Robert De Niro in-country in The Deer Hunter.
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After 36 years, The Deer Hunter remains one of the most fascinating films on Vietnam

Though the notorious Russian roulette scene looms large, The Deer Hunter is a tender – and even optimistic – depiction of the human capacity to endure.

One of the earliest attempts by Hollywood to process the traumatic memories of the Vietnam war was The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino in 1978. It focuses on a group of Pennsylvania steel-workers, some of whom are going off to fight just days after one of their number has got married. It’s the wedding of Steven (John Savage) that dominates the first third of the movie. His pals include the intense Nicky (Christopher Walken), who is enjoying a tentative romance with Linda (Meryl Streep); the insecure Stan (John Cazale); and the unofficial leader of the group, Michael (Robert De Niro), a clipped and practical man who is never more fully alive than when he is hunting deer in the mountains.

Cimino would become a symbol of self-indulgence once production began on his follow-up film, the sprawling and maligned western Heaven’s Gate (1980). But briefly, with the success of The Deer Hunter, which won five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), he was Hollywood’s darling. He had entered the industry as a writer in the early 1970s, credited as ‘Mike Cimino’ for his unique science-fiction screenplay Silent Running (1972). Frustrated with the difficulty of getting subsequent scripts made, he wrote Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a highly original buddy movie that subverted that genre’s conventions.

Clint Eastwood loved the script, and eventually starred in the film in 1974, with Cimino making his directing debut. Before that, he hired Cimino to rewrite John Milius’s screenplay for Magnum Force (1973), the even more reactionary sequel to Dirty Harry. Cimino helped develop the story ideas behind The Deer Hunter, which was based partly on another script, The Man Who Came to Play (its authors received co-story credits). The film’s Oscar-winning editor, Peter Zinner, recalls reading Deric Washburn’s screenplay. “It was very well-written and moved me to tears. There were almost no revisions made in the script during shooting. What was in the script is what you see on the screen.”

Cimino still gave his cast room for manoeuvre, especially John Cazale, whose character, Stan, became “an outgrowth of who and what John is as a person,” in Cimino’s words. During shooting, Cimino said: “John has a marvelous effect on the other actors. He’s given Stan a mystery that wasn’t there before.”

Cazale, who was 42 at the time of filming, had appeared in only four previous pictures. But what a quartet! The Godfather (1972), The Conversation, The Godfather Part II (both 1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Read that list one more time. That’s what a 100 per cent strike rate looks like.

However, the actor was dying of bone cancer, a fact that Cimino had kept from the studio by lining up Cazale’s scenes first to utilize what little energy reserves he had left. Eventually the studio discovered the truth. “John was dying the whole time we were shooting The Deer Hunter,” says Cimino. “I used to watch him between takes in the scenes where the boys are having a bit of fun, throwing food at each other in the Cadillac. I used to watch him wander up the mountain through those fields of wild flowers in his tuxedo and fur hat … They wanted me to fire him at the beginning of the movie, but I wouldn’t do it.” Meryl Streep, who was Cazale’s fiancée as well as his co-star, also defended the actor, threatening to quit the picture if he was removed. Cazale died shortly before filming was completed.

The rest of the cast are equally impressive. From our 21st century standpoint we can appreciate the novelty of Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep giving subdued, almost anonymous performances. Both actors are all the more convincing here for hanging back. Their love affair, after Michael returns from Vietnam without Nicky, is convincing and affecting in its drabness. There are no grand passions. Michael doesn’t even react when Linda first raises the subject of sleeping together. These are just two lonely people who go to bed with one another as a balm against their pain.

In between the nicely judged Pennsylvania sections of the film is a passage detailing the horrors of Vietnam, in which Michael, Nicky and Steven are beaten, held captive in rat-infested water and forced to participate against one another in rounds of Russian roulette. This is the most problematic sequence in the entire picture, and the one which attracted accusations of xenophobia. (Identical charges were leveled against Cimino after the release of his 1985 thriller Year of the Dragon.)

The surprise is that, after all the years of contentious debate about The Deer Hunter, there’s so much in the picture that is generous and understated. I love the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s slow, curious zooms into scenes of people socialising, or doggedly working, or going about the kind of humdrum activities not normally considered worthy of the camera’s attention. Cimino and Zsigmond show people in their natural environment, struggling through ordinary cluttered lives. The film is alert to incongruous details, whether humorous (the giggling maids of honour flailing around in the grey streets) or tragic (Linda at the wedding, decked out in her glad rags with a bruise on her cheek).

