The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1978, and won four others, Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. Robert de Niro and Meryl Streep lost as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, and it also lost Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

The other films up for Best Picture were Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express and An Unmarried WomanThe Deer Hunter top film of 1978 on one ranking and fourth on the other. The other films from that year that I have seen are Grease, Superman (which won the Hugo, so I’ll come to it next), the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, The Wild Geese and Revenge of the Pink Panther – an interesting selection, of which Grease has somehow worn the years more lightly than the rest. Here’s a trailer for The Deer Hunter:

It’s the story of three friends from a Pennsylvania steel town, who all go to fight in Vietnam and all have their lives fundamentally changed by the war. I had seen it once before, on late night TV as a teenager (the BBC showed it on New Year’s Day 1985), and read the (rather flat) novelisation a couple of years ago. I have to say I found it a mixed bag rather than a masterpiece, also on the long side (more than three hours, ninth in order of length) and I’m putting it a bit more than half way down my list, between two other blue-collar films, Rocky and Marty.

Returning actors from previous Oscar-winning films: John Cazale is the friend who doesn’t go to war here, having been Fredo Corleone in both Godfather films. I was really struck by the brittle and slightly desperate energy he displays in his early scenes here, a step up from Fredo. Reading up on the film, I discovered that he knew he was dying when The Deer Hunter was filmed, and did not live to see the final product.

We saw Robert de Niro, playing Mike here, in the second Godfather film as the young version of Don Corleone.

I know it has nothing to do with the film, but here’s Bananarama celebrating Robert de Niro:

And Christopher Walken, who plays the tragic Nick here, was creepy Duane last year in Annie Hall.

OK, while we’re on classic music videos, here is Christopher Walken’s performance in Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice:

So, what did I not like about the film? It’s too long, as noted above. The violence is graphic, and I find that difficult to watch – not just the war scenes, but I’m not a big fan of hunting for sport. It’s also hugely racist. It’s a story about white people being damaged by Asian people, with no interrogation of what the Asian people might actually think or what the Americans are doing in someone else’s country in the first place. The Vietnamese are all either evil men or sex workers. (The French guy is evil too.) Even in the scenes set in the USA, there are no speaking black characters (one or two extras in the background). It is far too unbalanced for me to enjoy very much.

A peculiar annoyance – is it just me? – is that the lovely John Williams track “Cavatina” seems to me completely mismatched in tone to the actual film.

So, I have to admit that in general the film looks very good and convincing. It shouldn’t work – the Pennsylvania scenes are mostly filmes in Ohio, West Virgnia and the Rockies, and the Vietnamese scenes in Thailand – but it does. It’s amusing to note that the Vietnamese river scenes were filmed on the real River Kwai in Thailand, whereas Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed in Sri Lanka. All the crowd scenes are particularly effective – the wedding, the crowded Vietnamese bars, the desperate last days of Saigon. The hospital scene where Mike finds Steve is gut-wrenching.

I’ve noted John Cazale’s performance above; Christopher Walken and Robert de Niro are also utterly compelling, and so is Meryl Streep, who apparently wrote most of her own lines on top of dealing with Cazale’s terminal illness.

De Niro.png

Anyway, a mixed bag for me. I guess this was a much rawer topic in 1978, only a few years after the end of the war in real life (and indeed real news footage is used at one point), and Cimino managed to tickle the Academy voters as they wanted to be tickled (the lore of the film includes his successful efforts to manipulate the process). But this was one of the films that has not really lasted.

Next up in this sequence, Kramer vs Kramer.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)

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