The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Dir. Michael Cimino

Written by: Deric Washburn

Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage

 

The Deer Hunter stands as a landmark of 1970s filmmaking, winning critical and audience acclaim, and enduring throughout the years as one of the representative filmic explorations of the Viet Nam War and its effects on individuals and on American society, as a whole. The film is a thoughtfully crafted ensemble drama that goes further than many films of the time to depict the lasting horrors of war, and the mental scars that stayed with American soldiers long after they had returned home from Viet Nam. The Deer Hunter was a must see for me when I was a teen, as I was a big proponent of 1970s American films, the movement that is often referred to as the New Hollywood, and this film is often seen as one of the defining films of the movement. The movie has remained on my shelf for all these years since, going largely unwatched. However, when I sat down to watch the film again, over a decade since my last viewing, I was struck by the way that it exists in my head as a film of impressions. The Deer Hunter’s iconic scenes are instantly memorable: its Viet Nam scenes are gritty and intense, while the scenes back home in rural Pennsylvania are light and airy, with an undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia. The interstitial segments of the film were hazier, but they were ultimately the moments that made the film for me upon this viewing. The Deer Hunter’s cinematic climaxes are epic, but it’s the quieter moments that have been resonating with me over the last few days as I’ve turned the film over in my mind.

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The Deer Hunter opens in the late 1960s in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a mill town just south of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River. The film follows three young men, Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Stevie (Savage), as they prepare to leave their home in the rust belt for deployments in Viet Nam. The film takes its time getting the principles to the war, with Cimino carefully establishing a sense of place in Clairton, and introducing the viewer to the protagonists’ friends and families, as well as their way of life in this typical working class American town. Much of the film’s first act is taken up with a beautifully shot wedding scene, in which the relationships between the friends is established, as well as their anxieties on the outset of setting off for war. Cimino uses these early scenes to establish a holy triumvirate of family, God, and country that rules the lives of his characters, informing their sense of identity. When the film finally arrives in Viet Nam, the pace and intensity are ratcheted up significantly, with all three men being captured by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian roulette, as their sadistic captors revel in their misery. While these scenes are some of The Deer Hunter’s most memorable, the Viet Nam section of the film is actually quite brief, with Mike quickly leading a daring escape from the makeshift prison. While he and Stevie eventually return stateside, attempting to adjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war, Nick is pulled further into a seedy world of underground betting, where human life is devalued and thrown away. Although Nick is the character who is most obviously lost to his experience in Viet Nam, by the film’s end, it’s clear that all of these characters, even the ones who stayed home during the war, have lost something.

This film is an epic in every sense of the word. It is over three hours in length, and sets out to depict the ravages of war, not just on the individual, but on society as a whole. Cimino famously clashed with producers and his studio about the film’s runtime and its controversial, graphic, and intimate depictions of violence, but ultimately the film that he delivered feels important and necessary in its scope. The Deer Hunter has the impact that it does precisely because Cimino takes his time to establish a sense of place and normalcy early in the film through the scenes set in Clairton. Without the deliberate pacing of the film’s first third, the overall psychological and societal devastation that the Viet Nam war has on these characters wouldn’t be as profound. The locations, the traditions, and the people in these scenes will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in small town America. Cimino revels in showing these working class traditions up close, dropping in on intimate moments in both churches and bars, letting his camera casually investigate the culture of this particular Southwest Pennsylvania hamlet. The lengthy wedding scene that dominates the film’s first act is a beautifully shot celebration of this type of specific small town tradition. Traditional conservative values of religious piety and family togetherness are fully on display, and traditional gender roles and machismo are reinforced throughout the scene, but cracks start to show in the façade of traditionalism through the anxieties that Stevie, Nick, and, especially, Mike, begin to subtly express regarding their impending deployment. As the wedding reception continues and the men get drunker, their reservations about leaving their familiar homes for a killing field on the other side of the globe become ever more apparent, acted out demonstratively against a backdrop of ostentatiously draped American flags. The film’s opening section lays the groundwork of normalcy that will be eroded by the toll that the Viet Nam war takes on all of the characters.

