Published on June 24th, 2011 | by Chris2
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Shamefully, I have to admit to never, ever, seeing 1978's The Deer Hunter before. I'm not sure why, either. I've always heard what a good movie it is. And you know what? They were right.... BUT. (you knew that was coming, right?)
I almost hesitate to put this into the "war movie" category. It is an excellent movie, but its more a drama about life-in-general than anything else, with a bit of war-induced PTSD to fuel the dramatic fire.
Three friends, Nick (Christopher Walken), Steven (John Savage), and Michael (Robert DeNiro), from what could be any average industry-driven small town get sent off to Vietnam. Actually they all volunteered. Not unusual, a lot of people volunteered rather than be drafted. They wind up meeting up on the battlefield under (what I thought were) forced circumstances, and are taken prisoner. There they are forced to play "russian roulette" to the amusement of their captors. They escape, and they all get separated in the fray. That about ends the actual "War movie" part of this drama.
Previous to the overseas action, we are witness to a rather lengthy wedding (Steven's) scene, and another sequence where the boys go deer hunting. Both sequences are important. The wedding is there to cement these guys and their town as that "anytown USA." The deer hunting scene is there to set up some important character development, mostly on the part of Michael.
After Michael returns, he quickly picks up a relationship with Nick's old flame, Linda (Meryl Streep). He also learns that Steven is holed up in a VA hospital, having lost his legs, and is suffering from extreme PTSD, basically abandoning his family because of it.
There is another, parallel scene in which the "gang" goes hunting again, and the change in Michael's character is unmistakable. You'll just have to experience that for yourself.
Michael learns that Nick is still alive, and (due to a previous encounter in Saigon) deduces that he's still playing russian roulette and making some serious bank, sending a large portion back to Steven. He goes back to Vietnam right as the embassy is being evacuated (a bit convenient), and finds Nick, or at least what's left of him, playing out the same scene as back in the prison camp.... Not going to spoil the ending, sorry, but if you've seen it, you know why I won't. The final scene is really quite moving, at least I thought so.
Really, this isn't a movie about "Vietnam" per se. Although some will tell you that. This movie could have been set in 1864, 1917, 1944, 1952, or even today. It's about "going to war and coming home again." That nothing will ever be the same, for anyone, after that. That people and relationships are lost, changed (for better or worse), and found, both on the battlefield and at home.
It is long, and there are some scenes that do drag on (the wedding in particular, I was wondering what I was getting into after a bit) but once you're in, you're in. The initial Vietnam scene where the three meet up again seemed a bit far-fetched and contrived. "Oh, hey! Fancy seeing you here!" But the entire over-there sequence had the feeling of being told as a story, probably by Michael. "They found me, then we got captured, we escaped, then I lost Steven... and found Nick, but lost him again..." Director Michael Cimino did a far, far greater job on the dramatic aspects of the back-home "acts" than the other.
Still a great, and timeless, movie, though. If you're in a somewhat pensive mood that is, otherwise a lot will be lost. Don't go in expecting Rambo or anything.
My favorite scene? Where they all return from hunting and hit the bar, and their friend starts playing a rather serious piece on the piano. They all pause to reflect on it, and maybe their lives, and whatever else, and then we're quickly cut away to Vietnam. One of those bits of film that makes you turn inward and think about yourself, and then throws you into the fire. Excellent stuff.
Anyone making a "coming home" movie today (which is what seems to be the norm) should take note of The Deer Hunter, because this is how its done.
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Summary: Shamefully, I have to admit to never, ever, seeing 1978's The Deer Hunter before. I'm not sure why, either. I've always heard what a good movie it is. And you know what? They were right.