The Deer Hunter (1978)


Introduction

The Deer Hunter is a 1978 American epic war drama film co-written and directed by Michael Cimino about a trio of steelworkers whose lives were changed forever after fighting in the Vietnam War.

The three soldiers are played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, with John Cazale (in his final role), Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza playing supporting roles.

The story takes place in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a working-class town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, and in Vietnam.

Outline

Three friends in Pennsylvania – Mike Vronsky, Steven Pushkov and Nick Chevotarevich – work in a steel mill and hunt for deer. They prepare to leave for military service in Vietnam. Steven is engaged to Angela, who is secretly impregnated by another man. Mike and Nick both love Linda, who will be moving into Nick’s home to escape from her abusive and alcoholic father. During Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick asks for Linda’s hand, and she accepts. As the newly-weds drive away, Nick asks Mike to not abandon him in Vietnam. Mike and Nick make a final deer hunt. As is his custom, Mike fires a single shot, which kills the deer.

In Vietnam, the friends, along with other soldiers, are captured by the Viet Cong, and are forced to participate in a torturous game of Russian roulette while the jailers place bets. Steven yields to fear and exhaustion and fires his round at the ceiling. As punishment for breaking the rules, Steven is thrown into a cage that is immersed in a river filled with rats and dead bodies. Mike convinces Nick to attempt an escape by inserting three rounds into the revolver’s cylinder; after convincing their tormentors with the increased risk, they kill the captors and escape.

After Steven is freed, the three float along the river’s current on a tree trunk. When they reach a suspension bridge, they are rescued by an American helicopter, but Steven is weak and falls into the water. Mike immediately jumps in to save Steven, while Nick is held by the aircraft crew. Steven’s legs are broken in the fall, and Mike carries him until they meet a caravan of soldiers fleeing to Saigon. Nick is admitted to a military hospital for physical and psychological trauma, and he ventures to Saigon after he is discharged. In his wandering, he hears gunshots emanating from a gambling den and attempts to leave, reminded of his previous torture experience. However, French businessman Julien Grinda persuades him to come inside and play for him. Mike is present in the den and recognises Nick, but is unsuccessful in getting his attention.

Mike is repatriated and he has difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. He fails to appear at a party organised by his friends. He meets Linda the next morning and learns that Nick has deserted. Mike then visits Angela, who is now the mother of a child, but has slipped into catatonia following the return of Steven, who has been rendered an invalid. Those within Mike’s circle who stayed at home seem to understand nothing of war, and the following days further prove his disorientation; he is unable to shoot a deer during a hunting trip, and in another trip, he sees one hunting partner, Stan, jokingly threatening another partner with a gun. To make Stan understand the gravity of his gesture, Mike violently slaps the gun out of Stan’s hand, leaves only one round in the cylinder, points the gun at Stan’s forehead and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber.

Mike visits Steven at a veterans’ facility; both of Steven’s legs have been amputated, and he has lost the use of an arm. Steven has learned of Angela’s infidelity and refuses to come home. He tells Mike that he has been regularly receiving large sums of money from Vietnam. Mike senses that Nick is the source of these payments, and after convincing Steven to return to Angela, he returns to Vietnam in search of Nick. Wandering around Saigon, now in a state of chaos, Mike finds Julien and persuades him to take him to the gambling den. Mike finds himself facing Nick, who has become a professional in the macabre game and fails to recognise Mike. Mike attempts to bring Nick back to reason, but Nick, who is now a heroin addict, is indifferent. During a game of Russian roulette, Mike evokes memories of their hunting trips. Nick recalls Mike’s “one shot” method and smiles before pulling the trigger and killing himself as Mike tearfully witnesses.

Mike and his friends attend Nick’s funeral, and the atmosphere at their local bar is dim and silent. Moved by emotion, the patrons sing “God Bless America” in honour of Nick.

Cast

  • Robert De Niro as SSG Michael “Mike” Vronsky.
    • Producer Deeley pursued De Niro for The Deer Hunter because he felt that he needed De Niro’s star power to sell a film with a “gruesome-sounding storyline and a barely known director”.
    • “I liked the script, and [Cimino] had done a lot of prep,” said De Niro. “I was impressed.”
    • De Niro prepared by socialising with steelworkers in local bars and by visiting their homes.
    • Cimino introduced De Niro as his agent, Harry Ufland. No one recognized him.
    • De Niro claims this was his most physically exhausting film.
      • He explained that the scene where Mike visits Steven in the hospital for the first time was the most emotional scene that he was ever involved with.
    • For the film, he received his first one-million-dollar fee.
    • De Niro was a last-minute replacement for Roy Scheider, who dropped out of the production two weeks before the start of filming due to “creative differences”; Universal managed to keep Scheider to his three-picture contract by forcing him into doing Jaws 2 (1978).
  • Christopher Walken as Cpl. Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich.
    • His performance garnered an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor.
  • John Savage as Cpl. Steven Pushkov.
  • John Cazale as Stan (“Stosh”).
    • All scenes involving Cazale, who had terminal cancer, were filmed first.
    • Because of his illness, the studio initially wanted to fire him, but Streep, with whom he was in a relationship, and Cimino threatened to walk away if they did.
    • He was also uninsurable, and according to Streep, De Niro paid for his insurance because he wanted Cazale in the film.
    • This was Cazale’s last film, as he died shortly after filming wrapped.
    • Cazale never saw the finished film.
  • Meryl Streep as Linda.
    • Prior to The Deer Hunter, Streep was seen briefly in Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977) and the eight-hour miniseries Holocaust (1978).
    • In the screenplay, Streep’s role was negligible.
    • Cimino explained the set-up to Streep and suggested that she write her own lines.
  • George Dzundza as John Welsh.
  • Pierre Segui as Julien Grinda.
  • Shirley Stoler as Steven’s mother.
  • Chuck Aspegren as Peter “Axel” Axelrod.
    • Aspegren was not an actor; he was the foreman at an East Chicago steelworks visited early in pre-production by De Niro and Cimino.
    • They were so impressed with him that they offered him the role.
    • He was the second person to be cast in the film, after De Niro.
  • Rutanya Alda as Angela Ludhjduravic-Pushkov.
  • Amy Wright as Bridesmaid.
  • Joe Grifasi as Bandleader.

