The Deer Hunter is a 1978 war drama film about a trio of Russian Americans[1][2][3][4][5][6] steel worker friends and their infantry service in the Vietnam War. It is loosely inspired by the German novel Three Comrades (1937), by World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows the lives of a trio of German World War I veterans in 1970s Weimar Germany. Like the novel, The Deer Hunter meditates and explores the moral and mental consequences of war violence and politically-manipulated patriotism upon the meaning of friendship, honor, and family in a tightly-knit community and deals with controversial issues such as drug abuse, suicide, infidelity and mental illness. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale, George Dzundza, and Chuck Aspegren. The story takes place in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small working-class town on Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, and then in Vietnam, somewhere in woodland and in Ho Saigon, during the Vietnam War.

Plot[edit | edit source]

In Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small working-class domicile in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1960s, Russian-American steel workers Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken), with the support of their friends Stanley (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), are preparing for two rite of passage: marriage and military service.

The opening scenes set the character traits of the three main actors. Michael is the no-nonsense, serious but unassuming leader of the three, Steven the loving, near-groom, pecked at by his mother for not wearing a scarf with his tuxedo, and Nick as the quiet, introspective man who loves hunting because, "I like the know...the way the trees are...".

Michael tells Nick that if it wasn't for him, he'd hunt alone, because the other three guys are "assholes..I love 'em but they're assholes... without you Nicky, I hunt alone." Nick asks Mike if he's scared about joining the Army and going to Vietnam, and Michael shrugs it off. He states his intent to get a deer with just one bullet. "One bullet. The deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that, they don't listen." This motif plays heavily later in the movie.

Before the trio shipped out, Steven and his girlfriend (who is pregnant by another man but loved by Steven nonetheless) get married in an elaborate Russian Orthodox wedding. In the meantime, Michael struggles with his feelings for Nick's lovely but pensive girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) who has just moved out of her abusive father's house. At the wedding reception held at the local VFW, the guys all get drunk, dance, sing and have the usual good time, but then notice an Army Ranger in full dress uniform sitting at the end of the bar. Michael buys the soldier a drink and tries to strike up a conversation with him to find out what Vietnam is like, but the soldier ignores Michael. After Michael confronts him to explain that he, Steven and Nick are going to Vietnam, the Ranger raises his glass and says "fuck it" to everyone's shock and amazement. Obviously disturbed and under mental anguish, the Ranger again toasts them with "fuck it". After being restrained by the others from starting a fight with the Ranger, Michael goes back to the bar with the others and in a mocking jest to the Ranger, raises his glass and toasts him with "fuck it". The Ranger then glances over at Michael and grins smugly, knowing exactly what Michael and the others will be faced with. Later, during the wedding toast to Steven and Angela, a drop of blood-red wine unknowingly spills on her wedding gown, again foreshadowing the coming events. Near the end of the reception, Nick asks Linda to marry him, and she agrees. Later that night after a drunk and naked Michael runs through the streets of town, Nick chases him down, and in a solemn and prophetic end to the first act, begs Michael not to leave him "over there" if anything happens.

The next morning finds all the friends (minus Steven) going deer hunting. After a confrontation during a rest stop with Stanley (who has forgotten his boots) Nick remonstrates with him for denying Stanley his extra pair. Michael angrily fires a shot in to the air as an expression of his feelings. After the hunt, Michael gets his deer with one bullet, but the other guys are more interested in drinking and goofing off. They return home, and the second act ends with a poignant, dialog-less scene in the tavern with a Chopin nocturne played by John. The men look around at each other, knowing that life will never be the same after tomorrow's enlistment.

The film then jumps to a war-torn village. An unconscious Mike (a staff sergeant in the US Army Special Forces) wakes up to see a North Vietnamese Regular throw a stick grenade into a hiding place full of civilians. In revenge Mike burns the NVA with a flame thrower and then shoots him numerous times with an M16. Meanwhile a unit of UH-1 helicopters drops off several US troops, Nick and Steven among them. During the infantry combat the three (Michael, Steven, and Nick) unexpectedly find each other just before they are captured and held in a riverside prisoner of war camp along with other US Army and ARVN prisoners. For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. Hearing gunshots from a hut (where the game takes place) above the cage where three friends are closed, Steven, awaiting his turn, becomes increasingly agitated. Mike tries to soothe him. Nick, also agitated but in a less demonstrative manner, tries to attract Mike's attention but fails. All three friends are forced to play; Steven aims the gun above his head, grazing himself with the bullet and is punished by incarceration to an underwater cage, full of rats and the bodies of others who earlier faced the same fate. Michael and Nick orchestrate the killing of their captors and escape from the prison. Mike had earlier argued with Nick about whether Steven could be saved but after killing their captors Mike rescues Steven.