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When the film abruptly shifts its focus to Viet Nam, the pace quickens and the intensity is ratcheted up, dropping the audience in country immediately before Mike, Nick, and Stevie are captured and held as POWs by the Viet Cong. While the cast does good work early in the film depicting the internal turmoil that the characters are experiencing regarding their deployment, De Niro and Walken, in particular, shine in the Viet Nam segments. De Niro plays Mike with a determination bordering on insanity, born of a promise that he made to see his friends home safe from the war. The intensity of his performance is matched and exceeded by Walken, who internalizes the trauma that his character has experienced, and who plays Nick as a shell of a man in the film’s second half. While he doesn’t play Nick with the outwardly demonstrative aggression of De Niro’s Mike or the histrionic emotional register of Savage’s Stevie, Walken’s Nick is unforgettable, hollow and haunted. His characteristically stilted line delivery benefits this performance, as well, as Nick seems to be communicating on a different emotional and cognitive level than the characters around him. All three of the actors are tasked with giving dynamic performances that require them to portray genuine celebration and happiness during the film’s beginning and slowly descending into emotional vacancy by the film’s end. They all deliver admirably, making clear the subtle shifts in personality and emotionality that the trauma of imprisonment and the constant threat of death has rendered in their characters.

The supporting cast provides solid work around the film’s stars, as well. The three protagonists leave behind them a network of friends and family in Clairton, and the film’s third act, with Mike’s return home from the war, shows the ways that the war has changed people on the home front. A very young Meryl Streep plays Linda, Nick’s, and eventually Mike’s, girlfriend. Initially, the character was poorly scripted, and Cimino encouraged Streep to flesh the character out, bringing her own ideas and feelings into the performance. Streep’s talent is obvious, as she’s able to easily convey without words the sort of pained longing that war brides must always experience. Linda has to stay strong, working her job at the Giant supermarket, and keeping up the house that she, Nick, and Mike shared, without any knowledge of if or when her lover might return. When Mike finally does return home, it’s obvious that his time away has seen Linda go from a happy, smiling young woman to a ball of frayed nerves. Streep’s performance is full of the little details that communicate more information about a character than voice over or monologue ever can. The way that she clings to Mike’s arm when he walks her to work, or the way that she perches in her chair after all the guests have left from Mike’s aborted homecoming party give a window into the quiet suffering that her character has had to endure. John Cazale is equally strong in his final performance. He plays Stan, a friend who didn’t go to war with Mike, Nick, and Steve, and who can never really understand the experiences that they’ve shared. Stan’s blustery bravado and penchant for pistol-toting provide a screen for the fact that he was too cowardly to go to war like his friends. Cazale’s cocksure performance belies the fact that his health was rapidly deteriorating from cancer. He wouldn’t live to see the film’s completion, but his final performance offers a nuanced look at the crisis of American masculinity during the 1970s. Stan is a typical working class American man of his time, attempting to paper over his personal inadequacies with a hard-drinking, hard-headed lifestyle, while at the same time, the nation as a whole was struggling to reconfigure its own identity in the face of military embarrassment abroad and societal upheaval and the beginning of the end of American industrial dominance at home.

