'Deer Hunter' is a film great

by Matt Blanchard | 11/9/98 6:00am

Nearly a hundred films about the Vietnam War have been made since the early 1970s. A few of these, like "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," have received considerable praise from critics and are already considered classics of American popular culture.

"The Deer Hunter," for whatever reason, seems to be less known among these modern masterpieces. Despite nearly universal critical acclaim, a prominent cast and an Oscar win for Best Picture (1978), the film seems to have been somewhat lost in the shuffle of recent cinema.

This is rather puzzling, for more than a few critics have called "The Deer Hunter" the most reflective of the Vietnam films yet produced, and Roger Ebert goes so far as to call it "one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made."

Just over three hours long, the film chronicles the lives of three young Pennsylvania steelworkers (Robert DeNiro, John Savage and Christopher Walken) before, during and after their service in Vietnam.

The story is told in three acts. The first hour is mainly character development, concentrating on a wedding banquet for one of the main characters and a celebratory deer hunt in the mountains the next day. We are then abruptly plunged into Vietnam for the second hour, and return with DeNiro to the United States for the third.

This grand scale gives director Michael Cimino room to take a more comprehensive approach to the problems of the war than most other Vietnam films, examining the effects of the war not only on its veterans but also on those who remained behind in the United States.

We see the full sequence of events: the three ordinary and idealistic young men are torn from their friends and loved ones, suddenly thrust into a terribly dehumanizing environment and then must make futile attempts to readjust to American society upon their return.

Having three main characters rather than just one contributes to the film's fullness, as Cimino is able to show how the war affects the different men in different ways. It exacts a severe mental toll on one of them, a physical toll on another and leaves the third relatively unscathed.

The main criticism of "The Deer Hunter" is that it is factually inaccurate, and the film does indeed take rather sizable liberties with the true events and conditions of the war. But it is vastly different from other war films, such as "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan," that depend on brutal realism to generate emotional force.

Unlike such films, "The Deer Hunter" relies on non-combat situations that serve as allegories for the meaning of the war as a whole. There is little in the way of actual battle footage in the film, but still more than a few harrowing images to remember.

The central metaphor in "The Deer Hunter" is the game of Russian roulette. In one of the most intense scenes in modern film, the three main characters are taken prisoner and forced to play Russian roulette while their Vietnamese captors place bets on who will survive and who will not. For director Cimino, this game is the perfect embodiment of the randomness, futility and devastating psychological toll of the Vietnam War on the American soldier.

Fortunately, these epic proportions and lofty themes do not overshadow the acting, which is the film's greatest strength. The best performance is Walken's; he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the timid, wholesome youth who disintegrates into a deadened shell of a human being.

DeNiro's outstanding Oscar-nominated turn as the quiet, strong yet unsure leader of the three men is the most important performance, for he accomplishes the difficult task of holding the vast film together. DeNiro, in fact, still considers this film his best work.

All told, "The Deer Hunter" does not take a pro-war or anti-war stance despite the great emotional force it generates about its subject. The film's only aim is to prevent Vietnam from slipping out of our collective national memory, and it is in this goal that the film unquestionably succeeds. From the opening credits to the heartbreaking final scene, "The Deer Hunter" is truly an unforgettable experience.