I grew up in an insular neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. It was a neighborhood that, despite being adjacent to the urban sprawl, was not unlike the unnamed industrial town in 'The Deer Hunter,' a community that would be decimated by the Vietnam war.
Though I was born at the very end of the conflict, I vividly remember the stories I was told as a child by elder family and friends who had lost loved ones in Vietnam. I don't know how many of the details I was spared because of my age, but those stories and the sadness of those who told them still haunt me. Perhaps as a result of these memories, I'm often struck by how movies tend to focus much more on the most vicious carnage meted out by those on the frontlines, rather those back home who have to bury the dead. Vietnam obviously transformed the soldiers who fought it, but it also had an profound effect on those they left behind back home.
'The Deer Hunter' is the rare war film to focus more on that emotional devastation instead of the visceral gruel. Complex, extraordinarily acted and almost entirely without sentiment, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five, including Best Director (for Michael Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken) and Best Picture. But unlike many other epics smothered by awards but ultimately rendered irrelevant as the years pass on, 'The Deer Hunter' remains as potent and profound as it was when it blind-sided audiences and critics alike back in 1978. It is also a film you only have to see once, because you won't forget it once you do.
Cimino structures his 182-minute film in three strict acts. Each works as a self-contained movement, but together they create an incredibly powerful, cohesive piece of music. The first act seems to meander, but the lulls are deceptive. We meet six friends on the eve of a wedding. Michael (Robert De Niro) is the leader; Nick (Christopher Walken) his faithful best friend; and Steven (John Savage), who is about to marry his high school sweetheart Angela (Rutanya Alda). All three have enlisted, and will be leaving for Vietnam only a day after the honeymoon. Declining to serve are the volatile Stanley (the late John Cazale), and carefree party boys John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), whose cheerful revelry seems to mask a growing sense of guilt over staying behind. And had it been a normal year, Michael and Nick would probably have been fighting over Linda (Meryl Streep), who wants to marry Nick but, as it soon becomes quite clear, really loves Michael.
All of these details are never explained with bad exposition, nor dramatized as soap opera. They simply unfold over the course of the men's last two days together, as they dance the night away, engage in drunken frat-boy shenanigans, and go on one last of their deer hunts in the mountains. With these scenes alone, which are so seemingly innocuous, Cimino earned his Oscar. He so perfectly modulates the characters and develops their inter-relationships that the reality created is no longer a two-dimensional image on the screen, but an experience happening to us. So much so that one simple, unpretentious final cut to Vietnam feels like a detonation.
The second act begins appropriately enough with an explosion. The film's combat scenes are famous, largely for Cimino's use of Russian Roulette as a metaphor for the many horrors inflicted in Vietnam. These scenes are simply harrowing, and it is not with a hip smirk that I say I really never want to see them again. Yet it is not violence, or gore, that unsettles -- in fact, the film is rather subtle in this regard (at least compared to such graphic horror shows as 'Saving Private Ryan'). Instead, it is the intensity that disturbs. We are so under the skin with these characters we want to turn away from the screen both to spare them their fates, and us the torture of watching them unfold. The less said about what happens next, the better. Simply put, things won't necessarily turn out as you may expect them to -- 'The Deer Hunter' is never a predictable war film.
The film's final act is, in some ways, the most painful. Michael will return home and attempt to reconstruct the pieces of his life. But the nervous hugs and well-meaning smiles of family and friends are only more isolating. Returning to normalcy becomes impossible. Even the embrace of Linda cannot cure the ills inside. Lost and soulless, Michael will eventually be drawn back to Vietnam, in an attempt to rescue Nick. But sometimes, the depth of damage done leaves no hope for salvation.
The concluding scenes of 'The Deer Hunter' caused great controversy at the time of the film's release, and remain highly debated today. To what purpose was the film's metaphor of Russian Roulette? For me, the scenes are not about the fate of Nick, but America. "One shot is what it's all about," is the film's most famous line. "A deer has to be taken down with one shot." Michael's eventual journey to bring Nick home and restore things to the way they used to be, will, however noble, ultimately prove futile. And how Cimino, in the film's concluding scenes, finally shatters this wish-fulfillment fantasy remains truly unforgettable. For this alone, 'The Deer Hunter' secures its place as a landmark achievement in modern Hollywood cinema.