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More than just a film about war or violence, The Deer Hunter is really an elegy for a way of life that was rapidly coming to an end at the close of the 1970s. Real life towns like Clairton all over the rust belt were beginning to die out, as steel mills and factories closed, and the livelihood of the American worker was challenged. The trauma of war may have broken Nick, and driven him down a rabbit hole of destruction and nihilism in Viet Nam, but Mike’s difficulty in assimilating to civilian life shows that Nick may have never been able to come home anyway. The town that they left wasn’t the same one that Mike returns to at the film’s end, and the prospects for him finding peace and meaning in the future seem bleak. The Deer Hunter’s final scene is beautiful, as Nick’s family and friends gather together to mourn his passing, and they all join in a slow, mournful rendition of “God Bless America,” as they share a meal together. Though it’s Nick that they’re ostensibly mourning, they are also recognizing the passing of a way of life, a societal sea change. The war is the catalyst for change in the film, but it’s also symptomatic of a larger shifting of values and lifestyles both in the film, and in the society into which it was released in 1978. The final scene’s tone is nostalgic, but also cynical, as if Cimino recognized the American dream had long since died out, and the patriotism expressed by his characters as they sing “God Bless America,” is an attempt to grasp at the remaining straws of normalcy.

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The Deer Hunter is a difficult movie. The strains of its production and the fights between Cimino and his studio are apparent when watching the film. I don’t mean that the end result seems flawed or complicated as a result, but that the tension and passion involved in creating this film are palpable in the final cut. Ultimately, it seems that Cimino was able to keep much of what his studio deemed objectionable in the final cut, and The Deer Hunter is a better film for it. It’s a film that attempts to depict one of the most fraught and difficult portions of American history, and its broad scope allows it to present the central problems of the period in multiple lights. The Deer Hunter is unique among war films in the amount of attention that it pays to the home front, and the parallels that it draws between war and overall societal downfall. The film is doubly difficult in that it doesn’t provide any real answers to the societal problems that it documents, instead leaving its viewer with a profound sense of sadness and cynicism. However, it is a film that is well worth watching. Viewers sitting down to enjoy a war movie might be turned off by the film’s initial hesitance to deliver on the promise of action, but to really appreciate The Deer Hunter, you have to get a sense of the entire tapestry that Cimino has woven.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now: Redux (1979/2001)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (from the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)

Starring: Martin Sheen, Larry Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando

This review is going to be a bit different, because I’m going to be writing a lot less about Apocalypse Now as a film, and a lot more about its presentation as a DVD, and about my experience with collecting DVDs in the early-to-mid 2000s in general. As I’ve mentioned before, those years when I was in high school and, to a lesser extent, early college, much of my disposable income was spent on building my DVD collection. The portability, special features, and relative low cost compared to VHS made collecting DVDs fun and easy. Though we know now that it isn’t true, it seemed, at the time, that this format would last forever, the discs not being subject to the same kinds of physical degradation that tapes could suffer from. DVD was sold as a format for serious film viewers and collectors, people who would be interested in listening to multiple full-length commentary tracks from directors and stars, people who wanted to see the footage that was left on the cutting room floor. DVD took the promise of Laser Disc and made it affordable and convenient for the masses. I bought in completely, and I often sought out “Special Edition” discs that contained hours of extra footage and bonuses about the movie. My copy of Apocalypse Now is just such a set.

The “Complete Dossier” collector’s edition of Apocalypse Now was released in November 2001, and was one of the first DVDs I added to my collection. It marked the first home video release of Coppola’s full cut of the film, entitled Apocalypse Now: Redux, which premiered at Cannes earlier that year. The set includes both the original cut of the film and Coppola’s director’s cut, which adds nearly an hour of extra footage to the film, spread out over two discs. It also contains a third disc with hours of special features, commentaries, and behind the scenes photographs and films. All of this is neatly packaged in a trifold case featuring stills from the film, and then inserted into a beige slip case, meant to mimic the look of the confidential file on Colonel Kurtz (Brando) that Captain Willard (Sheen) carries with him. The packaging is fantastic, and makes this collector’s set feel essential. The amount of material contained on the set’s three discs is overwhelming. Watching both cuts of the film would take up just under six hours, and the additional supplemental features could comprise an additional feature-length making of documentary if they weren’t broken up into bite-size pieces. Overall, it’s a great set.