The three float downriver on a tree branch. An American helicopter accidentally finds them, but only Nick is able to climb aboard. The weakened Steven falls back into water and Mike plunges in the water to rescue him. Unluckily, Steven breaks his legs in the fall. Mike helps him to reach the river bank, and then carries him through the jungle to friendly lines. Nick is psychologically damaged, and finds himself recuperating in a military hospital in Saigon with no knowledge on the status of his friends. At night, he aimlessly stumbles through the red light district. At one point, he encounters Julién Grinda (Pierre Segui), a champagne-drinking friendly Frenchman outside a gambling den where men play Russian roulette for money. Grinda entices the reluctant Nick to participate, and leads him in to the den. Mike is present in the den, watching the game, but the two friends do not notice each other at first. When Mike does see Nick, he is unable to get his attention due to a large hullabaloo. As Nick sees the game again, bad memories arise in his mind. He violently breaks in into the game taking a gun from a table and shooting twice — first at a head of one of playing Vietnamese, then at his own head, twice luckily as twice encountering an empty chamber in a gun's cylinder. He runs out the den and escapes, being followed, caught and driven away by Grinda. Mike chases after Nick and Grinda. Nick looks back and sees Michael and throws a handful of money into the air; traffic stalls as people attempt to gather it. Mike cannot catch up with Nick and Grinda.

Back in the U.S., Mike returns home but maintains a low profile. He's embarrassed by the fuss made over him by Linda and his neighbors. Mike struggles with his feelings, as he thinks both Nick and Steven are dead or missing. He grows close to Linda but it's only because of the friend they both think they've lost. Mike goes hunting with Axel, John and Stanley one more time, and after tracking a beautiful deer across the woods, takes his "one shot" but pulls the rifle up just before he fires, missing purposely. He then sits on a rock escarpment and yells out, "OK?", which echoes back at him from the opposing rock faces leading down to the river, signifying his fight with his mental demons over losing Steven and Nick. He also berates Stanley for carrying around a small revolver and waving it around, at one point spinning the cylinder and pointing it at Stanley's head, "How ya feel now??.." He knows the horror of war and wants no part of it anymore.

However, he soon learns that Steven is not far away at a local Veterans' hospital. He has lost both his legs and is partially paralyzed. Mike goes to visit Steven but Steven does not want to come home. Steven reveals that someone in Saigon has been mailing large amounts of cash to him, and Mike is convinced that it's Nick. Mike brings Steven home, and then travels to Saigon just before its fall in 1975. With the reluctant help of the Frenchman Julién Grinda who has made a lot of money from the Russian-roulette playing American, he finds Nick in a crowded roulette club, but Nick appears to have no recollection of his friends or his home in Pennsylvania. Mike sees the needle tracks on his arm. He realizes that Nick thinks he (Michael) and Steven are dead, since he's the only one who made it back on the copter. Mike enters himself in a game of Russian roulette against Nick, attempting to persuade him to come home, but Nick's mind is gone. In the last moment, after Mike's attempts to remind him of their trips hunting together, he finally breaks through, and Nick recognizes Mike and smiles. Nick then tells Mike, "one shot," then raises the gun and pulls the trigger, killing himself instantly. Horrified, Michael tries to revive him but to no avail.

Back in America, there is a funeral for Nick, whom Michael brings home, good to his promise. The film ends with the whole cast at the wake, singing "God Bless America" and toasting in his honor.

Production[edit | edit source]

The film began with a spec screenplay called "The Man Who Came To Play", written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker. The script, while unrelated to the Vietnam War, nonetheless centered on a group of men who travel to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette. Producer Barry Spikings, who had purchased the script from Garfinkle–Redeker, pitched the story to director Michael Cimino, who then adapted the Russian Roulette idea into a story he was preparing about Pennsylvania steelworkers who go off to Vietnam. Cimino then worked for six weeks with Deric Washburn, before firing him (Cimino and Washburn had previously collaborated with Stephen Bochco on the screenplay for Silent Running).

