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.

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SRSLY #86: Beauty and the Beast / Missing Richard Simmons / The Night Of

On the pop culture podcast this week: Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the ethically dubious podcast Missing Richard Simmons and HBO crime drama The Night Of.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below.

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Beauty and the Beast

The trailer.

Anna’s pieces on the gay storyline and what’s changed from the animated version.

Missing Richard Simmons

The podcast.

Is it ethical?

The Night Of

The trailer.

For next time:

Caroline is playing the mobile game Prune.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #85, check it out here.