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Over the years, as streaming has become most people’s preferred method of media consumption, disc formats have become less and less extravagant. With the exception of boutique lines, such as the Criterion Collection, which are aimed at serious film nerds, physical copies of films are now often rushed to market with little fanfare, and precious fewer special features. Retailers are stocking fewer discs in store and the shelves are dominated by cheaply packaged new releases, aimed to make a quick buck off the folks who will come to pick up a physical release on day one, before they ultimately meet their end in a bargain bin. Gone are the days when a movie like Fight Club could become a cult classic based on its second life in DVD sales. In a post-Netflix, post-YouTube world, there is little need to own physical media. Behind the scenes footage is now the stuff of viral marketing campaigns, directors can provide commentary about the making of their films directly to the audience through a podcast or a Twitter feed. Though streaming may not have the fidelity of a BluRay disc, it can compare to any DVD, and is far more convenient. I can’t blame anyone for ditching physical media altogether, but, as is probably painfully obvious to this point, I still have a strong nostalgic attachment to these discs. The promise of insider’s knowledge that a good DVD set offered to me in 2001 is still something that I relish.

I can remember the first movie that I ever watched on DVD. It was the summer of 2001, and my family was visiting my grandparents in Upstate New York. At that time they had a cabin on a lake and for several years in a row, my family and my cousins, aunts, and uncles would vacation at the lake and stay at my grandparents’ cabin. During the day we would go out on the lake, swimming, fishing, or sit out and read, but at night time, there wasn’t much for us kids to do. We’d play cards or watch the Yankees game, but we never watched movies because the only tape I remember my grandparents owning was Doctor Zhivago. That changed in the summer of 2001. That summer, my cousin brought a PlayStation 2 with him to the cabin, and a stack of discs. I had heard about DVD as a new format of home video that would soon supplant VHS as the dominant video medium of the time, but the first time I’d ever experienced watching one was when he popped in Ghostbusters and I and my family gathered around to watch the movie, followed by nearly an hour of deleted scenes. I had seen the movie dozens of times by that point, but this viewing experience was like opening up a treasure trove of information about one of my favorite films. Immediately, I started scheming on ways to acquire a DVD player of my own.

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Later that year, my sister and I made that goal a reality as we pooled our financial resources and bought a PlayStation 2, and I started to use the money I made at my first part time job building up a collection of movies, both new and classic. I remember fondly some of the first titles that I picked up: Monty Python & the Holy Grail, The Matrix, A.I., Fight Club, and, of course, my own copy of Ghostbusters. As I mentioned before, in its earliest stages as a home video format DVD was truly aimed at collectors and cinephiles, and these discs were all bursting at the seams with special features, commentary tracks, and deleted or extended scenes. Growing up, my family had taken frequent trips to the movie theater, and we often gathered in front of the television to watch movies that we’d taped during an HBO free preview weekend, but transitioning to DVD changed my viewing habits. I suddenly had my own movie collection, and movie nights became more of a solitary event than a family affair. I soaked up as many different stories as I could, and explored the commentary tracks and making-of documentaries included on the discs as I began my self-driven education in film.

My copy of Coppola’s Viet Nam epic, Apocalypse Now, was an essential piece of that self-education. When I purchased the Apocalypse Now: Redux set sometime in early 2002, I had not yet seen the film. At that time, however, The Godfather was my favorite film, and I was eager to see more of Coppola’s work, particularly the universally revered Apocalypse Now. On initial viewings of the film, I had trouble breaking through the murky haze (both literal and figurative) that permeates the Viet Nam of the film, particularly in its extended version. Though it certainly doesn’t lack for action, Apocalypse Now shines a light on the horrors of war through revealing its characters’ reaction to increasingly dire straits. War is Hell, but in this film it is also madness, unjustly cruel and senseless. Apocalypse Now feels like a fever dream, the inscrutability of its imagery and narrative increasing as Willard traverses deeper into the jungle towards the mouth of madness personified in Kurtz. The film proceeds as a death march, following Willard and the crew of PBR Street Gang as they traverse up the Nung River into Cambodia. The river is frequently obscured by fog or smoke, a visual obfuscation that mirrors the lack of psychological clarity that these characters have in relation to their surroundings in a hellish warzone. Though Kurtz is singled out for assassination for having lost his mind and deserting, it’s clear that the war has robbed most, if not all, of these characters of some piece of their sanity.

