The Deer Hunter (1978)

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A vast, multi-faceted, albeit slightly maudlin epic with a beautiful score, striking cinematography and gripping acting intensity.

A sprawling epic of three hours, ‘The Deer Hunter’ is a striking, moving film. It focuses on a group of working class men who live in Clairton, Pennsylvania; which whilst is an industrial town, is a pretty and tranquil part of the world. However, this is strictly the film’s depiction of Clairton; it was actually shot in various locations across Ohio.

These men have firm working class sentiments, they work in the steel factory together and, once their shifts are over, drop by the local bar to shoot pool and have a few drinks; this is the men’s comfortable existences, however their lives are soon to be turned upside down. The men are called to serve their country in Vietnam, where they are to be subjected to an array of abhorrence that will change them forever.

It is a striking film in every sense. John Williams’ score, the acoustic ‘Cavatina’, is blissful; it complements every scene it features in. Its sequences of natural beauty and Clairton life are starkly juxtaposed in the film’s second act: the infamous Russian roulette scene. It is acted with truly remarkable conviction; the actors must have forced themselves into an unpleasant place to produce such harrowing realism. The scene is so visceral and intense that it creates a disturbed silence amongst an audience; even its biggest critics would have to try very hard not to be affected by it.

Normally a critically acclaimed film, ‘The Deer Hunter’ hasn’t been devoid of criticism. It has been labelled melodramatic, and it does indeed have its maudlin moments, I agree, but it has also been accused of being ‘racist’. It may be a one sided account of the war and I appreciate it was released during sensitive times shortly after the conflict, but I do not agree.

Does a film have to cover every aspect of an event? Does it have to cover every perspective? Of course not. ‘The Deer Hunter’ reflects one case: one group of men and their exposure to a small group of sadistic belligerents. Some say the depiction of the Vietcong is racist, but to rational, informed people, I think it’s clear that film the isn’t suggesting that the entire Vietcong was like this. We realise that atrocities similar to those seen in the film are committed by both parties in times of war; to proclaim that the film is trying to tell us otherwise is false and preachy.

I concede that the majority of the Vietnamese are, to understate somewhat, portrayed unscrupulously, but the extent of one’s criticism should be that the characterisation is flat, certainly not racist. Additionally, there are pedants who moan about how there were no cases of Russian roulette documented over the course of the Vietnam War – it’s called artistic licence. If you’re so bothered by ‘The Deer Hunter’, if you yearn for fair portrayal, balance it out by watching Oliver Stone’s vitriolic ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, which is a scathing attack on the United States’ behaviour in Vietnam and their military and political ethos.

Returning to another popular comment; I do concede its melodrama, especially during a scene where the American National Anthem is sung in unison: far too gushing and ‘American’. However, overall, any flaw is completely pushed aside by its ensemble cast, its aural and visual impact and its ability to keep your attention for 180 minutes and leave a lasting impression on you.

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