#148) The Deer Hunter (1978)


#148) The Deer Hunter (1978)

OR “The Best Fucking Years of Our Fucking Lives”

Directed by Michael Cimino

Written by Deric Washburn. Story by Cimino & Washburn and Louis Garfinkle & Quinn K. Redeker (According to the WGA. Accounts vary.)

Class of 1996

The Plot: Lifelong friends Mike, Nick, and Steven (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) are sent to fight in the Vietnam War shortly after Steven’s wedding. Their experience fighting in the war and being tortured in a POW camp changes them forever. Mike’s return home is complicated by his inability to readjust to his previous life, his feelings for Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), and the mysterious whereabouts of Nick.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Cimino and the cast, calling the film an “astonishing epic” despite its “historical inaccuracy”.

But Does It Really?: Well that was thoroughly depressing. Seriously, I was in a major funk for several hours after watching “The Deer Hunter”. Don’t get me wrong, the film is well made and everyone is great, but what a difficult film to get through. Obviously any film about the Vietnam War is going to be tough to watch, but this one is especially distressing. Compared to “Apocalypse Now”, this film is less a cinematic experience and more an attempt at reportage. “The Deer Hunter” is being preserved here for a reason (if for nothing else, its cultural impact), but I don’t need to watch it again anytime soon.

Everybody Gets One: Details of Michael Cimino’s early life are still up for debate, but what we do know is that he started off as a screenwriter and commercial director. It was Clint Eastwood who gave Cimino his big break by buying his screenplay “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and allowing Cimino to direct the film.

Seriously, Oscars?: Universal knew they had a critical success and a potential Oscar winner in “The Deer Hunter”, but they weren’t sure it could score at the box office. The film was screened for legendary producer Allan Carr, who hatched a plan: give the film a limited release in December to qualify for the Oscars, launch a major awards campaign consisting of parties and word of mouth, and then send the film into wide release after the Oscars. The plan worked, “The Deer Hunter” won five Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken), and subsequently became one of the top box office earners of 1979. This practice of limited release for Oscar bait became the norm following “The Deer Hunter”, and still is.

Other notes

  • The film’s main theme “Cavatina” was originally composed for 1970’s “The Walking Stick”. The version heard throughout “The Deer Hunter” is performed by guitarist John Williams. (No, not that one. Or that one.)
  • How much do you want to bet De Niro did his own welding?
  • Walken manages to sneak in some singing and dancing, most notably to the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”. Do you think Nick knew Gyp DeCarlo?
  • Just a reminder that at one point Meryl Streep was a one-time Oscar loser, like Linda Blair or Carol Channing.
  • Young John Savage looks like Young Jon Voight.
  • Oh my god, this wedding scene goes on forever. I’m convinced it’s filmed in real-time.
  • This movie has some real issues with women. Look no further than the wine-drinking scene: Who spills it, thereby cursing everyone?
  • I respect John not being able to go to Vietnam because of his bad knees. At least it’s not bone spurs.
  • Welp, I have now seen all of Robert De Niro. I can never un-see that.
  • Coincidentally, John Wayne (who gets name-dropped in the hunting scene) presented Best Picture to “The Deer Hunter”. This is extra ironic considering he was staunchly pro-Vietnam War (hence “The Green Berets”).
  • This was one of the first films about the Vietnam War to film in Thailand. The fist Russian roulette scene was filmed on location on the River Kwai.
  • Watching a classic film in HD is always great, but a good transfer makes this film’s use of stock footage really stick out.
  • Oh no these Russian roulette scenes are really hard to watch.
  • Yeah, the Vietnamese do not come off well at all. Which is disappointing considering we Americans weren’t exactly the cavalry either.
  • Meryl Streep only has two films on the Registry: this and 1979’s “Manhattan”. Both are from early in her film career and feature her in supporting roles. For being one of the world’s great leading ladies, you’d think more of her work would be preserved.
  • I’m sure it was a simple practical effect, but I legitimately had to look up if John Savage lost his legs or not.
  • There’s a “Miss Saigon” joke somewhere in all of this, but I’m too emotionally exhausted from this film to think of one.
  • Christopher Walken earned the hell out of his Oscar.


  • Michael Cimino followed-up “The Deer Hunter” by writing and directing another epic: “Heaven’s Gate”. Running overlong and over budget, the film was a total flop and ended Cimino’s career. “Heaven’s Gate” was so bad it made some critics reevaluate their praise of “The Deer Hunter”.
  • This film (along with Oscar rival “Coming Home”) paved the way for Hollywood revisiting the Vietnam War for the next 20 years.
  • While “The Deer Hunter” is cited for popularizing Russian roulette (and related deaths), it also inspired Jan Scruggs to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. So some good came from all of this.
  • Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti made an unofficial sequel in 1980 with “The Last Hunter”. It’s the sequel no one asked for!
  • This is the movie that gave us Christopher Walken, and everything that comes with it.

Further Viewing: Sadly, “The Deer Hunter” was John Cazale’s fifth and final film. He died of lung cancer shortly after filming wrapped. His brief but impressive legacy is celebrated in the 2009 HBO Documentary “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale”.

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