Michael Cimino’s star did not burn for long, but it did burn bright. After writing and directing the solid crime-film success Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, his second feature The Deer Hunter won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Then he delivered the historic bomb Heaven’s Gate (which lost so much money that United Artists nearly went bankrupt) and the action film Year of the Dragon (an ugly, borderline racist movie that was nominated for five Razzies). Cimino’s next three films after that were bombs which grossed about $8 million combined, and he hasn’t made a film since 1996.
If you want you find out why Cimino’s career evaporated, you could read Final Cut, Steven Bach’s famous examination of the disaster that the Heaven’s Gate set became. But if you want to know why United Artists was willing to risk its entire financial solvency on a man who had only directed two films up to that point, watch The Deer Hunter, as we did at Movie Klub this week. It is a movie filled with emotion so crushing that it virtually demands your respect.
The Deer Hunter follows three Pennsylvania steelworkers: Steven (John Savage), who is to be married as the movie opens, his best man Nick (Christopher Walken), and Michael (Robert de Niro), who is clearly the “leader” of their circle of friends. The three-hour movie focuses its entire first hour on Steven’s wedding, and in minute detail; it’s not until approximately 30 minutes in that we learn these characters will be traveling to Vietnam just days after the wedding. The war will shatter all three men, but that isn’t even the highest drama, which will come from them trying to re-assemble their lives afterward.
In that three-hour running time, you can see the germ of what would become a disaster with Heaven’s Gate: Cimino was so obsessive over details that his productions ran too long and far over budget. The reward, however, is that the small town of Clairton is so fully realized that it feels like Cimino somehow found non-professional actors who look exactly like de Niro, Walken, and the rest of the film’s celebrated cast. This movie is not just about how Vietnam destroyed the lives of these three characters, but how the war destroyed small-town America, sending back hundreds of thousands of young men wounded and traumatized by defeat. In order to deliver that message, a brief introduction to these characters will not do. Only the massive, gorgeous, intricately planned Russian Orthodox wedding that Cimino stages can show the entire town as we need to see it.
The Russian Orthodox religion is contrasted with Russian Roulette in the remainder of the movie. It was a controversial decision because of its basis in fact, or lack thereof: a number of journalists who had been in Vietnam during the war criticized Cimino, saying that the Viet Cong had never used the game as a form of torture. In fact a there are critics who have claimed that the film is racist, since the Vietnamese and Chinese in the movie are almost uniformly sadistic murderers. However, it seems to me that Cimino’s message is that the entire region has been poisoned by the war, and Russian Roulette is both symptom and symbol of that poisoning as it spreads to the lead characters.
Something about that concept must have had a powerful effect on de Niro, because he used his considerable influence to attract a supporting cast second to none. John Cazale (Fredo from The Godfather) was willing to make the movie despite the fact that he was dying of cancer; all of his scenes were shot first, and he never saw the finished film. He plays his typical character, a man who’s a little bit of a screwup and has to be shown how serious life is by one of the leads. You can bet his feelings in real life were precisely the opposite, but he never gives anything away. It’s difficult to see that he’s even sick. Cazale brought along his live-in girlfriend, a rising New York stage actress named Meryl Streep.* According to Streep’s Wikipedia page she was not enthusiastic about her part, saying later, “They needed a girl between the two guys and I was it.” You can’t tell it from her phenomenal work, as her character is pivotal to the film’s third act.
The film’s only acting Oscar was a Best Supporting Actor award that went to Walken. It’s a bit of a strange win, as Walken is not in the film for much of the third act and is silent for most of his biggest scene. However, he’s the one who is most deeply affected by the war, his personality shattered and his will to live broken. Savage and de Niro play two men who are trying to return to the people they were before they went to war; Walken is playing a completely new person after his war experience, and the difference between who he was and who he becomes is the movie’s biggest tragedy.
It gives me hope that in addition to its success with critics and at the Oscars, The Deer Hunter was a massive financial success. The attitude in Hollywood about the Vietnam War in 1978 was the same as the Iraq War today: it was assumed that audiences didn’t want to see movies about it. In that way, The Deer Hunter might be the biggest triumph of the 1970s, since films like The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon have a lot of crowd-pleasing elements even if they end on negative notes. To make such a brutal, dark, unrelenting picture as this and deliver it so well that audiences flock to see it is amazing work, the sort of thing that a director should be proud of even if his subsequent career did not size up.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*It was claimed at Movie Klub that The Deer Hunter was Streep’s first film. It wasn’t, but it was close – her debut role in 1977’s Julia is very small. Also, Julia won three Oscars, The Deer Hunter won five, and Streep’s next film was Woody Allen’s Manhattan. That’s quite a start to a career!