While Garfinkle and Redeker had nothing to do with the writing or filming of The Deer Hunter, they ultimately shared a "Story By" writer's credit with Cimino and Washburn, since Cimino had adapted the Russian Roulette idea from "The Man Who Came To Play" into the film. Cimino would later claim to have written the entire screenplay himself, although a WGA arbitration awarded Washburn sole "Screenplay By" credit. All four writers received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this film.

Filming locations included:

Cast[edit | edit source]

File:DeerNiro2 sm.jpg

Mike (Robert De Niro) in Vietnam

Actor Role
Robert De Niro Michael "Mike" Vronsky
Christopher Walken Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich
John Savage Steven Pushkov
Meryl Streep Linda
John Cazale Stanley aka "Stosh"
George Dzundza John Welch
Chuck Aspegren Peter "Axel" Axelrod
Shirley Stoler Steven's mother
Rutanya Alda Angela Ludhjduravic-Pushkov
Pierre Segui Julién Grinda
Amy Wright Bridesmaid
Richard Kuss Linda's father
Joe Grifasi Bandleader
Paul D'Amato Sergeant

Theme music and songs[edit | edit source]

The theme music and songs play an important role in this movie.

  • The theme music is Stanley Myers' "Cavatina" (also known as 'She Was Beautiful'), played with guitar by John Williams. It is a piece of melancholic music, reminding of the quiet and languid life in Clairton.

Reception[edit | edit source]

Academy Awards record
1. Best Supporting Actor, Christopher Walken
2. Best Director, Michael Cimino
3. Best Editing, Peter Zinner
4. Best Picture, Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, John Peverall
5. Best Sound, Richard Portman, William L. McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, C. Darin Knight
Golden Globe Awards record
1. Best Director, Michael Cimino
BAFTA Awards record
1. Best Cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond
2. Best Editing, Peter Zinner

The Deer Hunter won Oscars in 1978 for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christopher Walken), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. In addition, it was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Meryl Streep), Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.

In 1996, The Deer Hunter was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

It is ranked # 53 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.[7]

The theme song of The Deer Hunter, "Cavatina", written by Stanley Myers and performed by classical guitarist John Williams is commonly known as "The Theme from The Deer Hunter".

During the Berlin International Film Festival in 1979 the Soviet delegation expressed its indignation with the film which, in their opinion, insulted the Vietnamese people in numerous scenes. The socialist states felt obliged to voice their solidarity with the “heroic people of Vietnam”. They protested against the screening of the film and insisted that it violated the statutes of the festival, since it in no way contributed to the “improvement of mutual understanding between the peoples of the world”.[8] The ensuing domino effect led to the walk-outs of the Cubans, East Germans, Bulgarians, Poles and Czechoslovakians, and two members of the jury resigned in sympathy.

The film holds a strong 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 43 reviews.

The Deer Hunter also ranks 467th in Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.[9]

American Film Institute recognition

DVD releases[edit | edit source]

The Deer Hunter has twice been released on DVD. The first 1998 issue by Universal, with no extra features and a non-anamorphic transfer, has since been discontinued. A second version, part of the "Legacy Series", was released as a two-disc set on September 6, 2005, with an anamorphic transfer of the film. The set features a cinematographer's commentary by Vilmos Zsigmond, interviews of the cast and crew, and deleted and extended scenes. The Region 2 version of The Deer Hunter, exclusive to the UK, features a commentary track from director Michael Cimino. The film was released on HD DVD in 2006.

Trivia[edit | edit source]

  • In an interview included on the bonus disc of the two-disc DVD release, director Michael Cimino states that Robert De Niro requested a live bullet in the revolver for the scene in which he subjects John Cazale's character to an impromptu game of Russian roulette, to heighten the intensity of the situation. Cazale agreed without protest.
  • To render himself ghostly, Christopher Walken exclusively ate rice, bananas, and water for the week before he filmed the third act.
  • During screenings of the short version of the film, director Cimino bribed the projectionist to interrupt it, in order to obtain better reviews of the long version.
  • The epigraph to E. M. Corder's tie-in novelisation of The Deer Hunter (1979) is from Ernest Hemingway:

    There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.

  • All scenes involving John Cazale, who had end-stage bone cancer during the shoot, had to be filmed first. Cazale died shortly after filming wrapped. Because of his illness, the studio initially wanted to get rid of Cazale, but his real-life fiancee, Meryl Streep, as well as Cimino, threatened to walk away if they did.

Videos[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

The Deer Hunter (novel)

Notes[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Preceded by
Annie Hall
Academy Award for Best Picture
Succeeded by
Kramer vs. Kramer

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