8 years before Platoon the Academy had already given a Best Picture Award to a movie that concerned itself with the war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter tells the story of a group of friends and the terror they face overseas. In some ways it is hard to categorize The Deer Hunter as an anti-war movie – because there is actually little war going on. The terror that the main characters face is being forced to play ‘Russian roulette’ when they became prisoners. This way, The Deer Hunter not necessarily focuses on the horror of war itself but rather on the horror that can happen during war when humanity and respect are replaced by hate and torture. Because of this, it becomes an extremely intense and gripping story that shows the misery and the sorrow that comes with war in a haunting and unforgettable way.
The Deer Hunter is also a movie that defies various conventions – a very long opening part that seems to have no real connection to the later plot and a sudden change of action right into the battle field are certainly rather unique but it works very well in this movie. The opening part, the long wedding sequences and the trip in the mountains bring all the main characters closer to the viewer and so make the later sequences much more haunting. Of course, all this might also have been done in another way but it’s mostly thanks to the immensely talented cast that the first hour of the movie feels so genuinely relaxed and honest – there lies a certain fascination to watch these characters, see how they live their lives and how they seem to have no real idea yet about what they will encounter in Vietnam. Robert De Niro is first-class in an absolutely exhausting part and brought a combination of strength and sensitivity to his role that few other actors could have. Christopher Walken matches this performance at every step and his Oscar was richly deserved. John Savage and John Cazale also give unforgettable performances while Meryl Streep showed right from the beginning of her career that she could turn every part into something really special.
The sudden change from the quietness of the mountains in Pennsylvania right into the terror of the war is another extremely effective part of the story – suddenly and without warning we see civilians being killed and hear explosions and gun-fire. There is a constant feeling of intransigence that dominates the movie – all the brutality and horror seem to go on forever.
It’s a controversial movie, for sure – and I have a feeling that this is exactly what the makers were going for. Personally, I consider it a very strong tale that combines a character study with an almost epic presentation of how the scenery of war can destroy every bit of humanity.