Michael Cimino’s picture is a most unconventional war film for a number of reasons. Shot in a documentary style, it focuses on a tight-knit group of steel mill workers in Pennsylvania. As we open, there is a wedding on the horizon. It is merely days before some of this group of friends go to Vietnam to fight. Some will not be going. The group of friends includes Michael (Robert DeNiro) the stoic, defacto leader of the group, Stan (John Cazale), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken), and John (George Dzundza). Michael, Nick, and Steven are going to basic training in a few days, then off to Vietnam, but Steven is marrying Linda (Meryl Streep) before they leave.
The wedding scene is famous in that it runs nearly the entire first hour. The first act revolves around these men, their brotherhood, and the looming discontent of the war and Steven leaving Linda to fight, all the while celebrating a marriage. Michael promises Linda he will watch over Steven, and it is clear that Michael and Linda share a bond that transcends even her romance with Steven. After the wedding and the subsequent party, the group of friends travels to the mountains just out of town for one last hunt before they split. When they arrive, a dynamic to the group is set in stone. Michael will not let Stan – the least responsible of the bunch – borrow his extra boots on principle. Michael is a stern man, a good friend but not one who will let Stan get away with irresponsibility no matter how sympathetic Nick and the others may get. From the hunt we transition directly into a firefight in the jungles of Vietnam.
The opening war scene finds Michael, Nick, and Steven rejoining each other after a fight. The three men are then captured and taken to a prison camp along a river, where the most infamous moments of the picture take place. The prison camp is led by a ragtag group of Vietnamese mercenaries who spend their days betting on games of Russian roulette between the prisoners. While the men are held captive below the hut in waist-deep water, two men are pulled up at a time and forced into a game of roulette. If they refuse, they are sent into a cage almost completely immersed in river water, full of river rats and god knows what else, left to die. Michael knows the game, knows what is inevitable, and takes on his leadership role. This is the moment in the film where Nick, who had been a peripheral figure up until now, becomes more pivotal to the story.
Michael and Nick are pitted against each other in the game. The scene is horrific, tense, mentally crippling for both men. Michael appears to be losing his sanity, requesting not one but two bullets in the gun. Nick is wilting under the psychological torture. But it turns out that Michael has a plan with the two bullets and after some agonizingly tense moments of the game Michael fires on the soldiers, eventually killing them all. He picks up Nick, rescues Steven from the pit in the river, and the three men make their escape. The result of the events leave Steven paralyzed and Nick emotionally scarred beyond repair. But what about the controversy and this most pivotal scene in the entire picture?
The Viet Cong are clearly demonized in this scene. The leader, a shrill screaming man who slaps and intimidates the captive soldiers is a wicked villain, and the torturous psychological nature of the sequence is one of the most unsettling moments in film. But it is all done for a reason. Regardless of the argument that these roulette games never went on in the prison camps in Vietnam, Cimino directs this scene for very cinematic reasons. The emotional and psychological damage these soldiers inflict on the three men will forever change their lives, and the extremity of the situation only amplifies the rest of the film. It may not be fact, but cinema is a world for fiction, not fact. The Deer Hunter was never intended to be a factual retelling of an event in the war. It was intended to show the damage such hell can do to three men with three very different psyches.
Once the men return, they are forever changed. Michael is the first to arrive back home in Pennsylvania, but he decides against showing up for his welcome home party. He stays in a motel instead the first night, opting to come home early in the morning once the welcoming committee has diminished. He comes home to Linda, the only one around at the time, and the two share some touching moments. Michael is overwhelmed with guilt and consumed by the killing, and does not feel deserving of the party. He is also worried about Nick, who has not return from overseas. Nobody knows where he is. Steven, on the other hand, has sustained injuries that have confined him to a wheelchair. He is ashamed and living in a VA hospital, and does not want Linda to see him that way.
The rest of the film involves Michael’s re-acclimation into his life at home – he can no longer hunt deer the way he once could – and his search for Nick. He finds Nick in an underground roulette circuit. Nick has grown cold, distant. The life that was once behind his eyes has died. He plays roulette and wins money to send to Steven, but of course this cannot go on forever. Once Michael finds Nick, it is perhaps too late to save him. Christopher Walken won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Nick, and Walken – always an actor who utilizes the uniqueness of his face and his reactions – becomes the emotional center of the story, and the most damaged of the three men.
The Deer Hunter is an excellent Vietnam picture, regardless of the controversy surrounding the elements. Despite the ire of Fonda, The Deer Hunter won Best Picture and Best Director for Cimino, who would never reach the heights of this film again. The Deer Hunter is about the levels of damage that war can inflict on different people. It never mattered when these men left Vietnam, when they ended their service, the war would forever stay with them, unless they made their own choices to end the suffering. The emotional weight and scope of the picture is its most powerful element, and without the controversial scenes at the heart, there would be no resonance in Cimino’s vision.