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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era