1 Year, 100 Movies: #53 The Deer Hunter (1978)

The-Deer-Hunter-poster-remix-by-Olly-Moss-495x656For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

The Deer Hunter was a surprise. I went into it not knowing what it was about at all. It’s an intense look at life before, during and after the Vietnam War for three friends who fought in it- and for those who love them back at home. All I can say about it is that it is incredible. As I mentioned it is cleverly broken up into three parts- before the war, during the war and afterward. The time before the war created an emotional connection with the characters both between themselves and also got the viewer invested in their stories. It’s intensely real and so well acted – Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep have outdone themselves in this film. The director of this film uses Russian roulette throughout the film as an allegory for war. It is the spin of the cylinder that determines who lives or dies.

BEFORE THE WAR: Michael (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage) along with a few other friends are getting ready for Steve’s wedding. They all have a wonderful time, and we see Nick and Linda’s (Meryl Streep) relationship blooming. The three friends go on a ‘last’ deer hunting trip with their other friends- Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and John (George Dzundza) before they ship off to Vietnam. These before scenes give us a glimpse of how much the characters have to loose- and how normal their lives were before the war.

DURING THE WAR: The three friends ship off to Vietnam, but it’s not long before they are all captured and held as prisoners of war. Their captors in a remote area have set up a horrible holding area for the prisoners where they must wait to be called up to play a game of Russian roulette- or be sent to another pen where they are at such a level trapped in the river that they will drown when the river rises. It’s an emotional scene with Nick comforting Steve- and Michael working out a plan. With three bullets in the gun all Michael needs is for the next chamber to be empty, and they would have three shots to use on their captors in a quick bid for escape. Luck is on their side, but the pressure of the game proves to be too much for Nick.

AFTER THE WAR: After that game the three are separated. Michael returns home, unsure of the fate of his friends, and unable to connect with his old friends back home. Linda and Michael take comfort with each other. He is unable to stay in his home, he doesn’t fit anymore- when he goes hunting again with the friends that stayed home he questions the hunt. Michael finds out  that Steve is alive and has returned to an Army hospital where he is recuperating. He has lost both legs, the use of one arm and is mentally shattered. He reveals that someone has been sending him large amounts of money from Saigon.

Because of the interaction with Steve, Michael learns that Nick is alive and in Saigon, so he sets out to find him. Michael finds his friend in a gambling den that pays men to face one another in Russian roulette. Let’s just say that Nick has been so damaged by the war that he has lost all sense of who he was or any hope for a future. Michael tries to reach out to him, but we don’t get a happy ending.

Michael returns home and the film closes with Nick’s funeral in America and his friend’s responses to it. Angela and Steve seem to be on the mend, and Michael and Linda appear to be continuing their relationship. The entire group- minus Nick all sing ‘God Bless America’ together.

The Deer Hunter is a hard movie- not just for the violence and the content, but because we don’t get any easy answers. It shows that war is terrible, but stops just shy of condemning it. We are left with this group of friends who have been through the ringer- they are broken both physically and mentally. They sing together maybe out of their mutual feelings of loss, need for comfort or out of anger, or even with some hope. Perhaps it is a mixture of all of these feelings. We are not let in on the secret- but I doubt that even the characters yet understand fully what has happened, or are able to work out all of their feelings. Maybe in the end, that is what really makes this film so poignant.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:



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