The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Cimino, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, and marked Meryl Streep's very first Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actress); she would go on to become the most nominated actress in history. In 1996 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", and was named the 53rd greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute in 2007 in their 10th Anniversary Edition of the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list.
In Clairton, a small working class town in western Pennsylvania, in late 1967, Russian-American steel workers Michael "Mike" Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken), with the support of their friends and co-workers Stan (John Cazale) and Peter "Axel" Axelrod (Chuck Aspegren) and local bar owner and friend John Welsh (George Dzundza), prepare for two rites of passage: marriage and military service. The opening scenes set the traits of the three main characters. Mike is the no-nonsense, serious, but unassuming leader; Steven the loving groom-to-be, pecked-at by his mother; and Nick the quiet, introspective man who loves deer hunting because he likes "…the trees…the way the trees are". The recurring theme of hunting with "one shot", which is how Mike prefers to take down a deer, is introduced.
Before the trio ships out, Steven and his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda), who is pregnant by another man, but loved by Steven nonetheless, marry in a Russian Orthodox wedding. In the meantime, Mike works to control his feelings for Nick's girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep). At the wedding reception held at the local VFW hall, the guys drink, dance, sing, and enjoy the festivities, but then notice a soldier in a U.S. Army Special Forces uniform. Mike attempts to ask what Vietnam is like, but the soldier ignores him. After Mike explains that he, Steven, and Nick are going to Vietnam, the Green Beret raises his glass and says "fuck it". After being restrained by the others from starting a fight, Mike goes back to the bar and, in a mocking jest to the soldier, raises his glass and toasts him with "fuck it". The soldier then glances over at Mike and grins.
Later, Steven and Angela drink from conjoined goblets, a traditional part of the Orthodox wedding ceremony. It is believed that if they drink without spilling any wine, they will have good luck for life. Two drops of blood-red wine unknowingly spill on her wedding gown. After Linda catches the bride's bouquet, Nick asks her to marry him, and she agrees. Later that night, a drunken Mike runs through the town, stripping himself naked along the way. After Nick chases him down, he begs Mike not to leave him "over there" if anything happens in combat. The next day, Mike, Nick, Stan, John, and Axel go deer hunting one last time. Mike is exasperated by his friends, especially Stan, who drinks and clowns, showing little respect for the ritual of hunting, which to Mike is a nearly sacred experience. Only Nick understands Mike's attitude, but he is more indulgent toward his friends. Mike goes hunting afterwards and kills a deer with one clean shot.
Act one finishes with the friends arriving back at Welsh's bar, with Michael's deer strapped to the hood of the car. They enter rambunctiously, spraying beers over each other and singing loudly. Welsh then makes his way to a piano and begins playing methodically as the others sit quietly. They sit in silence, strewn all over the bar, as their friend plays Chopin's Nocturne No. 6 Op. 15-3, a peaceful, yet ominous melody.
The film then jumps abruptly to war-torn Vietnam, where U.S. helicopters attack a Communist-occupied village with napalm. A North Vietnamese soldier throws a stick grenade into a hiding place full of civilians. An unconscious Mike (now a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces) wakes up to see the NVA soldier shoot a woman carrying a baby. Mike kills him with a flamethrower. Meanwhile, a unit of UH-1 "Huey" helicopters drops off several U.S. infantrymen, Nick and Steven among them. Mike, Steven, and Nick unexpectedly find each other just before they are captured and held together in a riverside prisoner of war camp with other U.S. Army and ARVN prisoners. For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. All three friends are forced to play. Steven plays against Mike, who offers moral support, but Steven breaks down and points the gun upwards whilst pulling the trigger, grazing himself with the bullet when it discharges. As punishment, the guards put him into an underwater cage full of rats and the bodies of others who earlier faced the same fate. Mike and Nick hatch a plan to escape by playing against each other, with Mike convincing the guards to let them play Russian roulette with three bullets in the gun. After a tense match, they kill their captors and escape.
Mike earlier argued with Nick about whether or not Steven could be saved, but after killing their captors, he rescues Steven. The three float downriver on a tree branch. An American helicopter finds them, but only Nick is able to climb aboard. The weakened Steven falls back into the water, and Mike plunges in the water to rescue him. Mike helps Steven to reach the river bank, but Steven's legs are broken, so Mike carries him through the jungle to friendly lines. Approaching a caravan of locals escaping the war zone, Mike stops a South Vietnamese military truck and places the wounded Steven on it, asking the soldiers to take care of him.
