Wednesday, June 22, 2011


(December 1978, U.S.)

Do you know what THE GODFATHER, GOODFELLAS and THE DEER HUNTER have in common (besides all being great films!) with each other? They've each been called one of the greatest American films ever made. They've also been made by Italian-American directors. Many of the films of Frank Capra were called "American" films and he, too, was an Italian-American. So what does that tell us? Clearly, Italian-American film makers have got a better clue on how to capture the flavor and spirit of this country than some others.

Director Michael Cimino gives us one of the most powerful epics I've ever seen in the story of a trio of Russian-American Pennsylvania steel worker friends and their infantry service in the Vietnam War. The film is divided into three equal thirds or acts. Likewise the plot synopsis is also divided into three acts, spanning the years of 1968 thorugh 1975. Act I explores the lives and friendships of these men as well as the women they love. Life is simple for them; they work, they eat, they drink, they laugh and occassionally they get together for a weekend deer hunting trip, which Michael (played by Robert DeNiro) takes more seriously than the others. The recurring theme of "one shot", which is how Michael prefers to take down a deer, is introduced and repeated. Before Michael, Nick (played by Christopher Walken) and Steven (played by John Savage) prepare to ship out, Steven and his girlfriend, Angela (who is pregnant by another man but loved by Steven nonetheless) get married in an elaborate Russian Orthodox wedding. In the meantime, Michael must contain his own feelings for Nick's girlfriend Linda (played by Meryl Streep), who's just moved out of her abusive father's house. For nearly the first 68 minutes of the film, we see that life in this small working class town is relatively good. But we also know that all of this goodness is ultimately doomed as we are reminded that three of these good men will soon go to war and everything will change. Watch carefully the scene when the men return from their hunting trip and get a drink at the local bar. The bar owner plays a soft melody on the piano. Slowly the joyous glee that's being heard all over the place is reduced to absolute silence as they all realize what's to come.

Act II now takes us right into the explosive Hell that is the Vietnam War. We abruptly jump to a war-torn village, where U.S. helicopters attack a communist occupied Vietnamese village with napalm. Within the span of only about five minutes, Michael, Nick and Steven are reunited, captured and held together in a riverside prisoner of war camp with other U.S. prisoners. For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. There are arguments whether such sick games ever actually took place during the real war, but that hardly seems relevant for the symbolic purpose of this film to depict war's horror and the men who are forced to sucumb to it. The horror, of course, affects all three men, but it's Nick who appears to already be going down the long, dark road of insanity. Even after their escape from the POW camp, Michael is seemingly unable to save Nick from his dark destiny.

Act III brings Michael back home. Nick is presumed dead overseas and Steven has lost both his legs. Try as he might, Michael can't adjust to or resume his life the way it was before he went to war; not even the deer hunting he loves so much. This is evident when he has a deer in his sight and inadvertantly decides to let it live. His feelings for Linda, though, haven't changed, bless his messed up heart. The last chapter brings Michael back to Saigon when he learns that Nick is still alive. He finds Nick a completely different man, though, and also sporting a reputation of having lived through games of Russian roulette longer than anybody and having gotten well paid for it. But Nick is totally gone from the reality he was once a part of. He even fails to recognize Michael as his best friend. In short, Anakin Skywalker's turn to the "dark side" in the STAR WARS saga was nothing compared to this guy! Now I'm sorry to give things away to those who haven't seen the film, but Michael fails to save his friend and Nick finally loses the game when he shoots himself in the head.

In a final epilogue, Michael brings Nick home for his funeral. The film ends poignantly with the whole cast at their friend's bar, singing "God Bless America" and toasting in Nick's honor. Would you believe there was apparently some heated debate amoungst critics over this final moment of singing "God Bless America"? What's up with that?

When I watch and think about THE DEER HUNTER, it's difficult for me to decide what to think about more - the relevant, Oscar-winning film that made Michael Cimino a talented artist of the time or what eventually happened to him and his career after he made his next film, HEAVEN'S GATE (look it up!). Regardless of the latter, THE DEER HUNTER is undenyably one of the greatest epic films ever made, as well as one of the most effective war films ever made. It's shocking, horrific, gut-wrenching, controversial, but also knows when to focus on the endearing friendship of the men involved and the sacrifices some of them are willing to make for each other. I have some great friends, sure, but would any of them really fly to another country to try and save my ass?? I can't imagine it.

THE DEER HUNTER won the Oscar for best picture of 1978.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Nick: "You know somethin'? The whole thing, it's right here. I love this fuckin' place! I know that, that sounds crazy. But if anything happens, Mike, don't leave...don't leave me over there. You gotta...just don't leave me. You gotta promise me that, Mike."

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