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When I first saw Apocalypse Now, I had never seen a war movie that was so thematically rich and dense with meaning and symbolism. At the time, I was watching movies like The Patriot, so to engage with a movie like Apocalypse Now that presented war so cerebrally was a major shift. For much of the movie, Coppola replaces the typical spectacle and bombast of the war genre with a more insular and meditative tone. Rather than propping up nationalistic or patriotic ideologies, Coppola’s film depicts the Viet Nam war with a healthy dose of skepticism for America’s interventionist military position. Willard’s mission to assassinate Kurtz operates as a microcosm of the war at large, cloaked as it is in secrecy, and undertaken with a dubious claim to the moral high ground. In Coppola’s vision of war, there are no clear winners or losers, only survivors, and even they seem to have been irreparably damaged by their experiences. Where a film like Saving Private Ryan (which I enjoy, and which is one of the great war films) presents the viewer with a tidy moralistic view of war, in which saving one man can somehow make up for the deaths of so many others, Apocalypse Now presents war as a scenario that brings out the basest, most animalistic instincts in men, and in which no one can expect to be redeemed. Apocalypse Now is a look into the savage, black heart of the individual and of society.

It’s always a pleasure to rewatch Apocalypse Now, which I believe to be the best movie about war ever made. The director’s cut of the film does add some interesting scenes that enhance both the strange, dreamlike quality of the film, and its anti-imperialist/anti-interventionist themes, but I typically default to watching the original cut, which is what I watched in advance of writing this post. One could teach a master class on film style with this movie. Form and content match as the film’s pace ebbs and flows like a river, the languid, dreamy scenes aboard PBR Street Gang intercut with flashes of brutal action, such as the arrow attack that kills Chief (Albert Hall). The lighting is perfect, particularly towards the film’s end, with Coppola often presenting Willard and Kurtz in total silhouette, or obscuring their faces with shadow, to reflect that darkness that they both share within. The acting is both naturalistic and inspired, from the leads down to supporting characters like Mr. Clean (a 15-year-old Fishburne) and Chef (Forrest), two members of the crew, and the unforgettable Colonel Kilgore (Duvall). The characters feel lived in and fleshed out regardless of how much screen time they get, with Brando’s performance as the mad Colonel Kurtz standing as one of his best, despite not appearing in the film until the final act. Apocalypse Now doesn’t attempt to make sense of all of the madness and horror, it simply allows it to be, challenging the viewer to respond to and reflect on it.

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I think that I have such admiration for Apocalypse Now because of the particular way in which I was introduced to it. While it doesn’t exactly rank up among my favorite films of all time, it’s unquestionably a great movie, and, as I said, I believe it to be the best movie about war ever made. My understanding of the film was enriched by my ability to watch it in multiple cuts and replay specific scenes, or the whole film, over and over again. I was also given a wealth of supplemental material to put the film into a greater context and provide insights into the thought processes and working methods of the people involved in the making of the film. I have become so enamored with Apocalypse Now as a result of having owned it on DVD. I’m sure that I would have greatly enjoyed seeing it, but I don’t know that if I had seen the movie in a theater or just viewed it one time at that age, it would have made quite the impression upon me that it did. Being able to engage in a deep dive with the film provided me with a relationship to it that I rarely have to films that I see now, even ones that I greatly admire or objectively like more than Apocalypse Now. This project was born of a desire to explore physical media that I own, and while I mostly like to write about the movies themselves, it’s also important to consider the physical object itself sometimes. Apocalypse Now is a great movie, but I learned to appreciate it as a great DVD set, which in turn led me to discover its greatness even more.