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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue