The following includes SPOILERS for The Deer Hunter.
More than any other American filmmaker to come out of the 1970s, Michael Cimino – who passed away last summer at age 77, having made no films since 1996 – came to embody New Hollywood at both its most dizzyingly ambitious and its most self-destructively excessive, and The Deer Hunter, his second film and one of the decade’s last iconic statements, was the first important step towards establishing him as such a figure. Cimino, a wunderkind who started off his career shooting commercials for Madison Avenue and already became famous there as a perfectionist willing to spend unlimited amounts of his own time and other people’s money, made his directing debut with the comparatively modest Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, effortlessly blending together a half-dozen different genres into a small melancholy epic about misfit outlaws with romantic nicknames trying to find something for themselves in a country that left them behind. Crucially, he did it under the guidance of producer and star Clint Eastwood, who gently but firmly refused the rookie director any more than two or three takes per scene and kept the production running smoothly. The film might be Cimino’s best work, and is a teasing window into a possible alternate career path, one in which his grand ambition would be realized, yet kept in control by more practically-minded creative partners.
His actual career path, however, took him next to a Vietnam War drama that, among other things, takes 68 minutes just to get to Vietnam. This is fine – and very much the idea – because, really, Vietnam is present in The Deer Hunter from the very start. It is in the truck that loudly speeds in the opening moments through the empty streets of the town of Clairton, Pennsylvania, disrupting its early-morning quiet; in the well-wishes and cries addressed to men who, in a couple of days, will be on another side of the world; in the massive black-and-white photos of those same men that hang over a wedding, yet would look equally if not more appropriate at a funeral. It is everywhere in the air, a specter of an uncertain yet immediate future, hanging over the characters as they laugh, drink, banter, play pool, sing along to Frankie Valli, propose and marry, find themselves lost in the crowd of friends, relatives and neighbors.
It is also, less elegantly, in the figure of a Green Beret, who’s just come back and, wearing a face that defines “haunted”, can only muster a “Fuck it” and a grim laugh when asked about the experience, in the drops of red wine that end up on Angela (Rutanya Alda)’s wedding dress as a sign of bad luck, in the line “Don’t leave me over there”, said by Nick (Christopher Walken) to Mike (Robert De Niro), that simply cannot be delivered without a sense of imposed significance. These instances of foreshadowing and set-up, while small, feel out of place in The Deer Hunter, for what the film strives for in this section – and is overall most successful at – is a portrayal of a community that’s loose and occasionally chaotic enough to feel unscripted and captured on the fly. In his DVD commentary, Cimino supports this: “My feeling about this movie is that it’s a home movie”. In a separate commentary, the film’s great cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, concurs: “We shot it as a documentary with good compositions”.
One of the things that kept Cimino in check was the weather. All the Clairton scenes are meant to take place in autumn, and possess an appropriately chilly atmosphere, but in reality were shot during the hottest summer in decades, which meant that the crew had to painstakingly create the illusion of a much colder setting, and the camera often couldn’t move an inch in an unplanned direction without ruining it; in each of the many exterior scenes, a certain discipline was always required. Meanwhile, in the famed wedding scene, which clocks in at just under 30 minutes, Cimino emphasized the home movie feel by surrounding the main cast almost entirely with non-professional locals (many of whom, as both the director and the cinematographer recall with amusement, brought actual wrapped-up gifts when asked for prop ones), then, as they danced and drank real alcohol, “looking for accidents” (as Zsigmond puts it) to the extent of doing 10-15 takes of a given moment “just to find an accident”. It all pays off in a rapturous sequence that’s filled with carefully observed details and deep affection for everybody onscreen, and captures a chaotic energy that both rings true and eventually starts feeding on itself: even on first viewing, the more the scene went on, the less I wanted it to end, then only suspecting – not yet knowing for sure – what lay ahead.
If we were to discuss the greatest time and/or space-transcending cuts in filmdom, it’s likely that 2001’s bone-to-spaceship cut would (with good reason) be brought up first; Lawrence of Arabia’s jump from the burning match to the rising sun is another one that would be recalled immediately. But is there any cut that packs so much brutal inevitability as the one in The Deer Hunter that goes from a bar where the characters have just quietly listened to Axel (Chuck Aspegren) play a mournful Chopin piece (unlike earlier examples, this is an obviously scripted moment that’s exactly right in its pathos) to a destroyed, burning Vietnamese village filled with dead bodies and sounds of helicopters and gunfire? (This is not necessarily a rhetorical question; suggestions are welcome.) The middle third of The Deer Hunter is not, strictly speaking, its middle hour; it unfolds over just 42 minutes, and whatever part of it that might be called actual confrontation with the enemy takes up less than half an hour – not even as much time as the wedding. As with the drawing out of the earlier scenes, this seems very much part of a strategy.
