Restored in 4K to haunt a new generation
In 1998, the year of my high school graduation and a time before the internet dominated, the American Film Institute released its 100 Years… 100 Movies list. Here were 100 of the greatest American films ever made, being published just as a burgeoning young cinephile worked his first real job at a locally owned video store. To my shame I’ve still not seen every film on that list, but I worked hard on it, and at some point I soaked in The Deer Hunter as a young man directly because of its inclusion in that list. I’m not sure what an 18 year old me took away from a film this awash in raw, exposed humanity… but all I really remembered was the Russian roulette. I suspect all that many remember about The Deer Hunter is the Russian roulette. It’s shocking, heightened, and utilized to extreme effect… so that’s understandable. The Russian roulette sequences of The Deer Hunter are iconic, and there’s no way around that. They also take up perhaps 20 minutes of the film’s three hour runtime.
A five-time Oscar winner, including best picture and best director for Michael Cimino, as well as best supporting actor for Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter is undoubtedly highly decorated and deserving of its place on the American Film Institute’s list. But none of that was inevitable, and the film underwent huge battles of will between the studio and Cimino in order to arrive in theaters as the 3 hour epic that it is.
We’re introduced to our Russian immigrant community in blue collar Pittsburgh through a wedding sequence so expansive in length it puts the Godfather wedding to shame. Is the fabled wedding sequence over which Cimino fought and bled to keep at its extended running time overlong? Probably. But who am I to question something like that? What’s absolutely unassailable is that the wedding sequence establishes our cast of characters, their interpersonal dynamics, their very specific cultural identity, their longings and desires. It’s all communicated, even as it takes a full hour of screen time, remarkably subtly. Cimino communicates much in The Deer Hunter through furtive glances and unspoken longings. The opening sequence plants us extremely firmly in a very specific place and time, amidst a very specific people group. And the more specific it gets, fleshing out the authentic lives of our Vietnam-bound protagonists, the more universal (though admittedly very white) it somehow counter-intuitively becomes. Because we know these men intimately, we feel the trauma and dehumanization of their experiences in Vietnam all the more acutely.
The Deer Hunter has a huge cast. And I don’t mean huge in terms of the towering career stature of so many of its leads (though that is undeniable)… I mean there are legitimately a dozen characters in the main cast. Most only remember the primary leads of our titular protagonist Michael (Robert De Niro, who was Oscar nominated for lead actor), Meryl Streep’s Linda (also nominated), Walken’s Nick, and John Savage’s Steven. But part of what makes The Deer Hunter so effective is that the entire community comes out for this movie. We get to know the parents of our leads, the local store owners, the friends who are near and dear to the trio of men who are about to go fight in Vietnam, but who stay home. What the extended wedding sequence really does is to ground us in the entire context of Michael, Nick, and Steven’s lives before dropping us into the absolute hell that is Vietnam. The wedding sequence may feel overlong, but it can’t really be argued that it “doesn’t go anywhere”. The depiction of Vietnam, and then the subsequent aftermath in the third act of the film, is more potent and visceral because we feel the impact of the war on an entire community, not just on the three men we follow there.
Then there’s the Vietnam sequence itself. After over an hour of small, quiet emotions, big, bombastic drunken wedding revelry, and a tense and isolated deer hunting sequence, we experience one of the biggest smash cuts in cinema history to a hellish scenario almost entirely devoid of context. Somehow Michael, Nick, and Steven all end up together in a water-submerged bamboo prison where they’re forced by their enemy captors to point loaded 6-shooters at their temples and pull the trigger. From what I understand, this sequence isn’t based on any historical accounts of this actually happening in Vietnam, but rather it’s a dramatic representation of the chaos of chance and the total dehumanization of our characters. It’s pure cinematic insanity. There’s rarely been a more harrowing sequence from a vision/execution standpoint and it means something that it’s able to communicate so much horror and trauma in such a shockingly brief portion of the runtime. We all know war is hell, but Cimino cements this forever in our collective understanding by embellishing and using the visual power of cinema to his advantage.
It’s the expansive nature of the first act and the shocking brutality of the second act that pave the way for the emotionally resonant third act. Vietnam sends Michael, Steven and Nick in dramatically different directions, and as Michael struggles to be the leader back in his hometown, Nick is MIA in Vietnam and Steven has lost his legs and much of his sanity. The working class Russian community from which they were birthed will never quite understand what these men went through, but the effects of Vietnam ripple out from these mens’ lives into the community around them in somber and compelling and [even occasionally] beautiful ways. The romance between Michael and Linda is a yearning, heartbreaking, and hopeful romance unlike many seen in cinema. Linda herself is a main character and kind of the anchor point for the “friends back home”. Vietnam devastates Linda from thousands of miles away. But as the closing credits for The Deer Hunter hit, a sad and beleaguered new family sit around a table together, breaking bread, remembering those they’ve lost, and reflecting on the past they shared which will never return. The events of their lives, of the war, have altered them forever, undoubtedly for the worse. But the subtle profundity of the final meal of The Deer Hunter is that the very community which has been devastated by what Vietnam did to their boys is the same community that will nurture and set about to heal those same boys.
I’ll be totally honest here. I jumped at this chance to revisit an American classic because it felt like a good time for me to re-engage with this material at a much more mature age to grapple with it. But I also felt like a 4K restoration would be a great opportunity as well. I want to say that The Deer Hunter does look great. It’s shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (also Oscar nominated) and undoubtedly features imagery that haunts American cinema to this day. But the 4K UHD Blu-ray just didn’t blow my mind. We’re at this point in our technology where these kinds of things are hugely subjective and the discernible difference between 4K and HD can sometimes be negligible to the human eye. There’s a tragic beauty to The Deer Hunter’s visuals as it depicts a bygone era of American industrialism in Pittsburgh. The film has a soft feel to its visuals, almost certainly by design. And that doesn’t lead to a breathtaking 4K experience. At least it didn’t for me. The Deer Hunter is a great film worth seeking out, and this release also offers new bonus material and interviews with talent from the film, as well as a Zsigmond commentary track, which makes this release an easy recommend. But if you’re looking for a sharp, crisp, 4K transfer that will fundamentally change the way you experience the film, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
And I’m Out.
The Deer Hunter is now available on UHD + Blu-ray Combo Pack from Shout Select