The Greatest films of all time: 72.The Deer Hunter (1978) (USA)


“The Deer Hunter”, is a film that after being seen once, it will probably imprint on the mind, a nightmare forever with possible flashbacks to some. The film is the story of three Russian American steel workers from the small town of Clairton in Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh whose enrollment in the Vietnam war changed their lives and the lives of their whole small but close community forever. This anti-war film has had one of the highest impact on people’s and soldiers’ minds in detesting any war, particularly Vietnam’s that finally ended by the persuasion of American people as much as by the Vietnamese resistance.

The film’s greatness starts with a perfect script co-written and directed by Michael Cimino who was basically a new screen writer, started a few years before, but never achieved well before and after this film that was his major feature debut as a filmmaker. The film stars Robert De Niro as Michael (Mike), Christopher Walken as Nick, John Savage as Steven, John Cazale as Stan (Stosh), Meryl Streep as Linda, Nick’s girlfriend and others. The film is also significant for being the last role played by John Cazale who died shortly after this film from lung cancer. This great actor in six short years of his acting career in five great films received Academy Award nominations for all, The Godfather, The conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter.

A Nightmarish Anti-War Film:

The film opens with a real perspective scene of the small industrial town of Clairton, that is an example of many of such towns all across the United State. In this small poor community, with houses looking very basic and shack like, the residents mostly the steel factory workers after work every day gather at the local pub owns by their friend, John (George Dzunda) that is a reminder of the film “How Green was my Valley”. In fact the town that is located in a valley, despite the smoke of the factory and the hardship of the residents’ lives is green in their hearts, before the casualties of the war wither them. The Russian American residents of this small community are very close to each other like the way they were back in their original Russian village or town where they immigrated from.

The film after the introduction, starts with the wedding preparation of Steven who’s pulled out of the local bar after work, by her traditional mother with slabs to get ready for his wedding that’s on the same day. Within a Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony and party, with a large banner on the wall reading “serving God and the country with pride”, everyone is trying to forget momentarily the departure of three of them, Mike, Nick and Steven for the war in Vietnam in the next couple of days. A soldier walks into the wedding and sits at the bar and when Mike tells him that he and two of his friends are departing for Vietnam, he raises his drink and says “fuck it”. When Mike asks him how’s out there, he again responds “fuck it” with another shot of drink. In the wedding, Nick asks Linda to marry him that she agrees.

At the end of the wedding party, drunk Mike gets naked and runs after the bride and groom’s car who are leaving, outside in the cold. Nick also drunk runs after him and asks him to promise if anything happens to him in Vietnam, not to leave him behind. All drunk until the dawn and still drinking, as another farewell leave for a final deer hunting, their usual pastime. Back from hunting at night to John’s bar when he plays Chopin’s Nocturne at the piano without any words passing on, the sign of farewell is well seen in all their faces.

The next scene in Vietnam, a US army helicopter is attacking a village and kills the civilians. Mike in a semi-conscious and hysterical state observing a soldier shooting a woman with a baby in her arms, shocked and devastated, he kills the soldier with a flamethrower. Soon the American helicopters drop more forces, among them Nick and Steven, who all join back together. Soon they were all wounded and captured as the prisoners of the war, thrown into a water pit under a room where the Vietnamese soldiers play the Russian roulette game with their prisoners.

In the first game, Stephen forced to go against Mike, but he shoots while shaking to the ceiling and the bullet just scratches his head. Then Mike and Nick are dropped in the pit of water where they are attacked by the rats. In the next game, Mike who has to play against Nick, suggests playing with three bullets instead of one, that after the first that skips, he turns the pistol towards the Vietnamese and kills them all. Mike rescues Steven as well and the three friends float downriver on a log and soon an American helicopter comes to their rescue, but only Nick could climb aboard. Injured and weak Steven cannot swim and goes down in the water, but Mike saves and carries him to the riverbank when he notices that his leg is broken. Mike carries Steven through the jungle until they reach the road where he puts him on a south Vietnamese military truck and asks to take him with them.

Nick after recuperating in a military hospital while suffering from some PTSD and amnesia, he wonders around the city at night. The whole city of Saigon in the South Vietnam is like a big brothel with American soldiers are entertained by Vietnamese girls as prostitutes for survival. When Nick arrives into a bar and one of the girls inside, takes him upstairs to her room, it disgusts Nick seeing her little baby is sitting on the bed watching them. He leaves the bar and continues with his wandering about when he encounters a Frenchman, Julien outside an underground place where the sounds of shootings are heard. Julien encourages Nick to play Russian Roulette for a lot of cash money that Nick first disagrees. Nick is finally tempted to enter the bar and when inside, he grabs the pistol from one of the players and attempts at shooting to his head, that skips the bullet. Then he runs off in the car of Julien, wehn Mike who was also at the game, calls and runs after him, but Nick ignores him and disappears.

Mike returns home in a taxi, but asks the driver not to stop at the Linda’s place where all his friends have thrown a surprise welcome home party for him. He sleeps in a motel at night avoiding to face his friends, and in the morning he goes to see Linda who’s surprised and excited to see him. The next day when Mike goes to see his friends by the steel factory then to John’s bar, he’s told that Steven is back but nobody knows where he is and his wife, Amy who’s depressed and mute doesn’t tell of his whereabouts. Mike goes to Amy’s house and finally she writes him where Steven is. Mike first goes to have a dinner at Linda’s place per her invitation. After dinner and tired, he lies down on bed with clothes on, while Linda expected to sleep with him, showered with towels around her lies beside him.

