Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter
The industrial steel town of Clairton, PA and the community of Russian-Americans who reside there provide the primary backdrop for Michael Cimino’s existential war epic The Deer Hunter. The lives of the main characters are clearly repetitious. They work at the local steel mill, clock out, hit the bar, guzzle Rolling Rocks, act like nuts, then go home and do it all over again.
Two life changing events are about to occur when we begin the story: Steve Pushkov (John Savage) is getting married after which he and his two lifelong pals Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) and Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro) will be heading to Vietnam to fight in the war. Their friends/co-workers include the loudmouthed Stan (John Cazale), the introspective, affable John (George Dzundza) and the lumbering goof Axel (Chuck Aspegren).
Steve and his fiancee Angela’s wedding is performed in traditional Russian style. At the end of the ceremony, the newlyweds must drink wine out of a double cupped goblet. They can’t spill a drop or it’ll be bad luck. It looks like they’ve succeeded but at one point we see two drops of red hit Angela’s gown. It’s a very small but important detail.
The reception afterwards is a joyous celebration. The men hit on the girls, dance around like fools, drink too much, laugh really hard, fall down and repeat it, basically their usual antics. The wedding has affected Nick and Linda (Meryl Streep) who plan to marry when he gets back from his tour of duty. The exciting, rollicking party mood is later broken when Michael, Nick and Stan goto the bar to get more drinks. They see a lone Army officer walk in. The solemn man says nothing when Michael tries to talk to him. He seems like a ghost and there’s no reaction from him as he looks straight ahead. He only briefly stares at Michael and the others in a foreboding way. Something seems very uneasy about his presence, it’s as if hes an omen.
Michael happens to be an avid hunter and before he Nick and Steve goto Nam, he plans one last trip to the mountains to get a deer. Michael regards these excursions as an almost religious retreat and he resents having Stan and his lovable but unruly pals (who would rather drink and act like idiots) with him. The only person who really understands his point of view is Nick, but he’s also not the hunting type. He likes looking at the trees much more than killing animals.
At the end of the weekend, the guys drive back to town with a freshly poached deer on their car hood and stop at the local bar for one last round of drinks. John plays a melancholy song on the piano and it almost seems like a funeral durge as the guys all quietly listen. You can tell they know afterwards things will never be the same.
The story then cuts right to the middle of the wartorn countryside of Vietnam where we witness a truly horrific scene of a Viet-Cong soldier killing a group of villagers hiding out, then murdering a mother and her baby. Nearby Michael lays on the ground, slowly awaking from some kind of after effects of the battle. He quickly reaches for a nearby flamethrower and ignites the soldier like a human torch.
Out of the sky, Nick and Steve arrive in a helicopter, and the two discover Mike, who is clearly in shock. After another attack on the village the men are captured and brought to a riverside prison where the captors hold a deadly game of Russian Roulette. The friends must endure listening to others playing and the gun clicking again and again until it goes off. Steve has a complete nervous breakdown because of it and Mike tries to calm him.
One of the films most memorable sequences is where Michael and Nick prove to the prison guards they have the balls to play the death game. It is interesting that the Ukranian-American men from a riverside community in America travel to Vietnam, where they are forced to play Russian Roulette next to a river. Thus asking a question: is the repetition of their regular lives back home akin to the deadly repetitious game they are forced to play?
After escaping, the three friends float down river and are finally rescued but get split up. Nick stays in Saigon and is recruited into a strange professional Russian Roulette contest. Sometime later, Steve loses his legs and is sent to a veteran’s hospital back home.
Upon Michael’s initial return to Clairton he tries to get back into regular life but is very uncomfortable. He’s haunted by the war and can’t forget Nick and his promise that he wouldn’t leave him over there. Meanwhile, He and Linda (who misses Nick and needs someone) begin a relationship and make love one night.
After discovering Nick has been sending Steve money from Saigon during a visit, Michael travels back to the Southeast Asian city and finds Nick, who is practically a zombie from being drugged so much. He is still playing in the roulette tournaments winning massive amounts of cash. It’s a truly heartbreaking scene as Michael tries to reconnect with his best friend only to find him practically braindead.
With The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino created an utterly tragic, yet beautiful masterpiece about a group of Americans and their lost innocence due to the intrusive hell of war. Nick, who is a gentle soul, in the end is shattered by his experiences. You’ll see Christopher Walken’s smiling face come up first on the end credits paying tribute to his character.
Unlike many other films in its genre, The Deer Hunter never glorifies anything. All of the action shown is carried out because of a basic need to survive. It really is a total anti-war film.
The Deer Hunter went on to win 5 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Film Editing and Best Sound. John Wayne, himself a star of many of Hollywood’s most famous classic war movies presented one of the Oscars for the film. It is said he disliked it because of it’s honest, downbeat story. That only shows how out of touch he was. This wasn’t Patton in World War II, it was an entirely different era in which deceit and lies on America’s part played a major role.
Michael Cimino followed this film with his extravagant western epic Heavens Gate (1980). Sadly it was a massive failure at the box office (costing $44 million and only earning three) and partially contributed to the closing of its studio United Artists. Michael Cimino’s reputation was severly damaged as well and he only made a few more films (including an excellent crime film: Year of the Dragon) before dissapearing from the film industry. It is a terrible story because he truly was a unique artist that could’ve gone on to even better things had he been given the chance.
FURIOUS FILM TRIVIA
– During the helicopter stunt, the runners caught on the ropes and as the helicopter rose, it threatened to seriously injure John Savage and Robert De Niro. The actors gestured and yelled furiously to the crew in the helicopter to warn them. Footage of this is included in the film.
– Director Michael Cimino convinced Christopher Walken to spit in Michael’s face. When Walken actually did it, Robert De Niro was completely shocked, as evidenced by his reaction. In fact, De Niro was so furious about it he nearly left the set. Cimino later said of Walken, “He’s got courage!”
– Chuck Aspegren was not an actor when he was cast in the movie. He was the foreman at a steel works visited early in pre-production by Robert De Niro and Michael Cimino. They were so impressed with Aspergen that they decided to offer him the role. He was in fact the second person to be cast in the film, after De Niro himself.
– Robert De Niro, who prepared for his role by socializing with actual steelworkers, was introduced by his hosts and new friends as Bob, and no one recognized him.
– Robert De Niro and John Savage performed their own stunts in the fall into the river, filming the 30ft drop 15 times in two days.
– John Cazale was very weak when filming began, and for this reason, his scenes were filmed first. Michael Cimino knew from the start that Cazale was dying from cancer, but the studio did not. When they found out, they wanted to replace Cazale. When Meryl Streep learned of their intentions, she threatened to quit if they did. Cazale died shortly after filming was completed.
– During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors’ tension. This was Robert De Niro’s suggestion. It was checked, however, to make sure the bullet was not in the chamber before the trigger was pulled.
– The slapping in the Russian roulette sequences was 100% authentic. The actors grew very agitated by the constant slapping, which, naturally, added to the realism of the scenes.
– George Dzundza completely blows the toast line when the group arrives in the mountains the first time. His reaction is legitimate, and a few of the other actors can be seen laughing in response.
– Robert De Niro recently explained that the scene where Michael visits Steve in the hospital for the first time was the most emotional scene that he was ever involved with. He broke down in tears while discussing the scene in AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Robert De Niro.
– The scene where Savage is yelling, “Michael, there’s rats in here, Michael” as he is stuck in the river is actually Savage yelling at the director Michael Cimino because of his fear of rats which were infesting the river area. He was yelling for the director to pull him out of the water because of the rats… it looked real and they kept it in.