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The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter poster.jpg

What a difficult thing it is to be the first. And the best. This was the first Nam movie. Michael Cimino was directing for just the second time after earning his stripes with Clint Eastwood on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He co-wrote the original story – he had been writing for years of course – with Deric Washburn, who got the screenplay credit. Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker had written an unproduced script about Russian roulette and Vegas so they share story credit.  Cimino recced locations all over the US for verisimilitude and many of the extras are the real-life inhabitants of those places masquerading as western Pennsylvania circa 1967. The vets in the rehab facility are the real thing. The setpieces establishing the men’s friendship (drinking, hunting, the wedding party) are leisurely and help us empathise with them when with an extraordinary jump cut they and we are transported to the killing fields. We love these guys by now. One of them (John Savage) is weaker than the others and it’s De Niro who leads the charge against the vicious Vietnamese: their contempt for life is all over the movie (and no surprise to those of us related to POWs held by the Japanese.) And yet the film could be about any war, anywhere: the cast said Vietnam was never even mentioned and it was shot in Thailand. This is a film about people under pressure and how they react to that pressure. Nicky (Christopher Walken) stays behind and it is of course his scene with De Niro for which the film is notorious. It never fails to shock. The overwhelming emotion in the scene strangely is that it is about love – and that of course is what certain people hated. The final gathering, in which the original team of Russian American steel workers are reunited at his funeral and Meryl Streep leads them in God Bless America really pissed off a lot of liberals. Warren Beatty allegedly orchestrated a campaign against the film during awards season (Heaven Can Wait was in competition!) Cimino came from making Heaven’s Gate to the Academy Awards where it took 5 including Best Director and Best Picture (De Niro lost out to Jon Voight but Walken took Best Supporting Actor). Afterwards Cimino found himself sharing an elevator with Jane Fonda and wanted to congratulate her for winning Best Actress for Coming Home: she refused to acknowledge him (she hadn’t seen the film. Her own rehab flick was up against it for Picture). The music, adapting Stanley Myers’ theme, is exquisite, as is the sound design. The acting is extraordinary and probably unsurpassed by those performers in a flawless cast (professional and amateur alike). Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is perfection.If you’re not crying by the end of this, the greatest Seventies movie of them all, then you’re probably  …no, I won’t go there. Cimino was responsible for some of cinema’s finest hours and they’re right here. RIP.


About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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