One of several 1978 films dealing with the Vietnam War (including Hal
Ashby's Oscar-winning Coming Home), Michael Cimino's epic second feature The
Deer Hunter was both renowned for its tough portrayal of the war's effect on
American working class steel workers and notorious for its ahistorical use
of Russian roulette in the Vietnam sequences. Structured in five sections
contrasting home and war, the film opens in Clairton, PA, as Mike (Robert De
Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stan (John Cazale, in his last film)
celebrate the wedding of their friend Steve (John Savage) and go on a final
deer hunt before the men leave for Vietnam. Mike treats hunting as a test of
skill, lecturing Stan about the value of "one shot" deer slaying and
brushing off Nick's urgings to appreciate nature's beauty. As Mike ruminates
post-hunt, the film cuts to the horror of Vietnam, where the men are
captured by Vietcong soldiers who force Mike and Nick to play Russian
roulette for the V.C.'s amusement. Mike turns the game to his advantage so
they can escape captivity, but the men are permanently scarred by the
episode. Steve loses his legs; Nick vanishes in the Saigon Russian roulette
parlors. Mike returns alone to Clairton a changed man, as he rejects the
killing of the deer hunt and finds solace with Nick's old girlfriend Linda
(Meryl Streep). Disgusted by the antics of his male cohorts at home, Mike
decides to bring Steve back from a veterans' hospital, and he returns to
Saigon to find Nick. As Saigon falls, Mike discovers how far gone Nick is;
the survivors gather in Clairton for a funeral breakfast, singing an
impromptu rendition of "God Bless America." ~ Lucia Bozzola, All Movie Guide
Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" is a three-hour movie in three major
movements. It is a progression from a wedding to a funeral. It is the
story of a group of friends. It is the record of how the war in Vietnam
entered several lives and altered them terribly forever. It is not an
anti-war film. It is not a pro-war film. It is one of the most
emotionally shattering films ever made. It begins with men at work, in
the furnace of the steel mills in a town somewhere in Pennsylvania. The
klaxon sounds, the shift is over, the men go down the road to a saloon
for a beer. They sing "I Love You Bay-bee" along with the jukebox. It is
still morning on the last day of their lives that will belong to them
kleinen, dreckigen Industriestadt Clairton, irgendwo in Pennsylvania, feiern
die Freunde Michael (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken), Stan (John
Cazale), Linda (Meryl Streep), Axel (Chuck Aspegren) und weitere Freunde aus
der Umgebung die Hochzeit von Steven (John Savage) und seiner Angela
(Rutanya Alda). Doch ihre Gedanken kreisen um das wichtigste Thema in
Amerika dieser Tage: dem Krieg in Vietnam.
In nur zwei Tagen müssen Michael, Nick und der frischgebackene Ehemann einer
schwangeren Frau, Steven, ihren Kriegsdienst leisten. Doch vorher wollen sie
noch feiern und ein (vorerst?) letztes Mal auf die Jagd gehen, ihren letzten
Tag in Freiheit genießen...
Im Dschungel Vietnams erwartet die Jungs die Hölle! Ist der Kampf schon
erbarmungslos hart und grausam, müssen sie - von den Vietkongs gefangen
genommen - ein sadistisches Spiel mitspielen: Russisches Roulette! (PS:
Steven und Nick sind Söhne russischer Amerika-Einwanderer, und auch die
Hochzeit zu Beginn ist eine russisch-orthodoxe Zeremonie!)
weiss nur eine Lösung, wie sie ihre Aufseher möglicherweise überrumpeln
können: Er lässt statt einer gleich drei (!) Patronen in die sechs Kammern
des Revolvers füllen, als er gegen seinen eigenen Freund Nick antreten muss.
Und tatsächlich: Die ersten beiden Kammern - eine für ihn und eine für Nick
- waren leer. Und mit den folgenden Patronen erlegt er zwei der Vietkongs
mit einem gezielten Kopfschuss. Nachdem auch die anderen Aufseher
überrumpelt werden können, gelingt Mike, Nick und Steven - der dieses
schreckliche Erlebnis nicht verkraften kann - die Flucht.
