The Deer Hunter (1978) – Film #0199

Directed by Michael Cimino 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1996

What It’s About:

The film follows a group of steelworkers (played by Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken) from a small town in Pennsylvania, and examines their lives before, during, and after the Vietnam war. 

Context and Significance:

This film may be most well-known for its use of several intense Russian roulette scenes. Partway through the film, the three characters are captured and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors watch and take bets. Later on in the film, one of the characters remains in Vietnam as a civilian, and becomes involved in an underground ring of Russian roulette players. (He does this in order to win money to fuel a newfound drug habit.) This aspect of the film was controversial for two main reasons: (1) Since there is no evidence that Vietnamese captors ever forced prisoners to play Russian roulette, some felt that it unfairly portrayed the Vietnamese as sadistic. (2) It seems that several people were influenced by those scenes, which led them to play real-life games of Russian roulette after the release of the film, resulting in at least 38 deaths over several years. 

While many critics praised The Deer Hunter upon release, some took issue with its length (it’s over 3 hours), noting its often slow pace. Nevertheless, the film took home several Oscars, including the awards for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. It was nominated for, but did not win: Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep, her first ever Oscar nomination), Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (now called “Best Original Screenplay”), and Best Cinematography. 

The Deer Hunter paved the way for what would later be a common release strategy for films hoping to win Oscars. It opened in a very limited release (NYC and LA only) in December, before slowly going into a wide release early in the following year. This allowed it to qualify for Oscar nominations, while using the buzz from its nominations/wins to rake in box office earnings after it went into wide release.

Robert De Niro was one of the first actors to be cast in the film, and he led to several other actors being cast as well. He prepared for his role by spending time with actual steelworkers. One of these individuals was a man named Chuck Aspegren, who so impressed De Niro that he convinced the director to cast him in the film as one of the supporting characters. De Niro also introduced the director to Meryl Streep, who was cast in the film as the love interest of two of the characters. She asked that John Cazale be cast in the film as well, as they were dating. Cazale was also fighting terminal lung cancer at the time. Because they knew that his time was short, they filmed all of his scenes first. This was his final role, and he didn’t live to see the finished film. 

The Deer Hunter was entirely shot on location (rather than on sound stages or backlots), and it took six months to film. Some of the real-life locations used in the film included a Russian Orthodox church, a grocery store, and exterior shots along the River Kwai. Many of the extras in the film (both in the U.S., and in Thailand, which is where the Vietnam portions were shot) were locals who lived in and around the locations being used. In fact, one of the priests from the Russian Orthodox Church played the priest who officiates the wedding at the beginning of the film. The local extras who played the guests at the wedding reception were told to bring empty boxes wrapped up as presents to look like wedding gifts (saving the crew the time and effort of making the “gifts” look more unique and individual, since they would be wrapped by different people with different kinds of wrapping paper.) However, after the shooting for that scene was completed, the film crew discovered that many of the boxes weren’t empty and contained actual wedding presents. 

My Thoughts:

I see where many of the detractors of the film were coming from—the early scenes (particularly the wedding and the reception) were very long. However, I felt that the drawn-out nature of these scenes was effective. They gave the film a sense of reality, as though these were real people having a real celebration, and the audience is a participant (or at least an attendee) at these festivities. This feeling was likely helped by other elements, such as the on-location shooting with “real” extras, and the lack of scripted dialog for many of these scenes (the actors were often simply told what needed to happen in the scene, and were given the freedom to execute it.) The director noted that one reason for shooting this way was because he enjoyed “accidents”—things that he didn’t plan to film that he just happened to capture on camera. 

These scenes stand in stark contrast with the rest of the film, especially the famous (infamous?) Russian roulette scenes. Watching these characters engage in a game of literal life-and-death is extremely gripping and somewhat disturbing even when you know the outcome of those scenes. The acting of the three leads particularly sells the experience.

One interesting (and potentially unintentional) metaphor that I noticed: a revolver has six chambers. In the version of Russian roulette most commonly played in the film, only one of the chambers is loaded (i.e., only one can result in death, or there is a 1 in 6 chance of dying). The film is about six friends. Only one died. (Given, only three of the six went to war, while the other three remained at home, but it still works.)

Overall, I felt that this film was effective at showing the various ways that these characters were traumatized by the war. This film isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a powerful one. 

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The Deer Hunter (1978) is available to stream on the services listed here: 

Information sources and additional resources:

The original review from Siskel and Ebert:

A breakdown of what makes the initial Russian roulette scene so effective:

A brief overview of the film from The New York Times:

A YouTube review of the film:

Another YouTube review of the film:

Yet another YouTube review of the film:

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