The premiere of 'The Deer Hunter' in 1978 heralded a rash of movies that confronted head-on the still festering national wound known as Vietnam. Before Michael Cimino's gut-wrenching epic, filmmakers shied away from depicting the chaos and horror of the controversial conflict, but 'The Deer Hunter' proved America could handle the brutal imagery, raw emotion, and devastating psychological effects of the war — even if, as we later discovered, the agonizing Russian Roulette sequences (upon which much of the story hinges) were fictitious. Nevertheless, the film still delivers a potent body blow, but like its sister movie, 'Apocalypse Now,' it employs myriad themes to skirt around the war and its politics, making Vietnam seem at times like little more than a psychedelic drug trip gone bad. Real men and women died in Southeast Asia, and though 'The Deer Hunter' addresses the issue with warmth and poignancy, it remains very much a Hollywood treatment.
The passage of time, of course, allows us to more quickly flag the film's subtle flaws, but those of us who saw 'The Deer Hunter' during its initial release will never forget its visceral impact. Back then, audiences had never seen war and its anguish depicted in such a frank manner, and it was a tough pill to swallow. The intervening years, however, have dulled our senses, so today 'The Deer Hunter' more closely resembles a mainstream movie than the numbing "experience" we so clearly remember. The natural performances, though, endure, and keep the film relevant, involving, and powerful.
For a three-hour movie, the story is deceptively slight. After a festive Russian Orthodox wedding and last-hurrah hunting trip, three friends — Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) — leave their families, friends, and steel mill jobs in western Pennsylvania for a tour of duty in Vietnam. By chance, they reunite during a bloody skirmish, but soon are captured by the North Vietnamese, thrown into a rat-infested pen, and subjected to a harrowing game of Russian Roulette. The ordeal and its aftermath shatters Nick and Steven, and it's up to the stalwart Michael — who's always pined for Nick's girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), and must deal with his own assimilation issues when he returns home — to rescue them from despair.
Less than a third of the movie transpires in the war zone, but Deric Washburn's screenplay shows how battle boundaries extend far beyond the jungles of Southeast Asia to the sleazy slums of Saigon and even across the ocean to the U.S. home front. After their horrific experiences, the characters believe they no longer "fit in," and feelings of guilt and inadequacy overwhelm them, effecting long-standing relationships and their own mental health. Though the images of violence, gore, and unspeakable cruelty may be what we most remember about 'The Deer Hunter,' the film is more about picking up the pieces and coming to terms than fighting the enemy. It also painfully depicts how, after the war, the face of that enemy often becomes the face in the mirror for many tortured soldiers.
Cimino, who received an Oscar for his work, does an admirable job, but his epic viewpoint often harms the film. The first hour could be (and should have been) severely tightened. Although the wedding sequence provides plenty of atmosphere and moments of insightful character development, it goes on way too long (and foolishly tries to eclipse the equally languorous nuptials in 'The Godfather'). Even the hunting trip and bar scene could be truncated to make the movie more taut. Yes, Cimino needs to immerse us in the simple, often humdrum lives of these blue-collar men and emphasize their camaraderie so he can later show how war irrevocably upsets the delicate balance of their universe, but he seems to intentionally draw out this first act. As an audience, we're antsy to get to Vietnam, but Cimino makes us wait…and wait…and wait. I'd like to believe it's because he wants to give us a taste of the dread Michael, Nick, and Steven feel before their foray into hell, but that may be cutting a shamelessly self-indulgent director too much slack.
Cimino also wields a heavy hand with foreshadowing — the spilling of red wine on the white wedding dress, the "one shot" deer-hunting theory, and the "don't leave me" exchange between Michael and Nick early in the film. And although he possesses a pleasing visual style, Cimino's straightforward direction lacks the pizzazz one expects from an Academy Award winner. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ('Deliverance,' 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind') create some stunning images, but 'The Deer Hunter' largely succeeds on its own merits, drawing energy from its story, themes, and acting.
De Niro anchors the film, and though his role isn't the showiest, his strength, compassion, and directness are mesmerizing. We can see the unexpressed emotion seething inside him, and his level-headed attitude under pressure is both admirable and heroic. In her first major role, Streep makes a solid impression with a natural, utterly believable performance, and Savage files a heartbreaking portrayal of a soldier unable to cope with the horrors of war. Walken, however, steals the show as the tormented Nick, who can never mentally recover from the traumas he endured. With his wide, bruised eyes, gaunt physique, and simmering intensity, Walken fully inhabits his character, and justly earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.
'The Deer Hunter' is far from perfect, but it conveys acute emotions with clarity and power. Few movies present a more profound and moving portrait of male friendship, and it's that delicate theme, more than the disturbing images of war and violence, that remains timeless.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Deer Hunter' at last arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside an attractive sleeve with a fold-out cover that features additional photos and some brief trivial facts about the film and Universal Studios in 1978. Both a 50GB Blu-ray disc and standard-def DVD are included in the package. Video codec is 1080p/VC-1 and default audio is an upgraded DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio track. There is no main menu; the movie begins as soon as the disc is inserted in the player. Press the menu button on your remote to access scenes, audio options, subtitles, and supplements.