Durchs Wasser treibend, werden die Freunde von einem US-Helikopter
aufgefunden - doch allein Nick kann gerettet und in ein Hospital gebracht
werden; Steven und Mike müssen sich alleine durchschlagen...
Nach Tagen (oder sind es Wochen?) treffen sich Mike und Nick in einem
vietnamesischen Dorf wieder. In einer dreckigen Baracke wird um sehr viel
Geld gespielt - ein tödliches Spiel, dass die Freunde bestens kennen:
Und wieder werden sie voneinander getrennt: Mike kehrt schliesslich nach
Hause zurück, während Nick in Vietnam zurückbleibt.
In Clairton will man Mike gebührend feiern. Dem ´Kriegshelden´ ist jedoch
nicht nach feiern zumute. Von Nick hat niemand mehr etwas gehört. Als Mike
von Angela erfährt, wo sich Steven aufhält - er vegetiert als Krüppel in
einem Kriegsveteranen-Lazarett regelrecht vor sich hin -, will er ihn wieder
nach Hause zurückholen. Stevie, der regelmäßig viel Geld aus Vietnam
zugeschickt bekommt, ist auch die erste Spur zu Nick, der dort Russisches
"Almost twenty five years ago, The Deer Hunter was released to
worldwide acclaim. It was 1978, a year rife with Vietnam-themed films, yet The Deer Hunter managed to capture five Oscars®, including Best
Picture. Though the movie had its detractors (who complained it was
self-indulgent, too long, and as subtle as a brick), many found its
exploration of the effects of the war on a group of small town friends a
At the time, critical analysis of The Deer Hunter focused almost
universally on the film's war themes and metaphors, particularly its
controversial Russian roulette scenes. Released a scant few years following
the fall of Saigon, the tenor of the times almost demanded the film's
examination as a treatise on the devastating human effects of war. The
passage of time offers a healing distance from the polarizing events of the
era, and now viewed anew across the comfort of a quarter century, The
Deer Hunter presents itself less as a three-act opus on the sins of war
and more as a quietly devastating look at the strength and pain of
Time has not rendered the scenes of war and incarceration any less
harrowing, but has thrown a subtle yet impactful light on the gritty
underlying friendship between the six steel town Pennsylvanians, a bond
forged in boyhood and strengthened through years of camaraderie. It is
through Michael, the unequivocal leader of the group, (played by Robert DeNiro) that the film plumbs the depths of friendship and the
sacrifices people will make. Through day-to-day pettiness and watershed
events, we see Michael's devotion to two things - his comrades and his
approach to deer hunting - and his struggle to be as faithful and true to
the former as he is to his one shot hunting coda.
Three stay at home while three go off to war, the latter to be reunited
under the cruelest of circumstances when Michael, Nick, and Stevie (Christopher
Walken and John Savage) are taken prisoner. The physical and
psychological horror endured by the trio as they are forced to face each
other in sadistic rounds of Russian roulette is made all the more shattering
by Michael's strength and his barely controlled determination to will his
friends out of the nightmare. Yet even after he reaches the safety of home
the ties to his comrades are unyielding. Michael can barely bring himself to
face Nick's girl Linda (Meryl
Streep), whom he has painfully adored from afar, let alone consider
usurping his friend's place in her bed. Nick is his conscience and it is
only after he has met his obligations to his friends that he can consider
reclaiming his own life.
From the very beginning director Michael Cimino intended The Deer Hunter to be viewed as a tale of
friendship. He once said, "The war is really incidental to the development
of the characters and their story. It's part of their lives and just that,
nothing more." The distance of 25 years allows the viewer to see more
clearly what audiences of the time still sensitive to the bruise of Vietnam
backlash might have missed. Of course the indelible performances make it
that much easier; no amount of time can change the strength of Cimino's
up-and-coming ensemble cast or leave a doubt as to why the film earned
Christopher Walkenan Oscar®, did so much to advance the career of Meryl
Streep, or cement DeNiro's reputation as one of the finest actors on the
planet. Time, the great equalizer, has blown the dust off the The Deer Hunter
and exposed its heart."(www.amtc.com)
50 Greatest Movie Deaths
Total Film Magazine (in the UK), in their July 2004 issue, provided
an article on the 50 Greatest Movie Deaths throughout cinematic history.
