In his book Final Cut - the story of the infamous bomb Heaven's Gate and still the best book on Hollywood around - Steven Bach points out that Gate was so deeply reviled upon its release that the backlash extended even to Michael Cimino's previous film, The Deer Hunter. Critics stepped gingerly away from their initial high opinion of Hunter, as if Gate was so bad a movie that its taint made other movies bad too. It's rare to see film critics publicly change their opinion of any movie, but the revisionist history seemed especially odd in this case. Released in 1978 and featuring some stellar performances from Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, it won a truckload of Oscars in 1979 and marked the arrival of a major filmmaker in Cimino. Yes, Cimino botched his career with Heaven's Gate, but that couldn't be The Deer Hunter's fault, right?
Right. But all the same, the critics were right the second time around. Time has eroded the chief power The Deer Hunter had in 1978, which was to speak to America's anxiety about itself in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. Stripped of its '70s moment, it looks now like a film that strives for meaning but doesn't know what it wants to say. It gives us both small-town America and war-torn Vietnam, but neither convincingly. It confuses ambiguity with art, blood for drama. But before those flaws set in, it gives us the promise of a great movie about tested friendship. Set in the late '60s, the film opens on the day of a wedding in a Pennsylvania steel town, as the groom Steven (John Savage), Michael (De Niro), and Nick (Walken), all Russian-immigrant working-class stock, prepare to go to Vietnam for a tour of duty.
The men are blithely, naïvely patriotic, thinking that war will be just as manly and emboldening as the deer-hunting trips they take in the mountains. When a shell-shocked soldier comes into the bar, the men can't understand the concept of a person who isn't proud of serving his country, but they find out quick. Stranded and then captured in the heat of battle, Steven is severely injured, while both Michael and Nick find themselves forced into games of Russian roulette.
The men only barely escape their captors, but each suffers irreparable harm. Michael returns home, saddened and brutalized. Steven returns home legless. Nick remains in Vietnam and is harrowingly captivated by the Russian roulette games, sinking into a emotionless hole built around the click of an empty chamber. The film's climactic moment is the final meeting of Nick and Michael, which still stands as some of the best acting either De Niro and Walken have done.
One of the initial criticisms heaved at The Deer Hunter was that such Russian roulette games never happened in Vietnam, at least not at the level Cimino suggests. But the problem isn't so much with the film's accuracy as it is with its failure to look for meaning in the sad, somber mess it gives us. There are solid performances from much of the cast (which also includes Meryl Streep and John Cazale, who died shortly after filming), but the film itself is an empty vessel. Cimino can't decide whether he's cynical about Vietnam or cynical about America. Not a terribly skilled director, he sometimes gives us the Pennsylvania characters tenderly, and other times he seems to express deep contempt for their blinkered, homespun ways.
Perhaps such an open-ended approach was seductive in the late '70s, when there was an eagerness to come to terms with Vietnam but a weariness when it came to blunt political messages. Now The Deer Hunter just looks noncommittal, a fatal flaw that comes across most painfully in its final scene. A miasmic, ill-lit gathering in Pennsylvania, (almost) everyone re-unites for a limply-sung "God Bless America" and a claustrophobic but empty mood. There's a hint that Cimino's telling us something about the resilience of the American character, that no matter what we suffer through we can still create something blessed and beautiful. But the setting is so dreary, and Cimino's love for blood and death is so deep, that after three hours it's hard to believe he'd be a sucker for such a Norman Rockwell sentiment. Instead, he gave us a hollow movie that only play-acted at meaning; the sucker was us.
The new Legacy Series DVD includes commentary from the cinematographer and a film critic, plus deleted scenes (which occupy an entire second disc).