Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter’ is the Most Emotionally Shattering Vietnam War Movie Ever Made!

THE DEER HUNTER - ROBERT DE NIRO - MICHAEL CIMINO - Image Courtesy of Asif Ahsan Khan
Director: Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter (1978)’ is the most emotionally shattering Vietnam War movie ever made! Starring: Robert De Niro in his 3rd Academy Award nominated performance; Image Credit: @asifahsankhan;

Michael Cimino’s filmmaking journey was hardly a bumpless ride. It seems that his name is unfortunately doomed to go down in history as of a director whose third film completely ruined his career—Heaven’s Gate not only led a distinguished American studio into bankruptcy, but also enraged critics and the audiences to a degree of making every Cimino’s future project destined to fail, both critically and commercially. After his second feature, the world simply expected him to keep delivering in the future. It’s extremely difficult to live up to that kind of expectation when you introduce yourself to the world with a film like The Deer Hunter. The gloomy all-American epic story of three steel workers from a small town in Pennsylvania deeply and differently affected by the Vietnam war completely swept the United States off their feet back in 1978, earning five Academy Awards and turning the world’s spotlights on Cimino in the process.

Much of its success The Deer Hunter owes to its stellar cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep and John Cazale in his last performance ever, as he died shortly upon wrapping the film, made sure Deric Washburn and Cimino’s story, based on Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker’s spec script entitled The Man Who Came to Play, got through to the audiences. This is literally one of the most impressively acted films we’ve had the privilege of seeing in our lives so far, with numerous motion picture legends making the best of their time on the screen. It’s a wonderfully written, extremely dark story of friendship, of dealing with pressure in the worst situations imaginable, of the brutal, arbitrary and essentially incomprehensible nature of war. And even if the misguided critics who slammed Heaven’s Gate or Year of the Dragon truly think The Deer Hunter makes Cimino nothing but a one-trick pony… What a trick it was. Really!

With the usual treat of checking out the brilliant script, take a look at the marvelous behind the scenes photos assembled here accompanied by De Niro’s very own heavily annotated shooting script, Michael Cimino’s priceless commentary track and several must-see interviews.

(More photos after this).

⇒ Dear every Screenwriter, read Deric Washburn & Michael Cimino’s screenplay for The Deer Hunter [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Comes with absolutely the highest recommendation.⇐


Interviews with Cimino are rare, and he gives his part in the Heaven’s Gate very little discussion. George Hickenlooper’s book Reel Interviews and Peter Biskind’s highly critical book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls deal almost exclusively with the film and resulting scandal. Hickenlooper’s book includes one of the few candid discussions with Cimino; Biskind focuses on events during and after the production as a later backdrop for the sweeping changes made to Hollywood and the movie brat generation. The European DVD release of The Deer Hunter contains an audio commentary with Cimino, as does the American one of Year of the Dragon. Here’s the commentary with director Michael Cimino and critic FX Feeney [MP3].

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Jon Voight, Jane Fonda and Michael Cimino at the Academy Awards 1979.

When I first listened to this commentary I knew right away there was something special here. I’m always a fan of filmmakers who do deeper commentaries and don’t just talk about how a shot has been achieved. Cimino is a great example of a director who talks deeper than what you see on screen. Here he provides the reasons of why he likes anamorphic, his favorite lenses, learning his craft from Clint Eastwood and others, as well as being able to “will it through.” Enjoy it. —Film School Thru Commentaries; And for further reading, see this:  Battling the Past—an encounter with Michael Cimino.

Before you start obeying rules, start by breaking them. I made The Deer Hunter as a young man. If I had gone through a film school before making this movie, I would never have made it. I would have been too afraid. Even today, the script girls say to me, ‘Michael, this is not going to work. You’re crossing the eye line.’ I still don’t know what the ‘eye line’ means! —Michael Cimino.

Robert De Niro’s heavily-annotated shooting script from The Deer Hunter (1978). Image courtesy of The Robert De Niro Collection, The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


Watch: Director Michael Cimino on Filmmaking


“The Deer Hunter” was John Cazale’s Last Feature Film…

The Actor died shortly after filming.

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John Cazale and Meryl Streep in 1978

Cazale had already emerged as one of the dominant actors of his generation by the time he landed on the cast of “The Deer Hunter.” He had starred in the first two Godfathers, “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Conversation,” and was highly influential among his peers. “I learned more about acting from John than anybody,” Al Pacino once said of Cazale. But at 42 years old, Cazale was dying of bone cancer. Afraid the studio would fire him if they found out, Cimino kept Cazale’s illness a secret as long as he could. “John was dying the whole time we were shooting ‘The Deer Hunter,’” Cimino told the NewStatesman. Eventually, the studio did find out about Cazale’s illness and refused to insure him, so Robert De Niro footed the bill. Cazale was also dating co-star Meryl Streep, who remained by his side until he passed.A related story you should read: The tragic romance that shaped Meryl Streep’s life.

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“The Deer Hunter” was John Cazale’s fifth and final feature film. Prior to this Cazale starred in only four other films. And all of them were OSCAR winners: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation, The Godfather Part II (both 1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). — And you thought Marlon Brando was incredible…?

Imagine this: Michael Cimino, fresh off five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and the next big “thing” fails to complete the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and stops making movies, all because he couldn’t handle the pressure of following up on not only the movie he needed to make, but the movie America needed him to make: The Deer Hunter (1978).Cimino would become a symbol of self-indulgence once production began on his follow-up film, the sprawling and maligned western Heaven’s Gate (1980). But briefly, with the success of The Deer Hunter, which won five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), he was Hollywood’s darling. He had entered the industry as a writer in the early 1970s, credited as ‘Mike Cimino’ for his unique science-fiction screenplay Silent Running (1972). Frustrated with the difficulty of getting subsequent scripts made, he wrote Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a highly original buddy movie that subverted that genre’s conventions.Clint Eastwood loved the script, and eventually starred in the film in 1974, with Cimino making his directing debut. Before that, he hired Cimino to rewrite John Milius’s screenplay for Magnum Force (1973), the even more reactionary sequel to Dirty Harry. Cimino helped develop the story ideas behind The Deer Hunter, which was based partly on another script, The Man Who Came to Play (its authors received co-story credits). The film’s Oscar-winning editor, Peter Zinner, recalls reading Deric Washburn’s screenplay. “It was very well-written and moved me to tears. There were almost no revisions made in the script during shooting. What was in the script is what you see on the screen.”Cimino still gave his cast room for manoeuvre, especially John Cazale, whose character, Stan, became “an outgrowth of who and what John is as a person,” in Cimino’s words. During shooting, Cimino said: “John has a marvelous effect on the other actors. He’s given Stan a mystery that wasn’t there before.”

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John Cazale as Stan (“Stosh”) in “The Deer Hunter”. 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.

Cazale, who was 42 at the time of filming, had appeared in only four previous pictures. But what a quartet! The Godfather (1972), The Conversation, The Godfather Part II (both 1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Read that list one more time. That’s what a 100 percent strike rate looks like.However, the actor was dying of bone cancer, a fact that Cimino had kept from the studio by lining up Cazale’s scenes first to utilize what little energy reserves he had left.

Meryl Streep (left) and John Cazale in “The Deer Hunter.” There’s a feature story on Cazale and Streep you can read at People.com;

Eventually the studio discovered the truth. “John was dying the whole time we were shooting The Deer Hunter,” says Cimino. “I used to watch him between takes in the scenes where the boys are having a bit of fun, throwing food at each other in the Cadillac. I used to watch him wander up the mountain through those fields of wildflowers in his tuxedo and fur hat … They wanted me to fire him at the beginning of the movie, but I wouldn’t do it.” Meryl Streep, who was Cazale’s fiancée as well as his co-star, also defended the actor, threatening to quit the picture if he was removed. Cazale died shortly before filming was completed.

The rest of the cast are equally impressive. From our 21st century standpoint we can appreciate the novelty of Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep giving subdued, almost anonymous performances. Both actors are all the more convincing here for hanging back. Their love affair, after Michael returns from Vietnam without Nicky, is convincing and affecting in its drabness. There are no grand passions. Michael doesn’t even react when Linda first raises the subject of sleeping together. These are just two lonely people who go to bed with one another as a balm against their pain.

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John Cazale and Robert De Niro in the Deer Hunter (1978)

Discussion would forever boil down to what masterpieces we were robbed from seeing, how a too-sensitive soul could not stand up to the pressures and pettiness of Hollywood, and so on. Bonus scenario: if Heaven’s Gate were only half-finished when he stopped directing, scholars would write dissertations about whether the next Citizen Kane (1942) got sabotaged, or was never meant to be, or too impossibly perfect to reach completion.

Instead, of course, Heaven’s Gate was finished and, due to its underwhelming commercial and critical reception, so was Cimino.

Over the top? Well, so was Cimino. I mean, have you seen Heaven’s Gate? Or even, dare we go there, The Deer Hunter?

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The Deer Hunter (1978) won Five Academy Awards including “Best Picture”

In truth, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as its younger brother, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but there are many legitimate reasons for this. Apocalypse Now was always imperfect, and, in ways no one could have anticipated; its very messiness, inscrutability, and shoehorned ending only gain stature as the perfect metaphor for the imperfect fiasco that was Vietnam.


Watch: Director Michael Cimino recalls the making of The Deer Hunter.

If Dostoyevsky had written about Vietnam it might have been a lot like Apocalypse Now; The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, is possibly the most Tolstoy Esque American movie ever made.

And it owes a lot to this one man… Robert De Niro


‘The Deer Hunter (1978)’ (Film Details)

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Robert De Niro – The Deer Hunter (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino; Writers: Michael Cimino (story), Deric Washburn (story);

Stars: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage;

A personal note: This was John Cazale‘s last film. The classic tidbit of Cazale trivia is that he appeared in only five films, all of which (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter) were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Despite having been diagnosed with bone cancer, he made one last film before his death, The Deer Hunter, in 1978.  How’s this for a heartbreaker: visibly losing his battle to cancer, director Michael Cimino agreed to film all of Cazale’s scenes first.

Everyone should check out this documentary feature based on his short life but legendary career: I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009).

Some films lose their charm and become dated. Then, there are motion pictures such as “The Deer Hunter” that never become stale, and remain as haunting and deeply moving as they were when first released.

Just to reiterate, Cimino’s film is a three-hour long!

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Yes, but you won’t notice that at all when you’ll watch it. It’s epic (both pre and post) war drama in three major movements. It is a progression from a wedding to a funeral. It is the story of a group of friends. It is the record of how the war in Vietnam entered several lives and altered them terribly forever. It is not an anti-war film. It is not a pro-war film. It is one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made. There’s that particular infamous scene in “The Deer Hunter” that remains disturbing – when Michael (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran, tracks down a friend of his named Nicky (Christopher Walken), who never came home after the war and is eventually found in Saigon, playing Russian Roulette for money, his mind an utter mess. He is unable to fully remember Michael and he refuses to return home. It’s a sequence that’s a haunting example of gut-wrenching filmmaking.

This following clip is not “The Deer Hunter” trailer but a scene from it —an amazing clip you should watch!

*This above clip is not the trailer but an amazing scene from it.

The movie has two important themes: friendship and war. With “The Lord of the Rings” featuring a somewhat full-blown friendship between Frodo and Sam (that sometimes borders on being overly-sentimental but works), “The Deer Hunter” represents a portrait of true, powerful friendship. This is superior to any of the scenes between Frodo and Sam in “The Lord of the Rings,” the characters here are more realistic and empathetic, the performances more convincing. When he finds Nicky surrounded by men putting wagers on his life, Michael tries to bring him home, but Nicky just spits in his face. To reveal his feelings for Nicky, Michael holds a gun to his own head. “Is this what you want?” he taunts. “I love you, Nicky.” And then he pulls the trigger and the barrel clicks: empty. Michael’s face suddenly drains, a reflection of his inner relief.

The reason why the film is lengthy is because it rolls out like a legend rather than a documentary and its greatness is blunted by its length and one-sided point of view, but the film’s weaknesses are overpowered by Michael Cimino’s sympathetic direction and a series of heartbreaking performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale and Christopher Walken. But it’s the De Niro character, Michael “Mike” Vronsky, the one that somehow finds the strength to keep going and to keep Savage and Walken going. Both on and off-screen, De Niro, as usual plays his part brilliantly. He survives the prison camp and helps the others. Then, finally home from Vietnam, he is surrounded by a silence we can never quite penetrate. He is touched vaguely by desire for the girl that more than one of them left behind, but does not act decisively. He is a “hero,” greeted shyly, awkwardly by the hometown people.