Their results below, based on a non-scientific poll taken from interviews
with film critics, listed the 50 most highly-rated death scenes. The Deer
Hunter is listed Nr.17: The Russian roulette scene in a gambling den in
Saigon when Nick (Christopher Walken) blows his brains out.-Link
The Deer Hunter-Site
Der Ronnie-Moment #1: während der
Hochzeitsfeier ausgelassene Tänze mit der Braut
und der versammelten Gemeinde.....
Walken were not such an experienced actor, he might well qualify as
Rookie of the Year. Until he wont the New York Film Critics Awards last
week for best supporting actor, he had been a fairly unfamiliar fact to
movie audiences, even though he had won numerous awards for his work on
But in ''The Deer Hunter,'' Mr. Walken does his first real movie star
turn, bringing virtuoso technique and glamour to a character who is, in
effect, the film's romantic hero. His performance is so utterly
persuasive that his own parents, after watching the film and its brutal
finale, rushed off to a telephone to make sure their son was still in
Perched nervously in an armchair in his agent's apartment recently,
Mr. Walken talked about ''The Deer Hunter'' with fondness and a touch of
amazement. But he sounded surprisingly modest about his own
accomplishments in the film.
''On the stage I know what I'm doing,'' he said, ''but in films I
have to depend on the kindness of strangers.'' Kindest of them all was
Michael Cimino, the director, who astonished the actor by casting him in
the film's second leading role.
''I walked in and he asked me who I'd like to play,'' Mr. Walken
recalled. ''I named about four of them, but I figured if I was lucky I
might get to play Stan, the one that John Cazale played. I never
expected him to cast me as Nick. It was just too good a part.'' Mr.
Cimino has since been even kinder, casting Mr. Walken with Kris
Kristofferson in the director's next film, ''Johnson County War.''
Ordinarily, Mr. Walken's manner combines an element of urbanity with
unexpected street toughness. But this time he is going to ride a horse
and shoot people.
However much physical exertion Mr. Cimino's next film demands of its
actors, it is not likely to be as strenuous as his Vietnam war epic,
''The Deer Hunter.'' That five-month shooting schedule culminated in a
grueling stay in Thailand, where a terrifying torture sequence was
staged. Mr. Walken and other actors, playing American prisoners of war,
were confined in special cages that had been built on the River Kwai,
not far from the famous bridge. As Mr. Walken recalls: 'The
circumstances were genuine: We were up to here in water, it was hot, and
we'd been doing it a long time. We'd been tied up. There were
mosquitoes. There were rats.''
Then the director and Robert DeNiro, who stars in the film, came up
with the idea of having one of the Thai actors repeatedly slap Mr.
Walken's and Mr. DeNiro's faces, trying to force them to play a round of
Russian roulette. Mr. Walken had not known exactly how he was going to
summon up the necessary note of horror for the scene - ''that was one of
many big moments I had in the film, where I walked onto the set
thinking, 'I wish I knew what I was doing,''' he recalled. ''But when
somebody belts you 50 times, you don't have to fake a reaction. You
don't have trouble shaking.''
The P.O.W. scene was only one of many in which Mr. Walken says Mr.
DeNiro helped him a great deal. ''He's the most generous actor I've ever
worked with,'' he explained. In the scene where I'm in the gaming room
for the first time, for instance, and I pick up the gun and hold it to
my head, he showed me how to do that. It's a very good moment for me,
and I have to admit it's stolen.''