While producer Deeley was pleased with the revised script, he was still concerned about being able to sell the film. “We still had to get millions out of a major studio,” wrote Deeley, “as well as convince our markets around the world that they should buy it before it was finished. I needed someone with the caliber of Robert De Niro.” De Niro was one of the biggest stars at that time, coming off Mean Streets (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976). In addition to attracting buyers, Deeley felt De Niro was “the right age, apparently tough as hell, and immensely talented.”

Hiring De Niro turned out to be a casting coup because he knew so many actors in New York. De Niro brought Meryl Streep to the attention of Cimino and Deeley. With Streep came John Cazale. De Niro also accompanied Cimino to scout locations for the steel mill sequence as well as rehearsed with the actors to use the workshops as a bonding process.

Each of the six principal male characters carried a photo in his back pocket depicting them all together as children, to enhance the sense of camaraderie amongst them. Additionally, director Cimino instructed the props department to fashion complete Pennsylvania IDs for each of them, including driver’s licenses, medical cards, and var

Production

The Deer Hunter began principal photography on 20 June 20, 1977. This was the first feature film depicting the Vietnam War to be filmed on location in Thailand. All scenes were shot on location (no sound stages). “There was discussion about shooting the film on a back lot, but the material demanded more realism,” says Spikings. The cast and crew viewed large amounts of news footage from the war to ensure authenticity. The film was shot over a period of six months. The Clairton scenes comprise footage shot in eight different towns in four states: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Ohio. The initial budget of the film was $8.5 million.

Meryl Streep accepted the role of the “vague, stock girlfriend”, in order to remain for the duration of filming with John Cazale, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer. De Niro had spotted Streep in her stage production of The Cherry Orchard and had suggested that she play his girlfriend Linda. Before the beginning of principal photography, Deeley had a meeting with the film’s appointed line producer Robert Relyea. Deeley hired Relyea after meeting him on the set of Bullitt (1968) and was impressed with his experience. However, Relyea declined the job, refusing to disclose his reason why. Deeley suspected that Relyea sensed in director Cimino something that would have made production difficult. As a result, Cimino was acting without the day-to-day supervision of a producer.

Because Deeley was busy overseeing in the production of Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978), he hired John Peverall to oversee Cimino’s shoot. Peverall’s expertise with budgeting and scheduling made him a natural successor to Relyea, and Peverall knew enough about the picture to be elevated to producer status. “John is a straightforward Cornishman who had worked his way up to become a production supervisor,” wrote Deeley, “and we employed him as EMI’s watchman on certain pictures.”

Trivia

  • The film was based in part on an unproduced screenplay called The Man Who Came to Play by Louis A. Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker, about Las Vegas and Russian roulette.
  • Producer Michael Deeley, who bought the script, hired writer/director Michael Cimino who, with Deric Washburn, rewrote the script, taking the Russian roulette element and placing it in the Vietnam War.
  • The film went over-budget and over-schedule, and ended up costing $15 million.
  • The scenes depicting Russian roulette were highly controversial after the film’s release.
  • EMI Films, who produced the film, released the film internationally while Universal Pictures handled its distribution in North America.
  • The film received critical acclaim from critics and audiences, with praise for Cimino’s direction, the performances of its cast, particularly from De Niro, Walken, and Streep, screenplay, realistic themes and tones, and cinematography.
  • It was also successful at the box office, grossing $49 million.
  • At the 51st Academy Awards, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and won five: Best Picture, Best Director for Cimino, Best Supporting Actor for Walken, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. The film marked Meryl Streep’s first Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actress).
  • It has been featured on lists of the best films ever made, such as being named the 53rd-greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute in 2007 in their 10th Anniversary Edition of the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.
  • It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996, as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Michael Cimino.
  • Producer(s): Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, and John Peverall.
  • Writer(s): Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis A. Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker.
  • Music: Stanley Myers.
  • Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmund.
  • Editor(s): Peter Zinner.
  • Production: EMI.
  • Distributor(s): Universal Pictures (North America) and EMI Films (International).
  • Release Date: 08 December 1978 (Los Angeles) and 23 February 1979 (US general release).
  • Running Time: 183 minutes.
  • Rating: R.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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