It's taken a long time for Universal to get around to releasing 'The Deer Hunter' on Blu-ray, but this superior 1080p/VC-1 transfer makes the wait worthwhile. I can't compare the picture quality to the HD DVD, but I can tell you it's a big step up from the 2005 Legacy Series DVD. Thanks to top-notch contrast and clarity, the image sports a newfound vibrancy that leaps off the screen. Interior scenes that previously suffered from a murky and dull malaise now exhibit welcome pop, and exteriors burst with razor-sharp details and stunning depth. The mountain hunting sequences are flat-out gorgeous, exuding a lushness and scope I don't recall seeing in previous versions, while brightly saturated hues add pizzazz to many shots. The colorful dresses at the wedding reception, De Niro's orange hunting jacket, the jungle foliage, the neon lights of Saigon, and the red, white, and blue of the American flag all stand out yet never appear over-pushed.
Black levels are rich and inky, though some instances of crush do creep in, and shadow delineation is hit or miss. Fleshtones, however, look stable and true, and close-ups beautifully highlight fine facial features. Background elements, from the KFC boxes on the counter to the dirt and grime on the siding of the dumpy homes, are always easy to discern, lending that extra layer of authenticity to the film. And while the DVD transfer suffered from instances of speckling and print wear, the source material here is absolutely spotless, making for a smooth, elegant viewing experience.
Some viewers may think 'The Deer Hunter' looks too clean, too polished, and lacks that blue-collar grit and war-is-hell grime that distinguish other films of the period, but I'm thrilled with this effort. Yes, grain is not consistent - it's completely absent in some scenes, while others flaunt more texture (only the bits of stock and news footage look truly rough) - but I never felt like I was watching a hyper-processed movie. The image still looks like film, and the clarity heightens the force of the story's visceral power. A slight bit of noise reduction may have been applied, but that's the only hint of digital tinkering I noticed, and it doesn't harm the pristine picture in the slightest.
This is hands-down the best 'The Deer Hunter' has ever looked on home video, and those who, like me, have pined for a Blu-ray treatment of this classic title, should be thrilled with the results.
'The Deer Hunter' has always been plagued by problematic audio, and though the addition of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track improves the situation somewhat, it's unfortunately not a magic-bullet cure-all. Most of the sound emanates from the front panel of speakers, with solid stereo separation providing a distinct directional feel that enhances atmospherics and lends dialogue a more realistic flavor. The surrounds augment the scoring and some of the big war effects, such as helicopters and explosions, but fail to spit out any isolated material. Still, the boost in overall quality, clarity, and fidelity is palpable, and trumps previous home video versions of this film.
The track's main negative remains the muffled dialogue that has always been 'The Deer Hunter's Achilles heel. Overlapping conversations or those that try and compete with street, party, or battle sounds are almost impossible to comprehend, as are hushed exchanges. When Michael and Nick plot to ambush their captors in the river cage, I could barely make out a word, and the talk at the wedding and in the bar, though not essential, was often obscured. Boosting the volume, unfortunately, doesn't help.
Dynamic range is also limited, with better expanses on the low end of the scale than on the upper registers. The brief steel mill scenes early in the film, the whirring blades of the choppers, and the gunshots during the Russian roulette sequences all possess good presence and weight, but bits of distortion (and a couple of pops) occasionally creep in at odd moments. The acoustic guitar solos come across well, and the orchestral scoring enjoys fine presence without overwhelming the action.
Lossless audio is a nice bonus, but it doesn't loft 'The Deer Hunter' to a higher plane. The sound remains serviceable, but far from stellar.
Universal ports over all the extras from the HD DVD and Legacy Series DVD to this Blu-ray edition (and adds a promotional 100th anniversary featurette), which really isn't saying all that much. The extras on 'The Deer Hunter' are the most disappointing aspect of this release. But then, so were the supplements on the two-disc "Legacy Series," which were so sparse one wonders why Universal needed the extra platter. For an Oscar-winning modern classic of this magnitude, one would have thought at least a sizable retrospective documentary would have been in order, let alone a director's audio commentary. Alas, we get neither.
'The Deer Hunter' is not just a classic war film that chronicles with unflinching realism the horrors of battle and the mental and physical toll combat exacts on both the soldiers who fight and the loved ones they leave behind; it's also a passionate portrait of male friendship and an incisive snapshot of a turbulent time in American history. Once seen, Michael Cimino's epic never will be forgotten. Universal honors this Best Picture winner with a dazzling video transfer that makes this 34-year-old film look brand new, and upgraded lossless audio that's an improvement over previous tracks, even if it doesn't iron out all the film's sonic kinks. Supplements remain far too thin for a movie of this magnitude, but that shouldn't keep anyone from picking up this brilliantly acted, powerfully directed, and emotionally shattering motion picture. Highly recommended.