Friday 4 November 2022

The Deer Hunter (1978)


Deer Hunter

Before I started this project, the quintessential seventies movie would have been “The Deer Hunter”. It encapsulated everything I thought I knew about movies in the seventies and those were mostly negatives. At this point, having reviewed some 80% of seventies movies on the List, my view on movies from the seventies is a lot more nuanced and yet “The Deer Hunter”, so many years later, still confirms all my preconceptions about it and feels incredibly seventies.

We find ourselves in a steel mill community in western Pennsylvania (though with a hunting ground in the Cascades…) in the later part of the sixties. A wedding is in preparation and over the course of this wedding we are introduced to a group of men, most of which work at the mill and all of them belong to a Slavic community. This latter detail has no particular impact on the story as such, but adds color and demonstrates that this is a very tight community.

Some of the men, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage), the groom, are about to be shipped out to Vietnam, while the others, including Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) stay home. As does Linda (Meryl Streep), girlfriend of both Mike and Nick.

In Vietnam all three are captured by the Vietcong and as prisoners forced to play Russian Roulette. Mike manages to set them free but then they get separated. All three men are broken in their way and that is explored in the last third of the movie.

This is dark, grim and depressive all-round and told at a glacial speed. The portrait of the town makes it dirty, grey and not outright poor, but not prospering either. These are salt of the Earth people and don’t you forget it. It is filmed in that somewhat chaotic and naturalistic seventies fashion where people speak on top of each other without really saying anything and the filmed characters seem to have forgotten about the camera.

The wedding itself is a folkloristic highlight but lasts the better part of an hour in which only three things are really accomplished: Characters are introduced, Nick makes Mike promise him that he will get him home from Vietnam and Nick proposes to Linda.

Vietnam is portrayed as hell on Earth, whether it is the captivity scenes or the fall of Saigon scenes. Terrible stuff. But most heartbreaking is the aftermath, how the veterans return home and are no longer able to fit into their community.

The message of “The Deer Hunter” is very clear: War is terrible, and it ruins people, one way or another. Mike, John and Steven are simply three examples of this. None of them can function afterwards, they are changed physically, mentally or both and not for the better.

There is no happy end to “The Deer Hunter”, no little corner where things are alright, no excuse available and the end scene say that this is the price for serving their country.

I cannot disagree with this movie in any way. I have no doubt that this is what war does to people and that a lot of high-level leaders at any time in history has a lot to answer for. But it does not make me love “The Deer Hunter”. It is three hours of depression in slow motion. It is a story that could easily be told in two hours and it hammers home its points with no mercy. That may make it an important movie, but not anything to enjoy watching.

I suppose this is a movie you have to watch eventually, but not one I can honestly recommend and my guess is that it will be another 20 or 30 years till I try again.


  1. The prospect of watching this film - seen on original release - was what turned me off 1978. I saw it in the seventies and it was torture then. I'm probably not going to watch it though. But somehow will return to 1978. Right now I am doing Noirvember. Most of the movies I have been watching have already been reviewed on my blog.

    1. There should always be room for a noirvember.
      I do hope you get through 1978 though. I would love to read your take on these movies.

  2. I'm with you on this. There are some great scenes in it, but that opening bit and the wedding is eternal. This could've easily been 45 minutes shorter and lost nothing.

    1. Indeed. It is a tough movie to watch and the glacial speed is one of the reasons.