But Mr. Walken put his respect for Mr. DeNiro to good use. ''My
admiration for him is one of the things that shows in the film, but it
had some bearing on the characters. They're supposed to have been
friends for 20 years, there's a powerful feeling between them. I think
my feelings about his work help create an impression of warmth, of
friendship.'' Some viewers of ''The Deer Hunter'' maintain that the
friendship has homosexual overtones, but Mr. Walken says that as far as
he knows neither he nor the other principals had any such thing in mind.
Mr. Walken's performance, at first genial and then terrifyingly
blank, is very much at odds with the coolly impassive characters he has
played in other films. In ''Annie Hall,'' he was memorably stony as
Annie's very strange brother, and in ''Next Stop, Greenwich Village''
his unresponsiveness to the other characters amounted to a kind of
''Sometimes people will look at that and say, 'What an economical
actor.' But if I was to be frank about it, it was probably because I was
nervous about being in movies.''
He hopes that that will change, and that his composure on screen will
equal his confidence on the stage. Mr. Walken grew up in Astoria,
Queens, where his father was a baker; his mother encouraged him and his
two brothers to act.
While his brothers concentrated on television work, he went into
musicals, first appearing in ''Best Foot Forward'' with another talented
neophyte, Liza Minnelli. He landed a lot of chorus work after that, but
it was not until he won a leading role in ''The Lion in Winter'' that he
was offered serious roles. ''The Lion in Winter'' called for him to wear
tights, and he wore them so effectively that a chance to play Romeo came
his way. ''I was terrible,'' he notes. All told, he has about 60 plays
to his credit, most notably ''Sweet Bird of Youth'' opposite Irene
Mr. Walken, who appears to be in his late 20's, is 35 years old.
''People always tell me to say I'm younger - better to have 'em think
you're 30, that you haven't been around so long, that you're not so old
and work out.'' In fact, he looks younger and healthier in ''The Deer
Hunter'' than he has in his previous films, which also include ''The
Anderson Tapes'' and ''Roseland.'' As he explains it: ‘‘Since I did
those films, my life has changed to some extent. I don't drink as much
as I used to, I take better care of myself. I tried running for a while,
too, but I couldn't take it. I figured I'd wind up having a great heart
and dying of boredom.''
Mr. Walken, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, does not maintain
that stage acting is intrinsically more worthwhile than screen acting.
He would like to continue to do both. ''I love to make movies - now that
I've started to make 'em, I want to make a lot. I like the whole
atmosphere. And also, I admire some of those actors so much, I want to
learn how to do it.'' Until now, movie roles have been hard for him to
come by, and even now he is asked to audition for film directors. In the
theater, his work is sufficiently well known and admired to preclude
With filmmakers, though, ''what they mostly do is say: 'Come sit.
Speak, so we can hear you speak. Move your face.' That's O.K. with me. I
don't mind doing it. I still want to get jobs. But I'm looking forward
to the day when I don't have to pretend I'm enjoying myself.''
REVIEW | 'THE DEER HUNTER'
Epic, By VINCENT CANBY
Michael's Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" is a big, awkward, crazily
ambitious, sometimes breathtaking motion picture that comes as close to
being a popular epic as any movie about this country since "The Godfather."
Though he has written a number of screenplays, Mr. Cimino has only directed
one other movie (the 1974 box-office hit, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot"),
which makes his present achievement even more impressive. Maybe he just
didn't know enough to stop. Instead, he's tried to create a film that is
nothing less than an appraisal of American life in the second half of the
I don't mean to make "The Deer Hunter" sound like "War and Peace" or even
"Gone With the Wind." Its view is limited and its narrative at times
sketchy. It's about three young men who have been raised together in a
Pennsylvania steel town, work together in its mill, drink, bowl and raise
hell together, and then, for no better reason than that the war is there,
they go off to fight in Vietnam.
"The Deer Hunter," which opens today at the Coronet, is an update on the
national dream, long after World War II when America's self-confidence
peaked, after the Marshall Plan, after Korea, dealing with people who've
grown up in the television age and matured in the decade of assassinations
The three friends, all of Russian extraction, are Mike (Robert DeNiro),
Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage). Mike is the one who calls
the tune for his friends. To the extent that any one of them has an interior
life, it is Mike, a man who makes a big thing about hunting, about bringing
down a deer with one shot. More than one shot apparently isn't fair. As
codes go this one is not great, but it is his own.