Nick, who is psychologically damaged, recuperates in a military hospital in Saigon with no knowledge on the status of his friends. After being released, he goes AWOL and aimlessly stumbles through the red-light district at night. At one point, he encounters Julien Grinda, a champagne-drinking, friendly Frenchman, outside a gambling den where men play Russian roulette for money. Grinda entices the reluctant Nick to participate and leads him into the den. Mike is present in the den, watching the game, but the two friends do not notice each other at first. When Mike does see Nick, he is unable to get his attention. When Nick is introduced into the game, he grabs the gun, fires it at the current contestant, and then again at his own temple, causing the audience to riot in protest. Grinda hustles Nick outside to his car to escape the angry mob. Mike cannot catch up with Nick and Grinda as they speed away.
Back in the U.S., Mike arrives home but maintains a low profile. While en route home, he tells a cab driver to drive past the house where all his friends are assembled with a large banner outside, as he is embarrassed by the fuss Linda and the others have made. He visits Linda the following day and grows close to her, but only because of the friend they both think they have lost. Mike eventually learns about Angela, whom he goes to visit at the home of Steven's mother. Angela is apathetic and barely responsive. When asked by Mike about Steven's whereabouts, she writes a phone number on a scrap of paper, which leads Mike to the local veterans' hospital where Steven has been for several months. Mike goes hunting with Axel, John, and Stan one more time, and after tracking a deer across the woods, takes his one shot but pulls the rifle up and fires into the air. He then sits on a rock escarpment and yells out, "OK?", which echoes back at him from the opposing rock faces leading down to the river, signifying his fight with his mental demons over losing Steven and Nick. He also berates Stan for carrying around a small revolver and waving it around, not realizing it is still loaded. Mike visits Steven, who has lost both of his legs and is partially paralyzed. Steven reveals that someone in Saigon has been mailing large amounts of money to him, and Mike is convinced that it is Nick. Mike brings a reluctant Steven home to Angela and then travels to Saigon just before its fall in 1975.
He tracks down Grinda, who has made a lot of money from the Russian roulette-playing Nick. He finds Nick in a crowded gambling club, but Nick appears to have no recollection of his friends or his home in Pennsylvania. Mike enters himself in a game of Russian roulette against Nick, hoping to jog Nick's memory and persuade him to come home, but Nick's mind is gone. To keep him from taking another turn, Mike grabs Nick's arms, which are covered in scars (implied to be heroin tracks). At the last moment, after Mike reminds Nick of their hunting trips together, he finally breaks through, and Nick recognizes Mike and smiles. Nick then tells Mike, "one shot", raises the gun to his temple, and pulls the trigger. The round is in the gun's top chamber, and Nick kills himself. Horrified, Mike tries reviving him, but to no avail.
Back home in 1975, the friends have gathered for Nick's funeral, whom Mike has brought home, staying good to his promise. The film ends with everyone at John's bar, singing "God Bless America". Mike toasts in Nick's honor.Robert De Niro as S/Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky. Producer Deeley pursued De Niro for The Deer Hunter because he felt that he needed De Niro's star power to sell a film with a "gruesome-sounding storyline and a barely known director". "I liked the script, and [Cimino] had done a lot of prep," said De Niro. "I was impressed." De Niro prepared by socializing with steelworkers in local bars and by visiting their homes. Cimino introduced De Niro as his agent, Harry Ufland. No one recognized him. De Niro claims this was his most physically exhausting film. He explained that the scene where Mike visits Steven in the hospital for the first time was the most emotional scene that he was ever involved with. De Niro was a last-minute replacement for Roy Scheider, who dropped out of the production two weeks before the start of filming due to "creative differences"; Universal managed to keep Scheider to his three-picture contract by forcing him into doing Jaws 2 (1978).
Christopher Walken as Cpl. Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich. His performance garnered his first Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor.
John Savage as Cpl. Steven Pushkov.
John Cazale as Stan ("Stosh"). All scenes involving Cazale, who had terminal cancer, were filmed first. Because of his illness, the studio initially wanted to fire him, but Streep, with whom he was in a relationship, and Cimino threatened to walk away if they did. He was also uninsurable, and according to Streep, De Niro paid for his insurance because he wanted Cazale in the film. This was Cazale's last film, as he died shortly after filming wrapped. Cazale never saw the finished film.
