in Oscars Fortnight

The Deer Hunter (1978)

The 51st Academy Awards (1979)
Nominations: 9
Wins: 5

I’ve wanted to watch The Deer Hunter for a long time for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the last of John Cazale’s film roles that I hadn’t seen, and the fact that all five movies he was in went on to get a Best Picture nomination meant this was the perfect opportunity to close that blind spot. It’s also coincidentally the second time he played a character named Stan. But Cazale might not even be the most interesting person involved in this production. That honor might go to his legendary costars: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. Or it could be its director, Michael Cimino, who did so well with this that he went on to spearhead one of the biggest disasters in cinema history: Heaven’s Gate. Yes, the pedigree of the creatives behind The Deer Hunter sure make it an interesting movie. But also, on a less intellectual level, I was really curious about seeing those Russian roulette scenes.

The Deer Hunter has a reputation for being the definitive Russian roulette movie, and it does not disappoint. There are three big games played over the course of these epic 184 minutes, with each becoming more tragic than the last. Between them is a reoccurring “one shot” theme, so I guess I have to start at the beginning. Sometime in the 1960s in a small town in Pennsylvania, three friends have decided to volunteer for service in Vietnam. We meet them just before they are about to leave, the story picks up after their last shift at the steel mill. Steven (John Savage) is getting married that night, to a woman who is pregnant by another man. Mike (De Niro) wants to make sure the trio and a few more of their friends go on a deer hunt after the wedding. And Nick (Walken) is mulling over his relationship with Linda (Streep), who is herself trying to escape her abusive father.

That last day or so of normal life ends up taking about a third of The Deer Hunter‘s runtime, more than any other chapter of this story. It’s a double-edged sword that could easily leave many audience members frustrated or turned off completely, spending so much time on the “normal life” part. On the other hand, it really paints a clear picture of who these men are, what their home is like, and what they will lose in the war. Mike is cool and confident but he hasn’t been tested like the way Vietnam will push him. Steven is impulsive and insecure, which will turn into a terrible weakness for him later. And Nick, sweet Nick, just wants to come back alive.

So yeah, the Russian roulette. The first time a game is played, it’s under the worst circumstances imaginable. American POWs are kept in a cage in a river and plucked out two at a time to play against each other. A revolver is placed between them with a single bullet in it and the POWs take turns pointing it at their heads and pulling the trigger. All the while the guards take bets and the man in charge beats them for any perceived infraction. It’s so intense and the seething hatred De Niro shows on his face is so crazy you have to wonder if it effected his relationship with his costar (who I think is Ding Santos but I can’t confirm). What’s crazier still is how the game seems to pull people back into it, like it’s some sort of torrid addiction.

This darkness is even starker in historical context. The Deer Hunter was released just a few years after the end of the war, making it one of the first movies to tackle the fullness of that subject. That it’s thesis seems to be that war is meaningless and survival is random chance shows how disillusioned the country was at that time. Or at least part of the country, specifically Hollywood. Because they ate this up! On top of Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound, Christopher Walken won best supporting actor and Michael Cimino won Best Director. God bless America? Heck, God bless the Academy.