‘The Deer Hunter’ is a Vietnam War saga. The film starts with three men (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) celebrating their forthcoming trip to Vietnam at Savage’s wedding. The three men are all excited about the prospect of heading to war. Once they arrive in Vietnam they are captured by the Vietcong and forced to play Russian Roulette. When they arrive back in America the repercussions of the events abroad change their lives for ever.
I shall start with the positive aspects of ‘The Deer Hunter’. It’s difficult to deny that the acting in this film is good. It is the best performance that I have ever seen from Walken, and De Niro is always solid. The film also features Meryl Streep in her first Oscar Nominated role, and as a big fan of Meryl Streep, I feel that she adds a great deal to this film.
Another good thing about this film is the impact of a couple of key scenes. The infamous scene where the characters play Russian Roulette is easily one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, and although this has a lot to do with the subject matter, I feel that credit should also go to Cimino’s direction.
There are, however, issues that I have with ‘The Deer Hunter’. I am not entirely sure, even after several watches, what the message the film is trying to put across. Is it pro-American or anti-war? The film portrays the three lead characters as the heroes and the humble wedding scenes and the horrific acts of the Vietnamese certainly place the viewer firmly on the side of the Americans. The dreadful way in which the war affects the soldiers gives the ending of the film an anti-war feeling to rival many other war epics.
I do not suggest for one moment that all films need to be either pro or anti war, and it is perfectly reasonable that a film should be created to show the impact of war on its soldiers without being either for or against it. My problem with ‘The Deer Hunter’ is that whilst it manages to show the impact of the war it largely fails to show the war and what actually impacted them. One moment the protagonists are at a wedding in Pennsylvania, and the next they have been captured and are being made to play death games. There is no transition between the two places and we, as the viewer, never really get to see what life was like in Vietnam and therefore why they have been affected in the way they were. Of course, we saw a couple of horrific scenes, but not enough to give, I felt, a realistic and well rounded picture.
Overall I think that the ‘Deer Hunter’ is a sprawling over lengthy shambles of a film which is partly rescued by some wonderful performances and a few highly memorable scenes.