Number 165 on the top 1000 films of all time is Michael Cimino's 1978 epic Vietnam war film 'the Deer Hunter.'
Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are three steel workers and happy go-lucky young men who enlist to fight in Vietnam. They are caught by the Viet Cong and are subjected to such brutal torture that each man's life changes forever. Meryl Streep and John Cazale co-star in what very easily could have been just another film about Vietnam.
This film takes a while to get going but when it does, you're in for a hell of a ride. At three hours long, I would argue the film is a little bloated with the first hour seeming to last forever. I found myself constantly wondering when we're going to get to Vietnam. Instead, I was subjected to the three leads and their friends drinking in a bar, an extended marriage scene and, of course, the eponymous deer-hunting scene. Although having said that, the bar scene where the group of friends belt out Frankie Valli's 'Can't Take my Eyes off you,' was a sight to behold. The absolute perfect song for that scene. Reportedly, Michael Cimino had the actors sing along to the actual song rather than a backing track, which is standard film practice. Cimino argued this would increase the realism of the scene which it absolutely did.
The first hour is, of course, the film's set-up: showcasing the normal life of our heroes before they embark on their journey. For us to understand how Vietnam has changed them, we have to understand how they were before, especially Nicky who suffers the worse trauma of the three, but more on that later. Out of all the men, he is one of the first to start dancing and singing to Franki Valli, demonstrating how he is the most jovial and outgoing of the three. Steven is a little shy whereas Michael is already a little hardened. Out of the three he goes through the most profound transformation.
Where this film really kicks into gear is in the controversial Russian Roulette scene, which was a masterpiece of dramatic tension. Prisoner to the Viet Cong, our three heroes are forced to play Russian Roulette, first against the other prisoners and then each other. Steven quickly falls to pieces and is consigned to a watery pit full of rats, leaving behind Michael and Nick as last men standing. De Niro and Walken are both brilliant here - Walken won Best Supporting Actor for his role, which was well-deserved. His fear was palpable.
Michael ups the stakes by adding three bullets into the revolver instead of just one, but this is all part of his plan to escape. And this is when all hell breaks loose. In the film's most thrilling scene, Michael turns the gun on his captors, kills the leader, Nicky grabs another gun and the pair shoot their way to safety. They rescue Steven, despite Michael initially wanting to leave him behind, believing him to only be a liability, and eventually reach safety. But what made this scene so brilliant was how there was no background music. The silence brought the tension to the forefront.
Although all three men escape, they don't all make it home. Michael and Steven return to America where we see how badly the war has changed them. In his escape from Vietnam, Steven is badly hurt and we next see him in rehabilitation after having lost his legs and one arm. Steven refuses to come home as he no longer feels that he fits in. As for Michael, he is a completely broken man. He spurns his welcome home celebrations and has difficulty reconnecting to his old friends.
He goes deer-hunting again, but is unable to shoot a deer he had been tracking. Stan (John Cazale) snaps after being mocked once too often by Axle (Chuck Aspergen) and threatens to shoot him, but Michael snatches the revolver, removes all but one bullet, holds it to Stan's head and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. The camaraderie and brotherhood that was present in the first film is now firmly in the past.
And where is Nicky? Steven reveals that somebody has been sending him money. Michael suspects this is Nicky who went AWOL and never returned home from Vietnam. He returns there to find him which is when we see the film's most heartbreaking scene. Nicky, now addicted to heroin, spends his days in a gambling den, playing Russian Roulette and sending his winnings home to Steven. He is now an empty shell of a man - no longer, the young man singing along to Frankie Valli. His eyes are dead and his skin is like chalk.
Having made him a promise to not leave him behind, Michael desperately tries to convince Nicky to come home, but quickly realises that he is too far gone. Nicky is a dead a man walking and Walken is magnificent. His transformation is the most tragic as he is the only character who has truly transformed, whereas even before Vietnam, Michael is already a bit of a hard nut and Steven is already sensitive which is only exacerbated by their trauma, Nicky has pulled a full 180 from a happy, go-lucky, jovial steel-worker to a hollow man.
Just when it seems that Michael has reached Nicky, he holds the gun to his head and sends the bullet into his skull. Once again the lack of background music highlights Michael's breaking heart, as well as the audience's.
The Deer Hunter was Michael Cimino's breakthrough as a director and deservedly so, although it takes a while to get going, but when it does it is well worth the watch with some Oscar-worthy performances especially from De Niro and Walken. It's just a shame that Cimino was never able to repeat his early success.