Nick goes along with Mike, sometimes suspecting that Mike is eccentric,
but respecting his eccentricities. Steve is the conventional one, whose
marriage (a Russian Orthodox ceremony, followed by a huge, hysterical
reception) occupies most of the film's first hour and sets out in rich
detail what I take to be one of the movie's principal concerns--what happens
to Americans when their rituals have become only quaint reminders of the
past rather than life-ordering rules of the present.
Mr. Cimino has described his treatment of the three friends' war
experiences as surreal, which is another way of saying that a lot of recent
history is ellipsized or shaped to fit the needs of the film. What is not
surreal is the brutality of the war and its brutalizing effects, scenes that
haunt "The Deer Hunter" and give point to the film even as it slips into the
wildest sort of melodrama, which Mr. Cimino plays out against the background
of the collapse of Saigon and the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia.
It's Armageddon with helicopters.
Most particular and most savage is the film's use of Russian roulette as
a metaphor for war's waste. It's introduced when the three friends,
prisoners of war of the North Vietnamese, are forced by their captors to
play Russian roulette with one another. The game crops up again in Saigon
where, according to this film, it was played in back-street arenas rather
like cockfighting pits, for high-dollar stakes. These sequences are as
explicitly bloody as anything you're likely to see in a commercial film.
They are so rough, in fact, that they raise the question of whether such
vivid portrayals don't become dehumanizing themselves.
More terrifying than the violence--certainly more provocative and
moving--is the way each of the soldiers reacts to his war experiences. Not
once does anyone question the war or his participation in it. This passivity
may be the real horror at the center of American life, and more significant
than any number of hope-filled tales about raised political consciousnesses.
What are these veterans left with? Feelings of contained befuddlement, a
desire to make do and, perhaps, a more profound appreciation for love,
friendship and community. The big answers elude them, as do the big
Deric Washburn's screenplay, which takes its time in the way of a big
novel, provides fine roles for Mr. DeNiro, Mr. Walken and Mr. Savage, each
of whom does some of his best work to date. Meryl Streep, who has long been
recognized for her fine performances on the New York stage, gives a smashing
film performance as the young woman, who, by tacit agreement among the
friends, becomes Nick's girl but who stays around long enough to assert
herself. In the splendid supporting cast are George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren,
Shirley Stoler and Rutanya Alda. The late John Cazale makes his last film
appearance a memorable one as the kind of barroom neurotic who might at any
moment go seriously off his rocker.
The film has been stunningly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, who
provides visually a continuity that is sometimes lacking in the rest of the
movie. "The Deer Hunter" is both deeply troubling and troublesome (for the
manner in which Mr. Cimino manipulates the narrative), but its feelings for
time, place and blue-collar people are genuine, and its vision is that of an
original, major new film maker.
With Robert DeNiro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl
Streep, George Dzundza and Chuck Aspegren.