Director and cinematographer established early on a distinction between interior and exterior sequences. “The interiors are intimate and warm,” noted Cimino on the set, “whereas the exteriors are big and cold and gray. The landscape is an important factor in the film. The steel mills are always in the background, towering above the people, towering above the houses, towering above the town. Yet I don’t mean to portray them as oppressive, but rather to convey strength. In a strange way, the mills become a symbol of life. People go but the mills are there.”

For its director, it remains a hopeful movie. “It has a positive feeling for life, an admiration for the characters’ abilities to go on after a horrendous experience and go on in a quiet way. There’s a great deal of open sentiment in the film; people say, “I love…” They’re passionate about things.”

The Deer Hunter is on general release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam. Getty
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Rumbles in the jungle: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

Upcoming releases include drama about a trans woman and an adventure in south America.

It was blisteringly cold for the first few days of the Berlin Film Festival but there was plenty of heat coming off the cinema screens, not least from Call Me by Your Name. This rapturous, intensely sensual and high-spirited love story is set in northern Italy in the early 1980s. The perky and precocious 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older, American doctoral student who’s arrived for the summer to assist the boy’s father, an esteemed professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their friendship passes through stages sceptical, fraternal, flirtatious and hostile before arriving at the erotic.

Movies which insist that life was never the same again after that summer are a pet peeve of mine but this one is as ripe and juicy as the peach Elio snatches from a tree and puts to a most unusual and intimate use. (Think American Pie with fruit.) Luca Guadagnino has form as a chronicler of the holidaying rich, but his best-known films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) discovered trouble in paradise. In Call Me by Your Name, it’s all pleasure. A distant sense of sadness is signalled by the use of a few plaintive songs by Sufjan Stevens but what defines the picture is its vitality, personified in a star-making performance by Chalamet which combines petulance, balletic physicality and a new kind of goofball naturalism.

The clammy heat of the jungle, with all its danger and mystery, are strongly evoked in The Lost City of Z, a stirring adventure based on fact, which catapults its writer-director, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), out of his usual sooty cityscapes and into uncharted South America in the early 20th century. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a colonel who grudgingly agrees to referee the mapping of borders between ­Bolivia and Brazil on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, only to be seduced by the legend of a city populated by a sophisticated civilisation. The film, which I will review in more detail next month, felt deeply satisfying – even more so than correcting American colleagues on the pronunciation of the title.

There was a less effective expedition movie in the main competition. Joaquim dramatises the journey of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) from colonialist stooge and hunter of gold smugglers to revolutionary icon. There is an impressive level of detail about 18th-century Brazilian life: rudimentary dentistry, a haircut undertaken with a machete. Joaquim’s severed head provides a posthumous introductory narration, presumably in tribute to the ultimate expedition film, Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, which featured a noggin that continued talking after decapitation. Yet the hero’s conversion to the cause of the exploited Brazilians is confusingly brisk, and the film feels both inordinately long and too short to have sufficient impact.

We remain in scorching heat for Viceroy’s House, in which the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) chronicles the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pottering around being frightfully nice to the locals. Polite, lukewarm and almost entirely without flavour, the film closes with an uplifting romantic reunion that is somewhat eclipsed by the killing of an estimated two million people during Partition.

Away from the on-screen sun, it was still possible to feel warmed by two splendidly humane films. A Fantastic Woman is a stylish, Almodóvar-type drama about a trans woman, Marina (played by the captivating transgender actor Daniela Vega), who is subjected to prejudice and violence by her late partner’s family. Its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, made a splash in Berlin four years ago with Gloria, his comedy about a Santiago divorcee, but this new picture puts him in a whole other class.

The Other Side of Hope, from the deadpan Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki, follows a bright-eyed Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) and the poker-faced Helsinki restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) who takes him under his wing. Kaurismäki’s mixture of absurdity and altruism feels even more nourishing in these troubled times. On Saturday the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to On Body and Soul, a Hungarian comedy-drama about two lonely slaughterhouse workers. Still, Kaurismäki was named Best Director, while Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, won the Best Screenplay prize. Not too shabby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit