The Deer Hunter

From best picture winners Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca and The Best Years of Our Lives to nominees like The Invaders, Wake Island and In Which We Serve, World War II was a central theme of many Oscar films during the 1940s.

But I noticed during the years of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (1965-1973) the Academy, and most of Hollywood for that matter, was remarkably quiet.

In 1978 The Deer Hunter changed all that. It was one of the first, and most controversial, films to show the dark side of the Vietnam War. There were others that year but this was the first film about Vietnam to reach both critical acclaim and commercial success.

It paved the way for a number of other great films that would follow in its footsteps.

Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill just to name a few.

You might be thinking I left one out. More on that later.

1978 - The Deer HunterThe Deer Hunter tells the tale of three Russian-American friends in Clairton, Pennsylvania a small steel-working town south of Pittsburgh, right on the Monongahela River.

Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro)

Steve Pushkov (John Savage)

Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken)

The story begins in 1967 on the day of Steve’s wedding to his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda). Included in the wedding party are their other friends, Stan (John Cazale), Peter “Axel” Axelrod (Chuck Aspegren), John Welsh (George Dzundza) and Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep). Nick and Mike are best friends and roommates but Mike and Linda seem to have feelings for each other. They struggle to suppress them out of love and respect for Nick.

At the wedding reception the entire community gathers to drink, dance, sing, and celebrate. They’re particularly motivated to party like it’s 1967 because in a few days Mike, Steve and Nick ship off to fight in the Vietnam War.

1978 - The Deer Hunter - Walken dancing

After the wedding Mike, the eponymous expert hunter, takes Nich, Stan, Axel and John hunting one last time before leaving. Mike kills a deer with “one clean shot” what he believes is the only pure way to kill a deer. The first act concludes as the men return home with the deer strapped to the hood of Mike’s 1959 Cadillac. They gather at John’s bar and after some raucous revelry John sits down at the piano and starts playing Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6. The friends sit in silence and drink together one last time.

It would be fair to say that the film is slow. But it might be more accurate to say the film takes its time. With a running time of just over 3 hours it could have easily been trimmed down by 30 or maybe even 45 minutes.

I was surprised it was over an hour before anyone set foot in Vietnam. But you definitely get a feel for these characters and the world they live in. Their culture, traditions and ceremonies are equal parts Russian Orthodox and blue collar western Pennsylvanian. It’s important to understand this about these three men because after they go to Vietnam their lives will never be the same.

The film slams headfirst into the Vietnam War. There are no boot camp scenes. This isn’t Full Metal Jacket and it sure ain’t Stripes. In fact, it was so jarring I backed up the movie thinking I might have accidentally hit the “next chapter” button the remote. Nope. Just like Mike, Nick and Steve, the film drops you straight into the action without warning or preparation.

When we catch up with the trio Mike is on his own, unconscious in the mud outside a village that is being napalmed. He wakes up to see a North Vietnamese soldier drop a grenade into an underground hiding place full of civilians. Mike (now a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces) grabs a flamethrower and well… you can imagine what he might do with a flamethrower.

A helicopter lands to drop of infantrymen and Mike is reunited with Steve and Nick just before they’re all captured and taken to a POW camp. It’s brutal. And although the war scenes are only 42 minutes of the film, they are by far the most intense. There hasn’t been a best picture winner previous to The Deer Hunter that is nearly as graphic or disturbing. The intensity stems primarily from the Russian roulette the prisoners are forced to play for the betting amusement of their captors. This is such an effective visual for the random, unpredictable danger, violence and death they faced during the war as well as the psychological torture they endured.

There was some measure of controversy over the authenticity of Russian roulette being used in Vietnamese POW camps. But I think that point is irrelevant. Besides being plausible, it’s symbolic. And it’s powerful. It’s now iconic.

Mike stages a daring escape. The three float down the river and are picked up by an American helicopter but only Nick makes it on board before having to take off. Mike carries Steve (who has 2 badly broken legs) until they come to a city where he is able to put him about a South Vietnamese military truck who take him to get medical attention.

Nick makes his way to a military hospital in Saigon. The experience in the POW camp left him deeply emotionally scarred. He can’t even bring himself to call Linda back home. He walks the streets of Saigon and wanders into the red light district where he is drawn to the Russian roulette gambling dens.

Mike makes it home having no idea what happened to either of his friends. He too is not the man he once was and avoids the “Welcome Home” party Stan, John and Linda are throwing for him with all their friends.

When he does come around he and Linda become closer, but still apprehensive not knowing Nick’s fate. When Mike learns that Steve made it home but won’t let Angela tell anyone where he is he confronts her. Learning he’s at the veteran’s hospital he visits him discovering he lost both legs in the war. It’s here he discovers that someone has been sending Steve large amounts of cash each month. Mike can only surmise that it’s Nick and makes his way back to Vietnam to find his friend and bring him home.

1978 - The Deer Hunter - Walken red bandana

What happens when Mike returns (right on the brink of the Fall of Saigon in 1975) is heartbreaking. I’ll just say this. Only one makes it back alive.

When those who survive bury their friend back in Clairton it’s a vivid depiction of the price of war paid by both the living and the dead. In a stark and striking scene they sit together for breakfast in John’s bar after the funeral and somberly sing “God Bless America” before one final toast to honor their fallen friend.

The film won five Academy Awards, including picture, director (Michael Cimino) and supporting actor for Walken.

1978 - The Deer Hunter - Streep

This film was Meryl Streep’s very first Academy Award nomination (supporting actress) and she is amazing. She lost to Maggie Smith in California Suite. All I can imagine is they figured they’d have plenty of other opportunities to bestow Meryl with Oscars. And you know… they were right.

DeNiro was also up for best actor but John Voight won for Coming Home, another Vietnam War themed picture.

Speaking of Vietnam War themed pictures, there was one I left off the list above because it’s another issue of “timing is everything” or… “The Ben-Hur/Spartacus Syndrome.”

I wrote about Ben-Hur being in the right place at the right time coming out one year before Spartacus. While in my opinion Spartacus is a far superior film when it was on the Academy’s radar they had already done the whole “sword and sandal” thing. Sure, Spartacus was up for 6 Oscars (not best picture though), winning 4 but Ben-Hur is the best picture winner that went down in history with 12 nominations and 11 wins.

I think the same is true about Apocalypse Now.

Just one year after The Deer Hunter Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece (well, one of) was up for 8 Oscars, including best picture and director but won only 2 technical awards. It’s a much better film than The Deer Hunter but the Academy had just done the whole “gritty Vietnam” thing. So while Spartacus and Apocalypse Now are beloved classic films, Ben-Hur and The Deer Hunter won best picture.

Funnily, Apocalypse Now started filming more than a year before The Deer Hunter. So if Coppola’s notoriously difficult shoot in Manilla had gone more smoothly maybe history would be different. C’est la vie.

As The Oscar Project closes in on the end of another decade of best pictures I have one reflection. Over the last decade the Oscars have been dominated by a handful or very talented film makers.

  • Francis Ford Coppola – 12 nominations, 5 wins (wrote, directed or produced 6 best picture nominees – 3 winners)
  • Al Pacino – 5 nominations (4 lead, 1 supporting), appeared in 4 best picture nominees (2 winners)
  • Robert DeNiro – 3 nominations (2 lead, 1 supporting), 1 suporting win, appeared in 3 best picture nominees (2 winners)
  • Jane Fonda – 5 best actress nominations, 2 wins, appeared in 2 best picture nominees
  • Dustin Hoffman – 4 best actor nominations, 1 win, appeared in 4 best picture nominees (2 winners)
  • Jack Nicholson – 5 nominations (4 lead, 1 supporting), 1 best actor win, appeared in 3 best picture nominees (1 winner)
  • Jon Voight – 2 best actor nominations, 1 win, appeared in 3 best picture nominees (1 winner)
  • Talia Shire – 2 supporting actress nominations, appeared in 3 best picture winners
  • Maggie Smith – 3 nominations (2 lead, 1 supporting) 1 supporting win

But there was one man who has unfortunately been largely forgotten. John Cazale.

You might not even recognize the name John Cazale but you’ll remember his work. Sadly, he died of cancer after making only five movies. But what an impact he made.

The five movies Cazale appeared in were The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter.

All five films were nominated for the Academy Award for best picture with three taking home the big prize.

And Cazale wasn’t some incidental actor. He was right there in the thick of it.

He’s Fredo Corleone in the Godfather films. He’s Gene Hackman’s colleague Stan in The Conversation. In Dog Day Afternoon he robs the First Brooklyn Savings Bank with Al Pacino. And of course, he’s Stan, a steelworker in Clairton alongside DeNiro and Walken in The Deer Hunter.

John Cazale

His five movies were nominated for 40 Oscars. His costars received 14 acting nominations. Three of them won Oscars. But John Cazale was never nominated.

The Deer Hunter would be his final film. He died of lung cancer on March 13, 1978 shortly after he finished shooting. Although they never got the chance to marry, his longtime partner Meryl Streep was by his side when he died.

“I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.” – Al Pacino

John Cazale was 42.

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