It’s not just the location and the duration that are different here. Not even five minutes after the film finally arrives in Vietnam, it plunges straight into its centerpiece, in which Mike, Nick, and Steven (John Savage), among other POWs, are forced to play Russian Roulette by their sadistic North Vietnamese captors. Cimino, in complete and natural opposite to the technique displayed earlier, now allows zero spontaneity and refuses the audience a single second to relax; where the Pennsylvania section emphasized the sense of community by regularly filling the widescreen frame with as many people as possible, here the characters are mostly shot in tight, quickly cut close-ups. The sequence is so ferociously intense that it never really allows to consciously, rationally realize that it’s highly unlikely the film would actually dare kill off either its star (De Niro) or its most significant supporting character (Walken) before it’s even halfway over; then again, even if you do realize that, it doesn’t matter. The scene’s power comes not from the risk of death, but from the fact that, during every second of the ordeal, these people’s psyches are sustaining unthinkable damage, and no matter how quickly they free themselves, the damage is done. The sense of pain and horror does not go away once they’re rescued, and goes through a final spike as the newly married Steven can’t hold on to the helicopter and falls into a river. “I hit some rocks”, he mutters, half-conscious, having just lost the ability to ever walk again.
The cut that takes The Deer Hunter back from Vietnam to Clairton is just as quick and decisive as the earlier one, but, appropriately enough, this time there’s no obvious build-up; all of a sudden, we’re just back home, and have to deal with what life has become. Or at least Mike and Steven are home, and for a while they don’t even know that about each other. As The Deer Hunter heads into its final stretch, there’s a sense its main characters now occupy different movies, and while on some level it’s likely intentional and undeniably thematically appropriate, the film loses its focus when rushing between its various established plot threads and trying to bring them all together.
Once again, it’s the scenes of community that work best here, from Mike’s reunion with his old friends – their dynamic superficially similar, but now affected by a sense of loss evident enough to not be explicitly put into words – to his intimacy with Linda (Meryl Streep, wonderful in her first major film role), borne simply out of mutual need for comfort rather than passion. Steven, meanwhile, has lost both his legs and would rather spend time in a VA hospital than return to Angela, who in turn is inexplicably near-catatonic and unable to speak when we first meet her again (but perfectly fine again in the film’s end); anyway, his bigger function at this point is to put Mike on the trail of Nick, who’s been regularly (though anonymously) mailing him large amounts of money.
While all of this goes on, the film already shows enough of Nick’s fate before it ever returns to Clairton to make it clear what happened to him, and what happened is that he had stayed in Saigon and became the main attraction in an underground Russian Roulette ring after getting seduced by an extremely rich, French-speaking devil in a white suit (Pierre Segui) that he oh-so-conveniently encountered in a dark alley. In other words, this is where The Deer Hunter not only fully abandons its previous commitment to realism (present even in the essentially metaphorical central Russian Roulette scene, which is not based on anything real, but is presented realistically anyway), but suddenly becomes patently absurd.
Arguably the two important scenes that occur in the final third of the film both circle back to scenes from the opening hour. Mike, established early on as the titular deer hunter and possessing a philosophy of “one shot” (“A deer has to be taken with one shot”), completes that arc by tracking another deer but choosing not to kill it, and subsequently again brings up this philosophy to Nick, whose own earlier crucial lines of dialogue had gone: “I don’t think that much about the one shot anymore” and “I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different… the way the trees are”, positioning him as the more uncertain and emotional type in contrast with Mike’s hardened warrior. The problem is, those scenes from the opening third are overwhelmed by its overall freewheeling hangout-drama sensibility to the point of being rendered much less significant than they must have been intended to be, and if the entire rest of the film proves anything, it’s that its characters are much better at being people than types. The climax does little other than bring back to the forefront this clash between the mythic and the realistic, which, to my mind, ultimately emerges as the film’s one significant shortcoming. It is no coincidence that its ending – in which “God Bless America” means not just anything, but everything you want it to mean – is so powerful in large part because it allows the characters to go back to being people.
Between June 1977 and April 1979, The Deer Hunter went through a six-months-long shoot, faced an ever-increasing budget and runtime, saw Cimino clashing with all the executives in sight, and had its portrayal of the North Vietnamese meet immediate controversy strong enough to result in actual street protests on Oscar night; nevertheless, it all ended largely in triumph, with the film becoming one of the biggest commercial successes of the late ‘70s and beating fellow Vietnam War drama Coming Home to Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Having applied his gifts to a film the scale of which deserved it, Cimino not only got away with it, but won. Less than two weeks later, he was on the set of his next picture, titled Heaven’s Gate.