AFI #53: The Deer Hunter

In 1978 the Vietnam War was still very much on the minds of Americans and this played out artistically with intense films over the years meant to stir the emotions and remind us that war is hell. This particular war gave us some very memorable and important films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Coming Home, In Country, Gardens of Stone, and The Killing Fields. The best of these films at portraying what it might have been like in Vietnam was Apocalypse Now, and for my money the best at portraying what it was like for those who served was The Deer Hunter.

The 1979 Best Picture winner starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage and John Cazale is the most emotional depiction of the war’s toll on small town America. Most of the film isn’t even set in Vietnam, but rather in the small Pennsylvania steel town where first-generation Americans born of Russian immigrants volunteered to go to Southeast Asia in support of the country that did so much for their families. The three “heroes” played by Walken, Savage and De Niro leave their hard scrabble life where they enjoy the little things like drinking with friends and deer hunting in the nearby mountains only to encounter horrors of war that none of them could have imagined. The result turns their lives upside down and also affects the lives of their friends and loved ones left behind. The film came out just a few years after the end of the war, and so it made quite an impression on the American audience.

The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. De Niro and Streep were also nominated but did not win. Walken’s performance was memorable and indicative of his great work to come over the years. His portrayal of Nick was haunting and intense and leaves you breathless during the climactic scene when De Niro returns to Vietnam to try to bring him home from his new life playing Russian Roulette for money. The scenes in Vietnam when the guys are captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and forced to play Russian Roulette are as dramatic as any scene ever filmed and leave a lasting impression; in fact, the film is often remembered specifically for that scene. But the scenes before the war and after the war back in Pennsylvania are equally emotional and powerful.

It’s hard to imagine another film that leaves you with such a bad taste in your mouth about war and the human condition related to war. Surely The Deer Hunter is as strong an indictment of war as any film ever made and it is undoubtedly one of the best American films ever made. I have always counted it among my all-time favorites and it’s a little surprising to me that it wasn’t higher on the AFI list. Apocalypse Now comes in at #30 and I think The Deer Hunter is superior in most ways (I’m sure many of you will disagree but this is my blog!).

Next up is the second straight De Niro flick: Taxi Driver


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