#20. The Deer Hunter (1978)

“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.”


In 1979, The Deer Hunter won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out An Unmarried Woman, Midnight Express, Heaven Can Wait, and Coming Home. This emotionally powerful war epic clocks in at just over three hours and was one of several films surrounding the Vietnam War released throughout the decade –also released around the same time were Coming Home and Apocalypse Now. The Deer Hunter was notorious for its compelling portrayal of the horrendous impact of the Vietnam War, while it tells the story of three Russian-American friends in a blue-collar, steel -working town who leave to fight for their country. A young Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage play three lifelong friends, Michael, Nick, and Steve. When they are not working or drinking at the local bar, the trio, along with a few others, enjoys deer hunting.

The film is strategically divided into three acts—before, during, and after the Vietnam the-deer-hunter-eye_153632_1500_1500_2War. Act one, is primarily comprised of the wedding between Steve (Savage) and his pregnant girlfriend, Angela (Rutanya Alda). The sequence is quite lengthy; however it is essential for the character development and the full progression of the film. The first act is often compared to that of another epic— The Godfather. Both films use the joyous event of a wedding to announce their characters, while also elaborately displaying the culture and loyalty of an ethnic community. At the wedding, we are fully introduced to the remaining group of friends, including Nick’s girlfriend, Linda, played by a young Meryl Streep, as well as Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren). The wedding scene is immediately followed by the group’s last pre-war hunting trip. Michael (DeNiro) is especially fixated on the deer hunting trips, often treating it as a test of skills. In their last hunt before leaving for Vietnam, Michael expresses the importance of killing a deer in “one shot.” The significance of a “one shot killing” is an underlying constant throughout the film. With just one shot, a life can be taken—whether that be the life of a deer or a close friend.

The Deer Hunter was one of the first film attempts to showcase the horrors of the Vietnam War and its second act has been the subject of much criticism. The film depicts the Vietcong torturing American soldiers with games of Russian roulette, while betting on the outcome for entertainment.  While there is no apparent evidence of this kind of torture actually taking place, it continues to reinforce accusations of xenophobia against the North Vietnamese. The extremely talented cast undoubtedly delivers tremendous performances throughout the entirety of the film. However the character portrayals during the Russian roulette scenes are especially telling. This is due to the fact that when filming these scenes, live rounds were kept in the gun, though not in the chamber, to intensify the performances.


The third act is arguably the most powerful, depicting the inescapable effects of war on the soldiers, as well as on the surrounding community. While doing a bit of research on the movie, I came across a statement from the Director, Michael Cimino, explaining that The Deer Hunter is a movie about hope. He goes on to say, “It has a positive feeling for life, an admiration for the characters’ abilities to go on after a horrendous experience and go on in a quiet way. There’s a great deal of open sentiment in the film.” I think that it such a beautiful interpretation of this movie. It is impossible to not feel a certain amount of appreciation for the characters and their abilities to persevere following the war. The movie is a true testament to those who possesses strength in times of adversity. Life is always moving forward, no matter what happens—good or bad, the world will continue to turn. Isn’t that a lesson that we are all continuing to learn?

My Rating: ★★★★★



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