Robert De Niro has made many, many iconic films in his time that will live on for generations. The films span time periods, decades and cultures. The list is long and distinguished and for good reason, he made brilliant films with brilliant performances and chose brilliant scripts. Any film maker could make a masterpiece with De Niro in his prime. One film maker took full advantage of his opportunity to do so.
Michael Cimino’s second film was the period at the end of a long sentence that was the Vietnam War. The Deer Hunter may have been the most, sadly forgotten film by many, as it’s rarely shown on television and certainly not on pay cable channels. It was the darkest side of the war that everyone knew was terrible, dark, sad and cruel.
The story is that of several Pennsylvania steel worker friends and what happens when three of the them are proudly shipped off to Vietnam and leave their small blue collar town behind. After being captured POW’s and facing the horror of what a POW goes through they struggle to return home and find any sense of normalcy.
The Deer Hunter took much criticism at the time of it’s release and since for it’s most controversial scenes during the POW capture. The prisoner’s are forced to play Russian Roulette for sport for the Vietcong to gamble over. The film then shows the effects their capture and the roulette has on the three surviving veterans. The controversy is over whether or not these things really happened or if this was a figment of the imagination of the screen writer. The true fact is that it doesn’t matter. The scenes were shown for one reason only, and that’s because the show so harrowingly how horrific this war and ALL wars are. These powerful scenes that are even hard to watch no matter how many times you see them are like that so they make the deepest impact on the viewer and reach him in an effort to show the ferocity of war.
When Robert De Niro was awarded the AFI lifetime achievement award in 2003 with a special ceremony, they touched on most of his films and showed clips of interviews where he discussed his films. During no other discussion was he nearly as emotional as he was when he talked about The Deer Hunter and the affect it had on him. He was nominated for every award across the board but won very few, sadly.
Christopher Walken emerged an acting star for his role as Nick. Nick becomes disconnected with reality and stays in Saigon and begins playing roulette for money and the thrill, not realizing his actions and what he has left behind at home. It’s only when Michael (De Niro) returns to Saigon to attempt to bring his friend home does he briefly see his friend through his jaded and fogged view of life.
Michael Cimino never achieved again anything close to The Deer Hunter in his career, nor does he ever have to. His film left an indelible mark on the minds of those who saw and those who continue to discover it. While the film will be remembered for it’s terrifying roulette scenes and for Walken’s stunning performance. It will also be known for bringing Meryl Streep to the forefront of the movie world and being the last work of John Cazale who was in some of the most pivotal movies of the decade. It was the sad and last word on a horrific time in American history. The film is not a perfect film, but all of it’s aspects together from the story and the emotions it draws on to the acting to it’s most beautifully haunting musical score, it’s a movie that couldn’t be made any better.
Many artists make many many pieces and rarely are they masterpieces let alone one of them. Film makers are artists and many of them don’t make masterpieces, Michael Cimino didn’t make too many films but he has the distinct privilege of having made a true masterpiece, no matter how dark and depressing or sad it may be considered. It was truly a piece that had to be crafted and made and it was done with a perfect stroke by it’s artists hand.