'The Deer Hunter' has been released no fewer than three times on standard-def DVD. Though each release got progressively better, even the most recent, two-disc "Legacy Edition" received some pretty mixed reviews in terms of video quality. So I was bracing myself for disappointment with the film's HD DVD debut. Thankfully, my fears proved unfounded. In fact, I found this remaster to be rather fantastic. Sure, there are some deficiencies in the now-vintage source material, but I find it hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with such a fine restoration.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, the source print is near pristine. The richness of color was a real surprise. Hues are vibrant and clean, but not oversaturated the way so many remasters are, in a vain effort to "modernize" a transfer. From the ornate interiors of the church and wedding hall, to the mountain ranges of the first act deer hunt, the image can be truly beautiful. Contrast is quite punchy, with deep blacks and bright highs, which offers an immediately noticeable improvement in terms of depth and detail over past video versions. (Compared to my crappy first-edition DVD release, it truly is a revelation.) Digital tweaks have also been kept to a minimum, with little artificial edginess to ruin the film-like texture, though a slight bit of noise in solid patches, such as wide-open skylines, is noticeable.
Nitpickers will find areas to complain about. Sporadic shots can look a bit faded and soft. The intensity of grain can be wildly inconsistent, though such moments are pretty rare. The Vietnam scenes in particular are rougher and grittier, with the odd use of video and stock footage especially jarring. And the source print, while near-pristine, is not perfect -- I noticed a few dropouts here or there, and one long scratch that marred a few frames in a shot during the opening wedding scenes. But no matter. Along with the impressive restorations on such recent HD DVD releases as 'Dune' and 'The Thing,' I continue to be blown away by the wonders Universal has been able to work with its vintage catalog titles.
I wish I could say 'The Deer Hunter' sounds as good as it looks, but it's a pretty flat, unremarkable mix. Despite a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track encoded at a robust 1.5mbps, the film's sound design is so front heavy it might as well be mono. Surround use is almost nil, and even stereo effects are few and far between. The majority of the track emanated from my center channel. At least dynamics are pretty solid, with a very clean sound. High-end is bright, and low bass is above average for a film from 1978. Unfortunately, dialogue often sounds muffled. Even at a decent volume, I had trouble discerning hushed tones, with some of Robert De Niro's line readings in particular unintelligible without the subtitles turned on. 'The Deer Hunter' sounds fine, but nothing more.
The extras on 'The Deer Hunter' are the most disappointing aspect of this release. But then so was the two-disc "Legacy Collection," which was so sparse one wonders why Universal needed the extra platter. For an Oscar-winning modern classic of this magnitude, one would have thought at least a sizable retrospective documentary would have been in order, let alone a director's audio commentary. Alas, we get neither.
To be fair, Michael Cimino did record a full-length track, as well as a 23-minute video interview, for the Region 2 DVD release of 'The Deer Hunter.' But for some reason, Universal was not able to retain those extras for the domestic version (I have to imagine they tried -- there would have been no reason not to). Instead, only the Region 2's second audio commentary was retained, with director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond and cinema journalist Bob Farmer. No offense to Zsigmond and Farmer, but it is just no replacement for the original Cimino track. At nearly three hours, there is just so much discussion one can take about lighting and photography, and though Farmer does wring some interesting production anecdotes out of Zsigmond, I eventually started to doze off. The most interesting nugget for tech geeks is that Zsigmond and Cimino originally wanted 'The Deer Hunter' to have an even more distressed, roughed-up look, and Zsigmond in particular feels the new transfer looks "too good." So for anyone complaining about the video quality of this HD DVD, know that if the filmmakers had had their way, it would have looked worse.
The only other supplements of note are three Extended Scenes running about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this is just more footage of the Russian Roulette sequence and Christopher Walken subsequently breaking down in the hospital, and adds absolutely nothing new to the film. The quality is also weak, presented in scratchy windowboxed 2.35:1 and 480i video.
Finally, we have what's billed as film's "Original Theatrical Trailer," though I suspect it is actually a re-release spot, as it includes a copious number of critic's quotes written after the film came out. (I could be wrong, as platform releases were the norm at the time.) The quality here is also quite poor, and provides a glimpse at how bad the film might have looked without a proper restoration.
'The Deer Hunter' is a genuine classic -- an Oscar-winning epic that still has the power to disturb and provoke. For my money, it is the best film about war to come out of Hollywood, and that includes such highly-regarded more recent films as 'Platoon' and 'Saving Private Ryan.' This HD DVD release truly excels in the transfer department, but the soundtrack suffers from limited fidelity. Even worse are the extras -- a film of this caliber just deserves more. But purely in terms of the quality of the movie and the video, I'm giving this one a hearty recommendation. If nothing else, it is a must-rent.