The next day Mike goes out again deer hunting with his friends for a revival memory of the past, but when he spots a deer standing motionless looking into his eyes, he refrains from shooting, perhaps for having a flashback of Vietnam in his mind. At the lodge up in the mountain, at night Stan who’s carelessly playing with his revolver makes Mike angry who takes it from him, pulls out the bullets except one and pointing it at him shouting at him if he wants to play game. Then he shoots to the ceiling that scares off everyone, and throws the revolver out to the field.


The following night Linda sleeps with Mike in her place, but before the dawn Mike leaves and calls Steve from a phone booth outside. Steve on the other side in a veteran hospital, his legs amputated and sitting in a wheelchair answers the phone. In the morning Mike goes visiting Steve, not knowing his condition, keeps his cool and keeps a happy dialogue as usual. Steve opens his bedside drawer in the hospital and shows Mike, the drawer full of $100 cash that he keeps receiving from Saigon not knowing the sender. Mike soon realizes that’s Nick that surprises Steve who doesn’t know he is still alive.

Mike goes back to Saigon to rescue Nick who’s still playing Russian roulette and is not willing to return back home as he’s still in his semi-conscious post-traumatic state. When Mike arrives in Saigon, it’s the end of the war and the whole city are in terror of leaving. Mike goes to Julien, the Frenchman and asks to take him to Nick. Julien first refuses and tells Mike that’s very dangerous now, but when Mike offers him lots of cash and forces him, they go to see Nick. They have to take a boat ride on a river to get into a hidden place where the game is played at the time.

When arrived at the place, Mike had to pay $1000 cash for playing and $500 tip to the bouncer to enter. Two Vietnamese players are at the table playing, one missing his shot but the other shoots himself deadly in the head. Mike spots Nick who’s about to go on playing that he stops and begging him to leave and go back home with him. He tells that he loves him, but Nick emotionless and cold saying no, pushes him away and goes on to the table to start his game. At this time Mike decides impulsively to play against him with the hope to have him change his mind. Nick skips the bullet the first time, so does Mike. Nick, tears rolling in his eyes and still quiet and cold looking, the second time does no miss and shoots himself in the head and dies in Mike’s arm shocked in grief and crying.

While the film could end at this point, it does not and takes the audience with Mike back home to Nick’s funeral. After the funeral all including Steven on wheelchair, with his wife get together like always, but this time in the grief of the loss of one of them, Nick. Everyone is quiet until one starts singing the ironical anthem of “God bless America” that the rest follow. The film ends with flashbacks photos of the bunch of their good moments of the past when their lives despite their hardships were merry and in peace, before being shattered by the monster of war forever.

While there have been many anti-war films before and after this film, “The Deer Hunter” is a special and nightmarish one. The film is not a depiction or critic of the casualties of war directly, but one of its aftermath among many. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among the survival veterans of the wars are very well known, specially among those who fought in Vietnam, mostly for atrocities that the American soldiers had to commit, specially against Vietnamese civilians. Nick has been perhaps one of the few committed suicide through the ruthless and merciless game of Russian roulette. But there have been many American soldiers who have killed themselves not only out of depression, but as a result of repeated flashbacks of theirs and their comrades’ sufferings and more so from their crimes against the civilians, massacring villages out of insanity that befallen on them by the monster of war.

Nick has not been also an example of insanity caused by the war. The insanity of the war that is perhaps not very well recognized like PTSD, could be in many different forms, one like Nick dipping into a semi-conscious state of mind or in a better word being a dead man walking. The other form of this insanity by the war on the soldiers has been shown elegantly by Francis Ford Coppola in his masterpiece “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, when he finally paid his tribute and commitment to an anti-war cause.  


In closing remarks “The Deer Hunter” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “The Deer Hunter” is original in its depiction of an aftermath facet of the war, i.e. the insanity of soldiers mixed with shock and guilt to commit suicide in a semi-conscious state of mind. Playing the Russian roulette to kill oneself as a semi-conscious protest against the futility of war, is so nightmarish that will perhaps remain on many minds after watching this film, a rarity on the screen.  
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Deer Hunter” is first in its brilliant and shocking script by Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino who directed the film as well. The great direction of the film, its music score and the songs, specially Frankie Valli’s “Can’t take my eyes off you”, the Russian orthodox songs, music and wedding, the sound design of Dolby noise reduction system of Stanley Myers are all special technicality of the film. The cinematography of the Hungarian American, Vilmos Zsigmond who changed the American films in 1970’s with his works from “Deliverance” to “The Close Encounters of the third kind” and to this film “The Deer Hunter”. Lastly and not the least, the great performances of all the actors from Robert De Niro who was on his top form in 70’s to Meryl Streep’s debut feature that raised her to the stardom from this film and finally John Cazale in his last role, gone but not forgotten.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “The Deer Hunter” could be seen first and utmost of all in its imprint on everyone’s mind like a nightmarish flashback of what a war could do to the human being. The film also opened the path of depiction of the aftermath of war casualties and not only the direct war impacts. A year after this film, we witness another aftermath insanity caused by the war in the great film of “Apocalypse Now” by Francis Ford Coppola.
  4. Survival: “The Deer Hunter” has survived well to this very day in its imprint on the viewers mind of its ruthless and merciless Russian Roulette as a killer consequence of the war, in its impact, still eye-opening, shocking effect.

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