Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter polarised audiences and critics when it was released, in 1978. The story about three young Americans going to Vietnam, and the destruction the experience wreaks on their lives afterwards, won five Oscars in 1979, including best picture and best director.
Supporters of the film say it’s a lyrical, elegiac analysis of the horrors of war, an accurate view of working-class life, and a metaphorical analysis of the Vietnam experience. Its detractors, a group that includes Vietnam veterans, say its depiction of the war is inaccurate to the point of fantasy, its style is overly melodramatic, its politics are extremely right-wing, and it’s an undisciplined and over-long piece of filmmaking.
The only thing that both sides agree on is the all-round strength of the performances, especially those of Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken. The story begins with a wedding in a factory town in Pennsylvania. (Note there are spoilers in this description.) The wedding is also a leaving party for three close friends – Mike (De Niro), Steven (Savage) and Nick (Walken) – who are heading off to fight in Vietnam. Nick makes Mike promise to see that he gets back home if anything goes wrong during their tour of duty.
In Vietnam, the three are captured and forced to play Russian roulette by their tormentors. They escape, but are separated. Mike makes it home to the US, but discovers that Nick is still in Saigon, making a living as a professional Russian roulette player. So Mike returns to Vietnam to make good on his promise.
The main point of controversy has always been the scene in which the three Americans are forced to play Russian roulette by their Viet Cong captors. This scene is central to the plot and theme of the film. But there are no records of this, or anything like it, having occurred during the Vietnam war, something which renders the film false at its core. The original script was about Russian roulette players in Las Vegas, not the Vietnam war. But supporters have argued that the deathly nature of this game of chance is an apt metaphor for the Vietnam experience.
The box-office success of The Deer Hunter opened the way for more films about the Vietnam war. Cimino went on to make the western Heaven’s Gate, the expensive box-office disaster that ruined United Artists studio and destroyed the director’s reputation.
The Deer Hunter will be screened on October 15 and 30 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, as part of Cine Fan programme.