by Michael Cimino; screenplay by Deric Washburn; story by Michael Cimino,
Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker; director of
photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; production consultant, Joann Carelli; art
directors, Ron Hobs and Kim Swados; editor, Peter Zinner; music by Stanley
Myers; produced by Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, and John
Peverall; released by Universal Studios (NYT, 1978)
Der Ronnie-Moment #2: Dancing and
singing Can't take my eyes off of you... beim Billard
The last major arc is in the third part of the film; when Mike returns
to Saigon to find an emotionally ruined Nick. After all he has gone
through, paired with his belief that his friends are dead, Nick feels
dead inside. Now he is fighting to feel alive, using the exhilaration
playing Russian roulette brings to do so. This is seen through Walken’s
According to producer Deeley, director Cimino had Walken and De Niro
improvise in one take, saying “You put the gun to your head, Chris, you
shoot, you fall over and Bobby cradles your head”. Everything else in
that show-stealing scene was up to the actors. The physical truth of
Walken beautifully portrayed Nick’s descent into insanity. Here, Nick
doesn’t say much but Walken’s facial expressions and robotic movements
say everything. He blankly stares at Michael with dead eyes, not even
recognizing his best friend. Then, subtle changes in Walken’s expression
and his open mouthed, vaguely amused stare show a small shift in Nick’s
mind, giving a slight sense of hope. As Nick struggles to speak, his
face shifts, memories return, bringing horrors with them and his eyes
look pained. As Nick laughs, you are flooded with hope, but soon you
realize that Nick was waiting for the happy memories to come back, to be
the last things he thinks of before blowing his brains out, so the
horrors don’t have a chance to return. Because of this, Nick’s death is
rather peaceful, because you realize that Nick would never have been
able to escape what happened and at least his last thoughts were good
ones. All this is done without words, it is communicated through the
physical truth of the actor.
Publicity stills/click to enlarge
The scoring of the 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.
"We got in the helicopter (Chris and
J. Savage), the camera was handheld, and John Savage was behind me and
the door was wide open and there was no safety belts of anything. The
helicopter took off and went right up, I think a thousand feet up as
high as the Empire State Building. I was looking out this door and I
said, "John, grab my belt, hang on to me, do not let go whatever
happens"- I couldn`t believe I was sitting there, next to this open door
without even a rope around me or anything. And the camera was rolling..I
thought if the helicopter tilted sideaways, I`d be gone.." (CW)
‘The Deer Hunter’ still powerful 35 years later
In “The Deer Hunter,” Michael
Cimino delivers a precise depiction of a nearly iconic blue-collar
milieu, the American steel industry that languishes today at the core of
our so-called “rust belt.” His portrayal of working-class male
“buddiness,” especially the act of volunteering en masse for military
service, seems, at least historically, right on target.
Similarly, the conflation of religion and patriotism in the banner at
the VFW club (“Serving God and Country Proudly”) has long been an
American (and European) wartime sentiment.
By his own claim, Cimino had not set out to achieve any particular
political, moral, or polemical goal, so one might look in vain for
evidence that “The Deer Hunter” is an anti-war film. In formal terms,
nonetheless, the movie is strikingly literary, laden as it is with
foreshadowing, symbolism and metaphors abounding.
Stuff, in other words, for a lively and informative discussion at film’s
die Hölle gehen" erhitzte die Gemüter in Europa
der politisch gespannten Phase nach dem Vietnam-Krieg der USA
entzündeten sich an Michael Ciminos Dreistunden-Epos vor allem in Europa
die Gemüter. Ideologisch orientierte Filmkritiker warfen dem
Antikriegsfilm eine versteckte pro-amerikanische Haltung vor. Andere
Filmkritiker beurteilten den Film mehr nach filmästhetischen
Gesichtspunkten und lobten ihn als ein sehr ehrliches, eindrückliches
und herausragendes Filmporträt dreier Männer, die durch die Hölle des
Die Kontroverse um Ciminos Werk gipfelte während
der Filmfestspiele in Berlin 1979 in einem handfesten Skandal. Die durch die Hölle gehen lief als
offizieller Beitrag der USA im Wettbewerb. Nach der Vorführung packten
die Delegationen aus der UdSSR und den übrigen sozialistischen Ländern
demonstrativ ihre Koffer und reisten ab. Stein des Anstoßes war die etwa
10-minütige Sequenz, in der die sadistischen Grausamkeiten des Vietcong
gegenüber den Südvietnamesen und amerikanischen Soldaten gezeigt werden.
Dies sei eine einseitige Darstellung der Kriegsgreuel, lautete der
Hollywood setzte der konträren Diskussion in Europa einen Preisregen
entgegen: Fünf Oscars gab es für den Film,
u.a. als Bester Film und für die Beste Regie (Covertext dt. DVD-Ausgabe)
Three Comrades (Drei Kameraden)
was the inspiration for
The Deer Hunter.