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John Cazale and John Savage

This movie features some of the greatest acting in the history of cinema. Walken picked up the coveted Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in his breakthrough debut (his short role in “Annie Hall” notwithstanding), although to this day many viewers argue that De Niro should have gone home with Best Actor as well (he was nominated). The movie itself was nominated for nine Oscars and won five.


51st Academy Awards
Award Category Recipients and nominees Result
51st Academy Awards Academy Award for “Best Picture” Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, John Peverall Won
Academy Award for Best Director Michael Cimino Won
Academy Award for Best Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker Nominated
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor Christopher Walken Won
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep Nominated
Academy Award for Best Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond Nominated
Academy Award for Best Film Editing Peter Zinner Won
Academy Award for Best Sound Richard Portman, William McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, Darin Knight Won

“One shot is what it’s all about. A deer has to be taken with one shot.” — Michael (De Niro)

In between the nicely judged hills of Pennsylvania, Michael Cimino’s 1978 “Best Picture” OSCAR winner: ‘The Deer Hunter’  —creates a passage where Robert De Niro’s legendary portrayal of ‘Sgt. Michael “Mike” Vronsky’ highlights love and friendship along with the breathtaking horrors of Vietnam and Warfare: depiction of the human capacity, best friends held captive in rat-infested water and forced to participate against one another in rounds of deadly “Russian roulette.” While the film did attracted accusations of xenophobia, 40 years later,  Cimino’s Epic War Drama easily surpasses its other competitors for the genre and still remains the ‘Most Emotionally Shattering Vietnam War Movie’ ever Made!

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Wondering what is it exactly in this film that can possibly make one totally freak out or give the bloody soul a freaking Stroke? Well, it’s the made-to -look — ever-so-frightening game of Russian Roulette. (Seriously people don’t watch if you have a heart condition!)

“We gotta’ play with more bullets.” – Michael (De Niro);

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The Viet Cong prison: During the Russian Roulette Scene

De Niro in The Game of Russian Roulette is the Organizing Symbol of the Film

De Niro pulls the trigger in the game of Russian roulette and realizes that there was no bullet inside the barrel.

And by the way, just so you know, the insane trigger-pulling roulette scene happens twice! (And an additional one featuring John Cazale.) Oh and guess what was the most incredible thing about these scenes? The Gun was actually loaded! (with one bullet…in all scenes…)

De Niro pulling the trigger on Cazale. (Gun loaded with one bullet.)

During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors’ tension. This was Robert De Niro‘s suggestion. To add an extra layer of hellish anxiety to the scene, though, De Niro suggested they load the chamber with a single bullet and play that way. For some reason Cazale accepted that this was a good idea, as did Cimino, who probably wanted to kiss De Niro. Of course, the chamber was feverishly checked each and every time to ensure a bullet wasn’t going to accidentally murder an actor, but all that great acting you thought you were seeing here? Genuine terror.Also the slapping in the Russian roulette sequences was 100% authentic. The actors grew very agitated by the constant slapping, which, naturally, added to the realism of the scenes.


“The Most Dangerous Game”

The Most Dangerous Game

Michael Cimino’s nail-biting Russian roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter captured the horror of war perhaps like none other before. With the devastating impact of the Vietnam War fresh on America’s mind, Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter sought to personalize the intensity of the experience. Neither a rah-rah heroism flick nor an overtly political slice of recent history, Cimino’s grandly scaled but intimately rendered three-hour epic follows a close-knit band of Pennsylvania steelworkers who are drinking and hunting buddies, forever changed by the war. Over three acts, we see them celebrate a marriage, endure the life-or-death hell of the battlefield, and struggle to re-establish their irrevocably damaged bonds.

