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The Deer Hunter


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Wow! What a great film. Maybe the amount of time for the wedding and reception was a bit long (which helped move it past the 3 hr mark), but overall it carries such power. The "God Bless America" at the end has such a different spirit than the triumphalist singing at ball parks these days. The two scenes with DeNiro and Walken doing Russian Roulette (and especially the difference in DeNiro in those scenes) are outstanding.

I note that this film and Coming Home (also post Vietnam drama) dominated the Academy Awards that year, no doubt reflecting America's attempt to come to terms with that war. But overall, there is no contest. This could well be the best post war film ever.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Wow! What a great film. Maybe the amount of time for the wedding and reception was a bit long (which helped move it past the 3 hr mark), but overall it carries such power. The "God Bless America" at the end has such a different spirit than the triumphalist singing at ball parks these days. The two scenes with DeNiro and Walken doing Russian Roulette (and especially the difference in DeNiro in those scenes) are outstanding.

I note that this film and Coming Home (also post Vietnam drama) dominated the Academy Awards that year, no doubt reflecting America's attempt to come to terms with that war. But overall, there is no contest. This could well be the best post war film ever.

The Deer Hunter might be my favorite film. Period. It's so complex, and so beautifully acted. But boy is it ever a lousy date movie. I learned that the hard way when it first came out.

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The Deer Hunter might be my favorite film. Period. It's so complex, and so beautifully acted. But boy is it ever a lousy date movie. I learned that the hard way when it first came out.

I don't know. It has a wedding. (Lots of a wedding -- and an Orthodox wedding at that) Don't girls go for wedding movies?

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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The Deer Hunter might be my favorite film. Period. It's so complex, and so beautifully acted. But boy is it ever a lousy date movie. I learned that the hard way when it first came out.

I don't know. It has a wedding. (Lots of a wedding -- and an Orthodox wedding at that) Don't girls go for wedding movies?

Sure, but the bullets in the brain ... not so much.

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  • 4 months later...

Just watched this for the first time. Loved it.

Hadn't realized so much of it would be devoted to a Russian Orthodox wedding. My wife and I got married in a Russian Orthodox church, and there were only a few details in the film that felt "fake" to me -- like the bit where the priest asks the bride and groom some questions, which I assume is a concession to western audiences' assumptions about how wedding ceremonies are done (my wife and I don't recall being asked ANYthing). But the film did keep the candles, the crowns (my wife and I had wreaths instead), etc., etc.

Also hadn't realized that the characters were all of Russian extraction. Was this a deliberately ironic nod to the fact that the Viet Cong, being Communist, were, at least broadly speaking, on the side of the "Russkies" during the Cold War? ("You think the 'other side' is the enemy, but people from the 'other side' have come to this country and become fully integrated Americans!" That sort of thing. And note the scene where Walken's character gets ticked off by the doctor's curiosity over the ethnic origin of his name. "Is that Russian?" "It's American!") Or was the Russianness of the characters a subtle reference to the recurring theme of Russian roulette? Or was it perhaps a bit of both?

Re: the Russian and/or Orthodox thing, I neglected to pay attention to which specific years this story is set -- though the climax does coincide with... hmmm... I'm not sure if those final events seen on the news would have taken place in 1973 or in 1975. (The Americans didn't pull out of Vietnam all at once, right?) At any rate, the Russian Orthodox Church granted autocephaly (self-government, slightly better than autonomy) to its North American churches in 1970, only a year or two or three at most before this story begins; and these churches continued within an entity known as the Orthodox Church in America. Thus, the Russian Orthodox church in which I got married -- and presumably the Russian Orthodox church which these characters attend -- is Russian in ethnicity only, without any hierarchical ties to the Russian state church (which, of course, was regularly dogged at that time by allegations that it was too chummy with the Soviets). So it is interesting that this film, much of which is centred around a Russian Orthodox church in America and on the parishioners who proudly assert their Americanness, would be set right around the time that they were coming into their own, so to speak, and becoming a truly American church rather than a "mission" of some foreign church. I wonder if that was a coincidence. At any rate, it was still a rather new development when the film came out in 1978, so it might have been on the filmmakers' minds; it wouldn't have been the sort of thing you would have had to read about in a history book or something.

The IMDb says John Cazale died shortly after filming was completed -- and apparently he was engaged to co-star Meryl Streep at the time. What a sad but proud distinction, to have co-starred in only five films, ALL of which were nominated for Best Picture (and three of them won). (The other two winners were the two Godfather films, in which Cazale played Fredo. The two non-winning nominees were The Conversation -- which lost to The Godfather Part II! -- and Dog Day Afternoon.)

More thoughts later, if any occur to me.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 6 years later...

Since this is under discussion for our memory films list, here is what I wrote at Letterboxd a few months back.  I think I'm going to be in a minority here.
 

As it is, The Deer Hunter is a very good movie, which is a pity, because with some editing it could have been a great one. The biggest problem is that it is over long with a couple extraneous subplots which do nothing to develop the story or the characters. The first hour of the film portrays a wedding in a Russian community in rural Pennsylvania, after which the groom Steve (John Savage) goes on his last deer hunt with his two friends Mike and Nick (Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken) before all three of them leave for Vietnam. After a quiet evening in a local bar, the film cuts directly to a combat scene in Vietnam, which starkly contrasts the carefree contentment of life in Pennsylvania.

The cut to Vietnam brings up the second major flaw, which is the infamous Russian roulette scene. Almost immediately after the opening combat shot of Vietnam, the three friends are captured by the Vietcong and forced to play Russian roulette against other prisoners as their captors place bets on the outcome. The scene is filmed primarily for its shock value, and it noticeably stands out from the rest of the film, because it is the only scene of sensationalism in a film marked by slow quiet pacing with long takes of beautiful nature shots. To highlight the contrast, the Russian roulette scene is filmed in closeups whereas the camera is a distant observer for most of the film. The scene does cast a pallor over the rest of the film, haunting not only the soldiers forced to partake of the game, but their loved ones back in America as well. It succeeds in that regard, but a "less is more" approach could have made the scene just as powerful without the distractions.

The third hour is when the film really comes together, recalling earlier events now seen through the eyes of characters sobered by the war. I very much appreciated the film's depiction of war affecting everyone, not only those who were in the combat zone. And I found the sentimental ending, which has often been criticized, to be a completely believable and touching conclusion, which highlights the resilient human spirit even in the midst of tragedy.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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Thanks to Evan for pointing me to this existing thread on The Deer Hunter. I've deleted the duplicate thread I began last night.

 

Evan has pointed me to some writing on RogerEbert.com about the film, and I plan to digest that as I think about the film. My initial reaction was skepticism about the lengthy prologue, but I'm willing to rethink that in light of all that's been written on that portion of the movie -- writing I'm only just starting to explore. As much as I'd heard about the prologue, I don't remember ever hearing that the war sequences last all of, oh, 20 minutes (I didn't set my watch, but I had a general idea of when those sequences began and ended and remember being surprised that they comprised so little of the film's overall running time, although I may be underestimating a bit with "20 minutes"), and that the rest of the film was about the effects of that experience on the men after they return home.

 

There's a lot to chew on here. Some great performances. But -- and I'll just go out on a limb and admit this -- my first reaction when the film ended was to think, "It's not as good as Heaven's Gate."

 

I doubt that opinion is shared even by Gate defenders!

 

My experience with that film can be read here.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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