Meryl Streep as Linda. Prior to The Deer Hunter, Streep was seen briefly in Fred Zinnemann's Julia (1977) and the eight-hour miniseries Holocaust (1978). In the screenplay, Streep's role was negligible. Cimino explained the set-up to Streep and suggested that she write her own lines.
George Dzundza as John Welsh
Pierre Segui as Julien Grinda
Shirley Stoler as Steven's mother
Chuck Aspegren as Peter "Axel" Axelrod. Aspegren was not an actor; he was the foreman at an East Chicago steelworks visited early in pre-production by De Niro and Cimino. They were so impressed with him that they offered him the role. He was the second person to be cast in the film, after De Niro.
Rutanya Alda as Angela Ludhjduravic-Pushkov
Amy Wright as Bridesmaid
Joe Grifasi as Bandleader
While producer Deeley was pleased with the revised script, he was still concerned about being able to sell the film. "We still had to get millions out of a major studio," wrote Deeley, "as well as convince our markets around the world that they should buy it before it was finished. I needed someone with the caliber of Robert De Niro." De Niro was one of the biggest stars at that time, coming off Mean Streets (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976). In addition to attracting buyers, Deeley felt De Niro was "the right age, apparently tough as hell, and immensely talented."
Hiring De Niro turned out to be a casting coup because he knew so many actors in New York. De Niro brought Meryl Streep to the attention of Cimino and Deeley. With Streep came John Cazale. De Niro also accompanied Cimino to scout locations for the steel mill sequence as well as rehearsed with the actors to use the workshops as a bonding process.
Each of the six principal male characters carried a photo in their back pocket depicting them all together as children, to enhance the sense of camaraderie amongst them. Additionally, director Cimino instructed the props department to fashion complete Pennsylvania IDs for each of them, including driver's licenses, medical cards, and various other pieces of paraphernalia, in order to enhance each actor's sense of his character.
There has been considerable debate, controversy, and conflicting stories about how The Deer Hunter was initially developed and written. Director and co-writer Michael Cimino, writer Deric Washburn, and producers Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley all have different versions of how the film came to be.
In 1968, the record company EMI formed a new company called EMI Films, headed by producers Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley. Deeley purchased the first draft of a spec script called The Man Who Came to Play, written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker, for $19,000. The spec script was about people who go to Las Vegas to play Russian roulette. "The screenplay had struck me as brilliant," wrote Deeley, "but it wasn't complete. The trick would be to find a way to turn a very clever piece of writing into a practical, realizable film." When the movie was being planned during the mid-1970s, Vietnam was still a taboo subject with all major Hollywood studios. According to producer Michael Deeley, the standard response was "no American would want to see a picture about Vietnam".
After consulting various Hollywood agents, Deeley found writer-director Michael Cimino, represented by Stan Kamen at the William Morris Agency. Deeley was impressed by Cimino's TV commercial work and crime film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). Cimino himself was confident that he could further develop the principal characters of The Man Who Came to Play without losing the essence of the original. After Cimino was hired, he was called into a meeting with Garfinkle and Redeker at the EMI office. According to Deeley, Cimino questioned the need for the Russian roulette element of the script, and Redeker made such a passionate case for it that he ended up literally on his knees. Over the course of further meetings, Cimino and Deeley discussed the work needed at the front of the script, and Cimino believed he could develop the stories of the main characters in the first 20 minutes of film.
Cimino worked for six weeks with Deric Washburn on the script. Cimino and Washburn had previously collaborated with Stephen Bochco on the screenplay for Silent Running (1972). According to producer Spikings, Cimino said he wanted to work again with Washburn. According to producer Deeley, he only heard from office rumor that Washburn was contracted by Cimino to work on the script. "Whether Cimino hired Washburn as his sub-contractor or as a co-writer was constantly being obfuscated," wrote Deeley, "and there were some harsh words between them later on, or so I was told."
According to Cimino, he would call Washburn while on the road scouting for locations and feed him notes on dialogue and story. Upon reviewing Washburn's draft, Cimino said, "I came back, and read it and I just could not believe what I read. It was like it was written by somebody who was ... mentally deranged." Cimino confronted Washburn at the Sunset Marquis in LA about the draft, and Washburn supposedly replied that he couldn't take the pressure and had to go home. Cimino then fired Washburn. Cimino later claimed to have written the entire screenplay himself. Washburn's response to Cimino's comments were, "It's all nonsense. It's lies. I didn't have a single drink the entire time I was working on the script."
