53 – The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael: A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.


Seen before?

R: No.

F: New to me too.



R: When we first decided to spend a couple of years of our lives watching the AFI’s top 100 films, this was one of the movies I was most looking forward to crossing off my “must see” list. And I’m relieved and delighted that it lives up to the hype. It’s a bona fide masterpiece.

F: Bold statement! You don’t think it’s racist in any way?

R: The Viet Cong are depicted as deranged lunatics, but I don’t think there are grounds for calling the film racist. What makes you say that?

F: Because all the Viet Cong are depicted that way and none of the Americans are. Even Robert De Niro, the master of deranged lunatics (see next week’s film…), is portrayed as being corrupted by his experience of war rather than genuinely being a cruel and insane person. That plus the fact there is no evidence of Russian roulette being played in this way. I am playing devil’s advocate though as I also enjoyed and greatly admired this film!

R: My worry with that line of thinking is that it suggests that writers should prioritise diversity in how groups are represented, over getting the plot as strong and tight as possible. I don’t expect every World War II film to feature a German concerned by the methods of the Nazis, and likewise I don’t expect every Vietnam War film to feature North Vietnamese troubled by the methods of the Viet Cong (nor indeed Americans troubled by the methods of the US army). You can perhaps criticise the film for not being historically accurate – there is scant evidence that Russian roulette was played as it is depicted here – but for me no justification for pushing the argument so far as to say the film is racist.

F: I think we could have this discussion all day so I’ll move on. It’s an important topic though and I can see why some people have a problem with parts of this film. The other thing which can often put people off is the length. At over three hours that’s a lot of wedding and war.

R: I know there’s a school of thought that says the start of the film is too slow, but I really don’t get it. You’ve got to look at it like a horror movie: you’ve got this grey industrial town, full of already quite damaged people, and the tension builds beautifully as we get to know the characters at the same time as appreciating things are only going to get worse for them. There’s a lot of symbolism and foreshadowing in the first act – the heat of the furnace forging steel, the stripping naked, the falling rocks on the deer hunt, the haunted green beret guy at the wedding – all of which are important but need a bit of space to stop them feeling too heavy-handed. It also makes the jolt into the – truly horrific – second act all the more effective when it comes.

F: I agree, but at the same time I’m not sure I’m in any great rush to see it again, and the length is one of the things that’s putting me off. But I don’t feel it doesn’t justify its length. What about the performances here? I found myself drawn to John Cazale in every scene he was in and it is sad to know this was his final film. And it nice to see Christopher Walken before he became just a go-to impression.

R: Yeah I’ve said before that I think Christopher Walken is a bit over-rated but seeing this makes me think perhaps I’ve just not seen his best films. All the performances are terrific, and the credability of the whole cast is crucial for carrying all the symbolic stuff in the film and stopping it feeling pretentious. Although I do wonder about the Russian roulette. Those scenes are incredibly effective cinema, but do you think they’re a bit too obvious as a metaphor for the senselessness of war?

F: I ‘get’ the Russian roulette scene where they’ve been captured – I don’t see that as a metaphor. But I’m not sure I get the people watching it for entertainment in Saigon. It doesn’t make any sense to me. 

R: I think you’ve got to see all of it as a metaphor. It’s saying something about the pervasiveness of war, and how it’s dehumanising effects spread beyond the field of battle. If it’s not a metaphor, then I think it’s hard to justify being so historically inaccurate!

F: It’s quite hard to sell a 3 hour metaphor though! 


Is it worthy of the top 100?

R: Yes, and it should probably be higher up than this too.

F: I started off thinking I’d give this a yes but actually I’m not so sure after talking about it. It’s probably a no from me right now.


Up next:
52 – Taxi Driver (1976)
54 – M*A*S*H (1970)

One thought on “53 – The Deer Hunter (1978)

  1. Such an impactful movie. It definitely feels like a movie from a different era. I love the way it takes its time, and how it develops the characters in America before dropping them in Vietnam. It’s about the psychological effect of war and conflict and I think it’s quite innocent of the suggestions of racism and so on. That’s not to say those portrayals aren’t offensive, but the film’s main purpose was obviously not to demonize the Viet Cong. It’s really a film about America, and it always felt like an anti-war film to me.

    Cimino was an interesting director. Heaven’s Gate is also worth watching but it’s even slower and messier than this (hence it got panned).


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