The Best Picture Winners: The Deer Hunter (1978)

| December 18, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Hollywood did not begin to deal with the Vietnam War on film until it was over.  When the war officially came to a close on April 30, 1975 no one had any interest in making films about this war because the common sense thinking (understandably) was that no one would want to see one.  Surprisingly, when Hollywood studios began to deal with the war the output was sober, thoughtful and sometimes even poetic.  My favorites from ’78 were Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, about the domestic readjustment of a wounded veteran, and Ted Post’s forgotten Go Tell the Spartans, an anti-war film that takes pace at the beginning of the war.

Yet, the Academy’s choice was the least of the three, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, a sobering but somewhat uneven examination of the lives of three Pittsburgh steel workers who head off eagerly to Vietnam and are forever damaged by their experience.  The three act structure is cleanly drawn.  The best of the three is the first act in which we get caught up in the pre-war lives of Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Supporting Actor winner Christopher Walken), Stevie (John Savage) and Stan (John Cazale), who opts out of enlisting.  The script soaks us in the housekeeping details of their lives, centering mainly on the preparations for Stevie’s wedding and the guy’s zeal over joining the Army.

The second act doesn’t work as well.  It drops us into the middle of their experiences in Vietnam so abruptly that there is a feeling that we’ve missed something.  Almost immediately the guys are captured by the Viet Cong and placed in a POW camp where they are forced to play Russian roulette.  Watching the film again the other night I began asking myself, where are the scenes leading up to this?  How did they get captured?  How long have they been in Vietnam by this point?  Yes, the scene is powerful and so are the scenes of their rescue but, truth be told, I began to wonder if I had a bad print and something had been cut.

The third act works just fine as the guys return home to the difficult adjustment period and the difficulty of dealing with a life-goes-on day-to-day pattern while still having their experiences rattling around in their minds.  Yet, something is undercut in the film’s third act by the fact that I never got a foothold in their experiences overseas.

The movie was universally lauded for its honesty, its brutality and its frankness.  I can’t disagree.  It is exceedingly well made as a character study and as a study on how this particular war had an effect on those who had been eager to fight it.  But the flaw in the middle act bothered me, and so too did the cold and one-dimensional view of the Vietnamese.  The men are seen as either soulless and blood-thirsty while the women are seen as prostitutes – the exception is a woman who is burned alive.  How challenging would it have been if the film dared to see them as human beings?  How challenging would it have been if Mike’s disillusion came from how the natives were being treated?  Would it have asked the audience to do more heavy lifting if the power of the film came from the human toll rather than from the game of Russian roulette?  Think of the questions the film could have raised.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.