According to Washburn, he and Cimino spent three days together in Los Angeles at the Sunset Marquis, hammering out the plot. The script eventually went through several drafts, evolving into a story with three distinct acts. Washburn did not interview any veterans to write The Deer Hunter nor do any research. "I had a month, that was it," he explains. "The clock was ticking. Write the fucking script! But all I had to do was watch TV. Those combat cameramen in Vietnam were out there in the field with the guys. I mean, they had stuff that you wouldn't dream of seeing about Iraq." When Washburn was finished, he says, Cimino and Joann Carelli, an associate producer on The Deer Hunter who went on to produce two more of Cimino's later films, took him to dinner at a cheap restaurant off the Sunset Strip. He recalls, "We finished, and Joann looks at me across the table, and she says, 'Well, Deric, it's fuck-off time.' I was fired. It was a classic case: you get a dummy, get him to write the goddamn thing, tell him to go fuck himself, put your name on the thing, and he'll go away. I was so tired, I didn't care. I'd been working 20 hours a day for a month. I got on the plane the next day, and I went back to Manhattan and my carpenter job."
Deeley felt the revised script, now called The Deer Hunter, broke fresh ground for the project. The protagonist in the Redeker/Garfinkle script, Merle, was an individual who sustained a bad injury in active service and was damaged psychologically by his violent experiences, but was nevertheless a tough character with strong nerves and guts. Cimino and Washburn's revised script distilled the three aspects of Merle's personality and separated them out into three distinct characters. They became three old friends who grew up in the same small industrial town and worked in the same steel mill, and in due course were drafted together to Vietnam. In the original script, the roles of Merle (later renamed Mike) and Nick were reversed in the last half of the film. Nick returns home to Linda, while Mike remains in Vietnam, sends money home to help Steven, and meets his tragic fate at the Russian roulette table.
A Writers' Guild arbitration process awarded Washburn sole "Screenplay by" credit. Garfinkle and Redeker were given a shared "Story by" credit with Cimino and Washburn. Deeley felt the story credits for Garfinkle and Redeker "did them less than justice." Cimino contested the results of the arbitration. "In their Nazi wisdom," added Cimino, "[they] didn't give me the credit because I would be producer, director and writer." All four writers—Cimino, Washburn, Garfinkle, and Redeker—received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the film.
The Deer Hunter began principal photography on June 20, 1977. This was the first feature film depicting the Vietnam War to be filmed on location in Thailand. All scenes were shot on location (no sound stages). "There was discussion about shooting the film on a back lot, but the material demanded more realism," says Spikings. The cast and crew viewed large amounts of news footage from the war to ensure authenticity. The film was shot over a period of six months. The Clairton scenes comprise footage shot in eight different towns in four states: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Ohio. The initial budget of the film was $8.5 million.
Meryl Streep accepted the role of the "vague, stock girlfriend", in order to remain for the duration of filming with John Cazale, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer. De Niro had spotted Streep in her stage production of The Cherry Orchard and had suggested that she play his girlfriend Linda. Before the beginning of principal photography, Deeley had a meeting with the film's appointed line producer Robert Relyea. Deeley hired Relyea after meeting him on the set of Bullitt (1968) and was impressed with his experience. However, Relyea declined the job, refusing to disclose his reason why. Deeley suspected that Relyea sensed in director Cimino something that would have made production difficult. As a result, Cimino was acting without the day-to-day supervision of a producer.
Because Deeley was busy overseeing in the production of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy (1978), he hired John Peverall to oversee Cimino's shoot. Peverall's expertise with budgeting and scheduling made him a natural successor to Relyea, and Peverall knew enough about the picture to be elevated to producer status. "John is a straightforward Cornishman who had worked his way up to become a production supervisor," wrote Deeley, "and we employed him as EMI's watchman on certain pictures."
The wedding scenes were filmed at the historic St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. The wedding took five days to film. St. Theodosius' Father Stephen Kopestonsky was cast as the priest at the wedding. The reception scene was filmed at nearby Lemko Hall. The amateur extras lined up for the crowded wedding-dance sequences drank real liquor and beer. The scenes were filmed in the summer, but were set in the fall. To accomplish a look of fall, individual leaves were removed from deciduous trees. Zsigmond also had to desaturate the colors of the exterior shots, partly in camera and in the laboratory processing.
