Oscar Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

1978’s addition to the lineup of Best Pictures is one of those films that sheds some light on the horrors of war. The Deer Hunter won 5 of its 9 Oscar nods including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Editing, and Best Sound and earned a spot at #79 on AFI’s Top 100.

A haunting tale of the lives of 3 friends from a Pennsylvania factory town who are drafted to fight in Vietnam. We enter the scene with Michael (Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Walken) at the wedding of their friend Steven (John Savage). The raucous reception doubles as the boys’ big send-off before heading off to war. As a last hurrah Michael, Nick, and Steven are joined by their friends Stosh (John Cazale) and John (George Dzundza) on one last hunting trip.

Propelled forward in time, we find the three friends deeply entrenched in the war and soon captured by the Vietcong. Barely escaping the twisted game of Russian roulette forced upon them by their captors, Michael, Nick, and Steven make their way to a military hospital with hopes of returning home. Though Michael is able to return to his life in PA, Steven feels like his life is over after losing a leg, and Nick is still in Vietnam in an underground roulette ring.
*****
Ranked as the #30 thriller, The Deer Hunter is a sobering look at the effect of war on relationships and on the minds of those participating in it first-hand. The Russian roulette scene is so full of suspense and is what Roger Ebert rightly describes as “one of the most horrifying sequences ever created in fiction.” It is truly a sobering few moments that only grow more terrible as the friends are forced to face each other.

John Cazale, who briefly appears as hunting buddy “Stosh,” was engaged to co-star Meryl Streep (Nick and Michael’s love interest, Linda) until he died of bone cancer shortly after filming was complete. If you include flashback scenes in The Godfather: Part III, Cazale only appears in 6 feature films, four of which were nominated for Best Picture, with 3 wins. It is a record few, if any, could match.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful film. A lot of time is spent developing the characters which only serves to make the tragedies of the plot all the more difficult for the friends to bear. It is a tough examination of what can happen when people are placed in extraordinary circumstances and their attempts to reclaim the lives they left behind.

I have never understood war and I often enjoy watching war movies, in part, because of a desire to make some sense out of it. The Deer Hunter is just such a film that shines a sliver of light on what happens to a soldier even after the fighting is over and the immediate dangers are gone. It’s certainly worth a watch.

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