Central to Cimino’s portrait of war’s random violence are the tension-filled moments he created, none more so than two excruciating rounds of Russian roulette. The first of these occurs when Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Stevie (John Savage) are being held by the Viet Cong, who force their prisoners to play for sport. Suddenly the romantically held notion among the deer hunting friends—the idea of a perfect “one-shot kill”—becomes a cruel, warped reality on a nightmarish human game board. “It’s not a movie about Vietnam,” says Cimino. “It’s about the trauma inflicted on ordinary people by catastrophic events. It applies to any war.”Cimino, who won Director’s Guild of America (DGA) and Academy Awards for his direction, explained when asked about how he shot one of the defining sequences in this landmark film on the Kwai River in Thailand, not far from the Burmese border:

“We lived in a ramshackle old building. You had to cover yourself with netting and set off smoke bombs at night to sleep. It was bloody hard work.” — Michael Cimino.

See the full interview and how the director explains how he created the scene’s excruciating tension at Director’s Guild of America‘s site.


‘The Defining Moment of Heartache’
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Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken

The film’s most stunning death scene was set in a smoke-filled gambling room in the heart of Saigon where the lethal game of Russian roulette was actively flourishing and led by a one-eyed referee. Michael (Robert DeNiro) winced as one of the young, red head-banded contestants blew his brains out. Addicted to the game, Nick (Christopher Walken) was glimpsed as he arrived to be the next player. Michael’s friend – dehumanized by his war experience, was glassy-eyed, drugged-out, and heroin-addicted, and constantly playing Russian roulette for high stakes in the gambling casinos. Frustrated, Michael pleaded with Nick to leave, but his automaton-zombie friend didn’t recognize him.

“One Shot.” 
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Christopher Walken as Cpl. Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich during the Final Russian Roulette Game.  The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael daringly took another approach (to “play the American”) – he bought himself into the game (with some of his own cash and some from the cynical Frenchman’s bribe money) – risking suicide so that he could save Nick. The gambling crowd reached a howling, fever pitch when the two Caucasians faced opposite each other at the Russian roulette table, once again reunited. Trying to shock his friend into recognition – by recalling their time together in the POW shack, Michael begged Nick to leave with him: “We don’t have much time, Nick.” Nick took the gun – with one bullet, and pointed it threateningly at his temple, but there was no bullet. After being handed the gun for his turn, Michael asked rhetorically: “Is this what you want? Is this what you want? I love you, Nick.”

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As he cocked and pulled the trigger, he also survived the first round, relieved that he was still alive. There had been a faint flicker of recognition on Nick’s face, and Michael pleaded: “Come on, Nicky, come home. Just come home. Home. Talk to me.” Michael delayed the game by grabbing his friend’s hand that already clenched the gun for the second round, asking: “What did you do to your arms?” There were scars of needle-tracks up Nick’s arm – and emotional scars too deep to reach, although Michael attempted to break through one last persuasive time:”I came 12,000 miles back here to get you…Don’t do it! What’s the matter with you? Don’t you recognize me? Huh?…Nicky, I love you, you’re my friend. What are you doing?”

“Nicky, do you remember the trees, all the different ways of the trees? Do you remember that? Do you remember? Huh? The mountains? Do you remember all that?”To what Nicky replies, “One shot.” (He smiles and laughs in recognition. But takes the shot anyway…)
 

 Nick remembered Michael’s hunting credo, but it was too late to save him. Nick blew his brains out with the next shot – one shot, living out the logical consequence of the code. The “one shot” hunting theme and the deadly Russian roulette gamble were tragically echoed in the death of Nick. Michael’s mission to bring Nick home alive had failed. As blood spurted from his friend’s temple, Michael was emotionally devastated and agonized over Nick’s death. Howling with grief, he cradled his pal’s head, pleading for him not to die…
 
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The “God Bless America” Scene. Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, George Dzundza, John Savage, Rutanya Alda, and Chuck Aspegren in The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Epilogue – is the mother of all tearjerkers: Back home in 1975, there is a funeral for Nick, whom Mike brings home, good to his promise. The film ends with everyone at John’s bar, singing “God Bless America”. And they reverentially (freeze-framed) raise their beer mugs to Nick, as Michael toasts “Here’s to Nick”


Lastly,

I’ll leave you with some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Production still photographers: Greer Cavagnaro, Katrina Franken, Philip Jones Griffiths, Wynn Hammer & Dieter Ludwig © EMI Films, Universal Pictures. 


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 © 2017 Asif Ahsan Khan / Cinephilia & Beyond. ® All rights reserved.

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