The production manager asked each of the Russian immigrant extras to bring to the location a gift-wrapped box to double for wedding presents. The manager figured if the extras did this, not only would the production save time and money, but the gifts would also look more authentic. Once the unit wrapped and the extras disappeared, the crew discovered to their amusement that the boxes weren't empty but filled with real presents, from china to silverware. "Who got to keep all these wonderful offerings," wrote Deeley "is a mystery I never quite fathomed."
Cimino originally claimed that the wedding scene would take up 21 minutes of screen time. In the end, it took 51 minutes. Deeley believes that Cimino always planned to make this prologue last for an hour, and "the plan was to be advanced by stealth rather than straight dealing."
At this point in the production, nearly halfway through principal photography, Cimino was already over budget, and producer Spikings could tell from the script that shooting the extended scene could sink the project.
The bar was specially constructed in an empty storefront in Mingo Junction, Ohio for $25,000; it later became an actual saloon for local steel mill workers. U.S. Steel allowed filming inside its Cleveland mill, including placing the actors around the furnace floor, only after securing a $5 million insurance policy. Other filming took place in Pittsburgh.
The first deer to be shot was depicted in a "gruesome close-up", although he was hit with a tranquilizer dart. The stag that Michael allows to get away later was the same one used on TV commercials for the Connecticut Life Insurance Company.
The Viet Cong Russian roulette scenes were shot in real circumstances, with real rats and mosquitoes, as the three principals (De Niro, Walken, and Savage) were tied up in bamboo cages erected along the River Kwai. The woman who was given the task of casting the extras in Thailand had much difficulty finding a local to play the vicious-looking individual who runs the game. The first actor hired turned out to be incapable of slapping De Niro in the face. The caster then found a local Thai man with a particular dislike of Americans, and cast him accordingly. De Niro suggested that Walken be slapped for real by one of the guards without any warning. The reaction on Walken's face was genuine. Producer Deeley has said that Cimino shot the brutal Vietcong Russian roulette scenes brilliantly and more efficiently than any other part of the film.
De Niro and Savage performed their own stunts in the fall into the river, filming the 30 foot drop 15 times in two days. During the helicopter stunt, the runners caught on the ropes of the suspension bridge and as the helicopter rose, it threatened to seriously injure De Niro and Savage. The actors gestured and yelled furiously to the crew in the helicopter to warn them. Footage of this is included in the film.
According to Cimino, De Niro requested a live cartridge in the revolver for the scene in which he subjects John Cazale's character to an impromptu game of Russian roulette, to heighten the intensity of the situation. Cazale agreed without protest, but obsessively rechecked the gun before each take to make sure that the live round wasn't next in the chamber.
While appearing later in the film, the first scenes shot upon arrival in Thailand were the hospital sequences between Walken and the military doctor. Deeley believed that this scene was "the spur that would earn him an Academy Award."
In the final scene in the gambling den between Mike and Nick, Cimino had Walken and De Niro improvise in one take. His direction to his actors: "You put the gun to your head, Chris, you shoot, you fall over and Bobby cradles your head."St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. The name plaque is clearly visible in one scene.
Lemko Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. Also located in Tremont, the wedding banquet was filmed here. The name is clearly visible in one scene.
U.S. Steel Central Furnaces in Cleveland, Ohio. Opening sequence steel mill scenes.
Patpong, Bangkok, Thailand, the area used to represent Saigon's red light district.
Sai Yok, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Nooksack Falls in the North Cascades range of, Washington, deer hunting scenes.
Steubenville, Ohio, for some mill and neighborhood shots.
Struthers, Ohio, for external house and long-range road shots. Also including, the town's bowling alley is the Bowladrome Lanes, located at 56 State Street, Struthers, Ohio.
Weirton, West Virginia, for mill and trailer shots.
River Kwai, Thailand, Prison camp and initial Russian roulette scene.
By this point, The Deer Hunter had cost $13 million and the film still had to go through an arduous post-production. Film editor Peter Zinner was given 600,000 feet of printed film to edit, a monumental task at the time. Producers Spikings and Deeley were pleased with the first cut, which ran for three and a half hours. "We were thrilled by what we saw," wrote Deeley, "and knew that within the three and a half hours we watched there was a riveting film."
