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The Deer Hunter

Today, I celebrate Veteran’s Day the only way I know how: With a movie and a blog entry.

I had set aside The Deer Hunter for this particular holiday, as I understood that it was one of cinema’s classic Vietnam War films. The film picked up five Oscars, and the American Film institute once ranked it as the 53rd greatest movie of all time. The film starred Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, and John Savage, all at the peak of their respective careers.

I thought I was in for a classic. In truth, I was in for three hours of unrelenting pain. I thought I knew just how much boredom could hurt, but it seems that The Deer Hunter had a few lessons to teach me.

Terror set in very early, when I realized that fifteen minutes had gone by and there was still no sign of conflict or crisis. Sure, there was something about how our main characters were going off to Vietnam in a few days, but that was all resolutely in the background. The film was primarily concerned with showing our primary cast getting wasted in preparation for a wedding.

So the wedding happened. And at the half-hour mark, it was still happening. And at the 45-minute mark, it was still happening. And at the 50-minute mark, it was finally starting to wrap up. And all the while, I’m screaming to know where the conflict is. What’s the story? What the hell am I watching?!

I mean, okay, I know that the first act is supposed to establish our main characters. I also know that this huge celebration is meant to be a pleasant diversion to make the action in Vietnam that much worse when we finally go over there. The problem is that when the party is every bit as painful to sit through, the contrast doesn’t really work. Additionally, the establishment of our main cast is totally worthless when they’re getting swallowed up by the set dressing.

No joke, the filmmakers were clearly more interested in spectacle than they were in story. The movie spends five minutes on the dances and the marriage rituals for every five seconds spent on anything that moves the story forward. This whole first act should have taken thirty minutes at most, not sixty!

I thought things were finally going to get interesting when the film finally went to Vietnam at the hour mark, but no. Instead, the film treats us to a parallel universe in which the Vietnam War was apparently fought by Russian Roulette. The game is played everywhere in this country, with a lot of money being spent and gambled on it. Some Viet Cong troops even go so far as to take our main characters prisoner and force them to play as some sick kind of schadenfreude.

First of all, this doesn’t even make any sense. Why would Vietnamese soldiers waste their prisoners with this worthless game instead of… oh, I don’t know, interrogating them?! Maybe using them for a hostage swap? Something that would actually give the Viet Cong an advantage in this war?

Secondly, according to my research, this was completely fictional. No Vietnamese soldiers ever did this to their prisoners. So the filmmakers sought to make a commentary about real soldiers suffering from real PTSD and real injuries as a result of a real war… and they did it by way of a fictional trauma. Now, I can’t say for certain because this whole thing was before my time and I wasn’t there, but I’m quite sure that the real traumas of the real Vietnam War were terrifying enough. There was absolutely no reason to dilute the message with this blatantly made-up racist bullshit.

Sweet Christ, Full Metal Jacket was a better look at the terrors of the Vietnam War and the traumas of those who fought in it. Apocalypse Now made better and more authentic use of the setting. Fucking Forrest Gump was a better war movie than this.

Still, despite all of that, I can’t bring myself to completely hate the movie. Somewhere under all the padding and the misguided Russian Roulette crap, there’s a good movie in here. The camerawork is gorgeous, the premise of three friends who go to war together is a compelling one, and the cast is more than talented enough to make the premise work. I don’t blame the movie, I blame the era in which this film came out.

Everything that sucks about this film is emblematic of the worst things about 1970s cinema. The bloated sense of self-importance. The sound mixing that renders dialogue inaudible. The emphasis on spectacular photography over coherent editing. The screenplay that barely has any structure to it. The pacing that’s slower than a sloth with no limbs. It’s all here.

Yet in spite of all that, the film won five Oscars. It won for Best Picture, it won for Best Direction, it won for Best Editing and Best Sound. How? Well, from the sound of it, the film won for entirely political reasons. The film was released in 1978 on two screens for one week, just enough to qualify for Academy consideration. After that, a powerful film producer named Allan Carr was somehow persuaded to spend all of his time, energy, and vast resources toward lobbying the Academy on the film’s behalf. Whatever he did worked, The Deer Hunter picked up its trophies, and the film went to wide release shortly afterward.

Maybe the film really did earn all of its accolades and the movie was simply a product of its time. I don’t know. I only know that I’ve seen corpses age better than The Deer Hunter has. The movie takes 183 minutes to tell a 90-minute story, which makes it unforgivably boring by modern standards. The racist portrayals of Vietnam and the grotesque Russian Roulette sequences don’t exactly help, either. I know there are plenty of arguments out there for the film’s artistic merit and for how the film’s use of Russian Roulette is actually a work of genius, but I honestly don’t care. The film is so bloated and so abysmally painful to sit through that no thematic rebuttal could redeem it as far as I’m concerned.

Ignore the hype, ladies and gents. There are way too many other, better war movies out there that you could and should be watching instead.

13 Comments

  1. Ping from Anne:

    Sound? It won an Oscar for sound? That says it all right there. Something was terribly wrong with movies in 1978. To be fair, most of the movies of that era were quite terrible. Self-importance was definitely in vogue.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Playing Devil’s Advocate, 1978 was also the year that gave us Superman, Dawn of the Dead, Animal House, Halloween, and Grease, so it certainly wasn’t all bad. Even so, looking at the Oscar-nominated films from that year, I’m left wondering what the hell was up with the Academy back then.

  3. Ping from Joshua:

    I highly doubt that you’ll have much enjoyment out of Heaven’s Gate, the film that the director did after The Deer Hunter. His arrogance and cockiness (from winning those Oscars) and its bloated running time of 216 minutes didn’t do him any favours.

  4. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Thanks for the heads-up, amigo.

  5. Ping from The Diabolical Dr. Z:

    If this is how you feel about The Deer Hunter, DO NOT WATCH Heaven’s Gate. It’s the only movie that makes me rage.
    It’s like the John Cassavetes movies of that era, where he thought if he kept emotion high for any reason (or none) it would seem genuine and okay, but you just feel like you’ve been jerked around when they’re over.
    Every facet of Heaven’s Gate gets a perfect grade, but there is one little problem: there’s no script.
    Your brain will go nova, believe me.
    Stick with the gritty, brutal action films from the 70s like Friedkin’s Sorcerer, that’s my advice. That one’s better than the movie it remakes.

  6. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Believe me, I get the idea. The film was never exactly on my “to watch” list to begin with, and that list is pretty darned long.

    Thanks for your input.

  7. Ping from Joe:

    Taxi Driver is an example of a great, yet slow movie. The editing is cohesive (thanks to Martin Scorsese, who was probably ahead of his time), the scenarios are intense and the climax is frightening and gruesome.

    The Deer Hunter was none of that. All it successfully did was bore the shit out of me.

  8. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    It is indeed a boring fucking movie. Though Taxi Driver is indeed a rightful classic. Thanks for reading.

  9. Ping from Anonymous:

    The line about Forrest Gump made me laugh.

  10. Ping from Anonymous:

    Also, the movie’s lack of structure — you nailed it. It felt like three hour-long vignettes stapled to each other.

    I was shocked by how bad The Deer Hunter was

  11. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Good, good, it’s not just me. And really, I stand by my argument that Forrest Gump was a better war movie than this fucking corpse of a film. Thanks for chiming in.

  12. Ping from Jack:

    Do you mean to say that “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket” aren’t good Vietnam War movies?

  13. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Looking back, I can see how you might have interpreted my statements that way. But no, I meant to say that those are both outstanding Vietnam War movies that hold up beautifully, which is far more than I can say for this movie.

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