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Moving portrayal of the psychological effects of war
on 14 February 2004
'The Deer Hunter' is not a conventional war film. Rather, it's an exploration of the psychological effects of war on the individual. At over three hours long, some call this film epic, others horribly dull and depressing. Split into three acts, the first hour of the film follows the three main characters Mike, Nick and Steve (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) in their home town of Clairton, a small, industrial town with a large contingent of Russian immigrants. The story begins with Steve's wedding, which doubles as a send-off party for the three men who have volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but with no real knowledge of what to expect. However, an uninvited guest at the wedding, a 'Green Beret' who has recently returned from Vietnam, hints at what they can expect... he is a man who has been psychologically destroyed, and his unusual behaviour is greeted at first with anger, then amusement, but no real comprehension. We also follow the men on a last deerhunting trip in the mountains, as the film builds up our understanding of each character. Indeed, the deer hunting segments serve as a powerful metaphor that underpins the rest of the movie. The peace and tranquility of the mountains are counterposed with the sound of choppers and gunfire in Vietnam. From the outset it is clear that Mike, who sees deerhunting as more than just mere sport, has a deeper understanding of what the war will do to them, as is somehow better placed to cope...
The second third of the movie throws us straight into the thick of battle, from the sleepy streets of a small Pennsylvanian town, to the brutality of the Vietnam War. Almost immediately, one of the most controversial scenes in movie history is upon us, the brilliant and shocking scene where American (and allied) POW's are forced to play Russian Roulette against each other by their Vietcong captors.... controversial not least because it portrays the VC in a particularly brutal light, and the Americans as victims. But this scene is where all three main actors are at their very best (Indeed, Christopher Walken would win an Oscar for his performance in 'The Deer Hunter'). It is here that Steve and Nick are psychologically broken, and where Mike (De Niro) has to save his friends from certain death.
The final third of the movie (which I won't go into much detail so as not to spoil the film) deals with the aftermath once the conflict (for these men atleast) is over, and (one way or another), they return home to find that life can never be the same again. It is here that the true emotional depth of the film is captured by Robert De Niro's amazing talent. It is difficult (if not impossible) not to be moved by his portrayal of Mike who finds it hard to cope with the mundane realities of a previous life that no longer has much meaning or comfort. Add to these performances some brilliant supporting roles, including Meryl Streep who, like De Niro, was nominated for an Oscar. Also, the now legendary score, including the famous theme 'Cavatina' by Stanley Myers (and performed by John Williams), adds poignancy to many scenes throughout the film.
'The Deer Hunter' won the Oscar for Best Picture, but is not without it's critics. The take-home message from this controversial film has been the source of many a debate, and has been criticised for being overtly patriotic, but I personally do not see it as such. I don't think that it either glorifies or belittles the role of the Americans in Vietnam, rather the film is more about the people than the politics, and who those people were... not trained soldiers or the hi-tech killing machines that we see today, but just Joe Public, steel-workers, shop-owners, bartenders who go deer hunting at the weekends... volunteers who didn't know what they were letting themselves in for.
Moving, brutal, and (ultimately) quite depressing, 'The Deer Hunter' stands head and shoulders above other films of the genre (like Apocalypse Now or Platoon) in that it uses far more subtle ways to portray the grim reality of life and war.