The Deer Hunter

Along with Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s brutal but ultimately contemplative war movie is a key American cinematic take on the Vietnam conflict.

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Introduction

“Few movies have ever stirred audiences so powerfully... I think it is a great picture, large enough to carry its flaws.”
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 1994 edition

The Deer Hunter, which won five Oscars including Best Picture, was an early attempt by Hollywood to process traumatic memories of Vietnam. It is split into three parts: the calm before a group of Pennsylvania steel-workers leave for their tour of duty, the men’s harrowing spell in a POW camp where they are forced to play Russian roulette, and the return home of Michael (Robert De Niro) without his missing buddy Nicky (Christopher Walken, who won an Oscar).

The film was accused of xenophobia for its depiction of the Vietnamese, while a closing rendition of ‘God Bless America’ only inflamed left-wing dissent. But there is unexpected compassion and tenderness here, particularly in Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, and in understated performances by De Niro, Walken, Meryl Streep and the late John Cazale.

Heaven’s Gate (1980), Cimino’s follow-up, was an expensive flop that cost him his reputation, but it has its share of haunting moments. Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) is another pivotal Vietnam movie.

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