Ranking: #82/111

Director: Michael Cimino (USA)

Genre: War Drama/Romance

Another genuine American masterpiece and culturally significant work of film art is Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Yes, it’s anti-war themes are important and powerful, but it’s the extraordinary level of detail throughout the film, especially in the mise-en-scène, which creates an incredibly textured depiction of the world Cimino had envisioned, from the lengthy wedding scenes back home to the tense, jarring “Russian roulette” sequences in Vietnam and the hustle and bustle of downtown Saigon. He was seeking to portray the effects of the Vietnam War on a group of working-class friends, who are steel-workers, in a Russian-America community in Pennsylvania. And he creates a detailed social portrait of their community. As in Dances with Wolves, the film is conceived and filmed with an abundance of emotional intelligence, matched by the all-round excellent acting, most notably from Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. There is an intriguing range of character studies at play.

This movie has a lot of emotional energy, visual intensity, thematic power and auditory resonance. The camera work is highly mobile and fluid. On top of all that, it’s a brilliantly atmospheric film. It fills the viewer’s mind with dynamic impressions, a range of emotions, from tenderness to tragedy and trauma, and food for thought. In short, The Deer Hunter provides an immensely powerful cinematic experience for the moviegoer.

There has been much discussion about the Russian Roulette encounters in the movie but I see this as symbolic of the random outcomes of war in which some die, some survive reasonably intact and still others remain wounded, whether physically, mentally, or both, for years after the war. It’s one of the most powerful and captivating symbols in the history of war movies.

Another cinematic symbol is the fire of the steel workers’ furnace in the opening sequence of the film – later, in the second half, it seems to be recalled in the flame-thrower fired by the central character, played by De Niro, in a battle scene. The spilled red wine on the wedding dress is another example of Cimino’s use of figurative cinematic language.

Finally, the symbolic meaning of the deer hunting itself becomes clear when Michael (Staff Sergeant Michael Vronsky) returns from the war and is now unable to pull the trigger to kill a deer. He has seen too much death and destruction in the war. We must make peace with Nature, the movie is suggesting. Later, he throws away his friend’s gun, chastising him for seeing the weapon as some sort of toy in a game. This positive transformation of his character following the war contrasts sharply with the deterioration in the character of his best friend, Nick (Corporal Nikanor Chevotarevich), who never returns home and never recovers from his nervous breakdown after the trauma of his captivity in Vietnam.

Michael’s mantra is “one shot is what it’s all about” and after the escape from their internment in Vietnam the meaning has been revealed: it means to be always ready, always prepared for the unexpected in life, while being able to take decisive action in response to each challenge and threat. Michael lives by his philosophy of “one shot” and survives. Nick doesn’t live by the philosophy of “one shot” and doesn’t not survive. This is a powerful, timeless message.

Equally powerful is the other theme of the movie: the importance of male camaraderie or friendship, whether in peace or war, beautifully represented by the great loyalty and love between Michael and Nick. This is a movie for the guys!

Michael’s other mysterious saying is “this is this” and it has a positively Aristotelian meaning, that everything has its ordained purpose. And, somehow, there’s a drumbeat of destiny softly beating throughout the film. If you don’t live by “one shot”, this powerful destiny can overwhelm you and take you down. The best we can do is to be vigilant, prepared and decisive in dealing with whatever comes our way. This is the true source of the heroism explored in the film, complemented by the need to show loyalty, love and companionship to deepen our humanity.

This is an epic war drama of the highest order, which succeeds, ever so imperceptibly, in deepening our awareness of the issues that were raised for America and for the world by the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The Deer Hunter deserves its hallowed place in film history.