages and wearing necklaces of human ears, The Deer Hunter outraged liberals with Michael's honourable WW2 soldier placed out of time and country, never more so that in his single-minded pursuit of escape during the Russian Roulette sequence.
As Michael returns from Vietnam, the film finds him taking up his position as outsider once again, unable to express what he has seen and felt during his time in combat to his friends who, even if it were possible, simply wouldn't understand anyway. To Michael, unable to get back to anything he previously understood as being normal, the easiest choice to make is to feel as little as he felt before. As a result, George and Axel fade away to background noise, Stan was lost before leaving for Saigon and the intervening period has not made him any easier for Michael to relate to and Nick and Steven's absence have left Michael feeling utterly alone in a town he knows he should recognise as being home.
In as much as he begins a relationship with Linda, he does so only to assume the position expected of Nick had he returned and whom he feels he left behind in Vietnam. Otherwise, there appears to be little feeling between them, made more troubling by Michael sensing Nick's absence every time he looks at Linda. When he leaves the US to return to Vietnam, it is not wholly unexpected nor unreasonable given his earlier promise not to leave his friend behind and his being in an environment in which lacks the heroism felt so clearly in the jungle. In structuring his life in the US - bringing Steven back into the fold of his family of friends and going hunting in the mountains once again - we next see Michael back in the heat of Saigon, arriving just as the US Army is departing and crossing a Styxian, pitch black river to meet Nick, lost from Michael forever and prepared to play against him once more in a game of Russian Roulette.
Famously, the film ends with the coming together of the principal group featured throughout The Deer Hunter and the singing of God Bless America. As the film opened with a wedding, it ends with a funeral; relationships that were founded on love are now shattered and the Green Beret at the wedding celebration is recalled by Michael's insistence on wearing his uniform no matter the occasion, book ending the film with a reminder of an event that occurred thousands of miles away but that makes their generation historically important. As the day to day living of their home town continues outside their door, the group of friends, now reduced by one, close the film with a hymn to their country, now sung as though it and each other are all that remains.
The film closes to Cavatina played by John Williams, using images that recall the laughter, good humour and carelessness with which Nick, Steven and, to a lesser extent, Michael lived their lives prior to their tour in Vietnam. It could only be the presence of a stone cold heart that one does not feel genuinely saddened at realising these are the same people who, with one of their number dead and buried, sit huddled around a table to find comfort amongst friends against the horrors of the world outside the door.
The film has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks terrific. The Deer Hunter was always incredibly well filmed, shot in a manner that reflects the mythology of a time long since passed as well as honouring a modern America. The film contains so many achingly beautiful shots, from the peaks of the mountains in which Michael hunts deer to the neon signs flashing in a town dead since sunset, that it takes one's breath away no matter how familiar the story. Then again, when the film needs to represent the furious energy of wartime, it does so without a glitch, cutting from a doleful barroom scene to an explosion in a Vietnamese in a heartbeat but the effect is both shocking and glorious. Such is the beauty of this film that one genuinely regrets the loss of three hour films that demanded the attention of the audience for every minute that passed.
Thankfully, the transfer onto this issue of the film on DVD presents The Deer Hunter in as pristine a condition as has been seen to date, capturing the stillness of the mountains, the flash of the steelworks and the diseased reality of war as perfectly as one could hope for.
Avoiding the temptation to remix the original stereo soundtrack into 5.1 surround, the producers of this DVD are to be commended. This stereo soundtrack offers excellent separation between the right and left channels during those scenes in which it is important to have it - those set, for example, on the hunting trip or in Vietnam - but with a warm and intimate sound to the dialogue as the film opens and ends. As with the picture, The Deer Hunter has always sounded terrific, again crediting Cimino for his ability to give his movie the epic soundtrack it deserved, and the audio track here does not disappoint.
Unlike the previous edition of The Deer Hunter, which shipped free of extras, this special edition comes with the following number of bonus features:
Commentary: Director Michael Cimino provides a feature-length commentary that, after a slow start, grows into an informative, chatty and entertaining extra. Principally, the commentary allows Cimino the opportunity to explain his development and making of the film and to tell a large number of anecdotes from its shoot, post-production and release. What will be of slightly more interest, depending on your point of view, will be the opportunity it offers the director to defend his film against the accusations of racism, fascism and jingoism that have occurred since its release. That he does so and not only for this film but also, to an extent, Heaven's Gate, will be heartening to those fans of Cimino longing to hear the director offer his view on events. Interestingly, the impression of Cimino as a control freak endlessly reshooting action is not borne out by his recollection of events during this shoot, making an SE of Heaven's Gate including various cuts, director's commentary and analysis of its post-production and editing all the more compelling.
Realising The Deer Hunter (23m34s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Michael Cimino, who now looks like a blond Phil Spector, is interviewed in this short feature about the background to the film, its shoot across the US and Southeast Asia and the public and critical reaction to it following its release. As is commonplace when a director provides both a commentary and an interview, there is a noticeable amount of repetition but this appears to have been shot first with the audio commentary only being completed relatively recently.
Shooting The Deer Hunter (15m36s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): The Director of Photography on The Deer Hunter, Vilmos Zsigmond, is interviewed regarding the shooting of the film, the development of scenes out of short notes in the script and the colour palate used to focus certain scenes that were otherwise a little loose.
Playing The Deer Hunter (15m40s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): As with the previous two features, this interview with John Savage has also been presented by Blue Underground and offers an actor's perspective on the film. Savage was probably the best choice to do this feature, given that Walken drifts out of the movie after Vietnam, returning only at the end and de Niro is famously reluctant to speak about his work. Instead, Savage provides a verbose, informative and emotional analysis of his role in the film, beginning with his fathers's role in the Second World War and ending the interview by breaking down in tears after recalling his hearing the theme to The Deer Hunter at a dinner party organised after the completion of the movie.
Photo Gallery (1.78:1 Anamorphic): Twenty still images are offered in this extra including press shots, individual frames from the film and one behind-the-scenes photograph.
Theatrical Trailer (3m05s, 2.35:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Presenting a series of highlights in roughly chronological order, this offers a summary of the film as it opens in the steelworks through to the final Vietnamese scenes.
DVD-ROM Content: Those who own a copy of this DVD and a PC equipped with a DVD drive and a copy of Adobe Acrobat viewer can access the original press brochure for The Deer Hunter.
Given the option of either writing one more analysis of the film on DVD Times or of linking to two reviews already on the site, I was ready to choose the latter given that interest in this set will be largely based on the extras and enhanced picture quality it offers. However, when I began to watch the film, its brilliance, the breathtaking direction, cinematography and writing and the feeling of completeness it offers from beginning to end became so noticeable that I felt that to not write something would be doing the film a disservice. One paragraph became two, which became four and yet regardless of what was written, it would never do justice to a film with so broad a scope as this. You may or may not appreciate my decision, considering that more than 3300 words of praise is excessive but sometimes words simply have to be written down.
John Peel once said that he'd heard many musicians being described as geniuses but only one ever was - Captain Beefheart, who produced an odd, honking blues that rocked as wildly as the temperature of the Captain's adopted homeland of the Arizona desert. Similarly, there are many filmmakers who are described as being geniuses but, as Peel notes, so few are. I don't think Cimino is either but by God he gets so close with this that one is prepared to seriously think twice before saying he's not. His later films clearly do him no favours, unfairly so as it happens as most of them are really quite wonderful, but this is an unbelievably strong piece of work and I simply cannot think now of not owning a copy of this film on DVD. Given that this is the strongest release of this film to date, this is as near essential as a DVD gets.