Executives from Universal, including Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg, were not very enthusiastic. "I think they were shocked," recalled Spikings. "What really upset them was 'God Bless America'. Sheinberg thought it was anti-American. He was vehement. He said something like 'You're poking a stick in the eye of America.' They really didn't like the movie. And they certainly didn't like it at three hours and two minutes." Deeley wasn't surprised by the Universal response: "The Deer Hunter was a United Artists sort of picture, whereas Convoy was more in the style of Universal. I'd muddled and sold the wrong picture to each studio." Deeley did agree with Universal that the film needed to be shorter, not just because of pacing but also to ensure commercial success. "A picture under two and a half hours can scrape three shows a day," wrote Deeley, "but at three hours you've lost one third of your screenings and one third of your income for the cinemas, distributors, and profit participants."
Thom Mount, president of Universal at the time, said, "This was just a... continuing nightmare from the day Michael finished the picture to the day we released it. That was simply because he was wedded to everything he shot. The movie was endless. It was The Deer Hunter and the Hunter and the Hunter. The wedding sequence was a cinematic event all unto its own." Mount says he turned to Verna Fields, Universal's then-head of post-production. "I sicked Verna on Cimino," Mount says. "Verna was no slouch. She started to turn the heat up on Michael, and he started screeching and yelling."
Zinner eventually cut the film down to 18,000 feet. Cimino later fired Zinner when he discovered that Zinner was editing down the wedding scenes. Zinner eventually won Best Editing Oscar for The Deer Hunter. Regarding the clashes between him and Cimino, Zinner stated: "Michael Cimino and I had our differences at the end, but he kissed me when we both got Academy Awards." Cimino later commented in The New York Observer, "[Zinner] was a moron ... I cut Deer Hunter myself."
The Deer Hunter was Cimino's first film to use Dolby noise-reduction system. "What Dolby does," replied Cimino, "is to give you the ability to create a density of detail of sound—a richness so you can demolish the wall separating the viewer from the film. You can come close to demolishing the screen." It took five months to mix the soundtrack. One short battle sequence—200 feet of film in the final cut—took five days to dub. Another sequence recreated the 1975 American evacuation of Saigon; Cimino brought the film's composer, Stanley Myers, out to the location to listen to the auto, tank, and jeep horns as the sequence was being photographed. The result, according to Cimino: Myers composed the music for that scene in the same key as the horn sounds, so the music and the sound effects would blend with the images to create one jarring, desolate experience.
Both the long and short versions were previewed to Midwestern audiences, although there are different accounts among Cimino, Deeley, and Spikings as to how the previews panned out. Director Cimino claims he bribed the projectionist to interrupt the shorter version, in order to obtain better reviews of the longer one. According to producer Spikings, Wasserman let EMI's CEO Bernard Delfont decide between the two and chose Cimino's longer cut. Deeley claims that the two-and-a-half hour version tested had a better response.
The soundtrack to The Deer Hunter was released on audio CD on October 25, 1990.Stanley Myers' "Cavatina" (also known as "He Was Beautiful"), performed by classical guitarist John Williams, is commonly known as "The Theme from The Deer Hunter". According to producer Deeley, he discovered that the song was originally written for a film called The Walking Stick (1970) and, as a result, had to pay the original purchaser an undisclosed sum.
"Can't Take My Eyes Off You", a 1967 hit song, sung by Frankie Valli. It is played in John's bar when all of the friends sing along and at the wedding reception. According to Cimino, the actors sang along to a recording of the song as it was played instead of singing to a beat track, a standard filmmaking practice. Cimino felt that would make the sing-along seem more real.
During the wedding ceremonies and party, the Eastern Orthodox Church songs such as "Slava", and Russian folk songs such as "Korobushka" and "Katyusha", are played.
Russian Orthodox funeral music is also employed during Nick's funeral scene, mainly "Vechnaya Pamyat", which means "eternal memory".
The Deer Hunter debuted at one theater each in New York and Los Angeles for a week on December 8, 1978. The release strategy was to qualify the film for Oscar consideration and close after a week to build interest. After the Oscar nominations, Universal widened the distribution to include major cities, building up to a full-scale release on February 23, 1979, just following the Oscars. This film was important for helping massage release patterns for so-called prestige pictures that screen only at the end of the year to qualify for Academy Award recognition. The film eventually grossed $48.9 million at the US box office.
CBS paid $3.5 million for three runs of the film. The network later cancelled the acquisition on the contractually permitted grounds of the film containing too much violence for US network transmission.
One of the most talked-about sequences in the film, the Vietcong's use of Russian roulette with POWs, was criticized as being contrived and unrealistic since there were no documented cases of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War. Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette ... The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie." Director Cimino was also criticized for one-sidedly portraying all the North Vietnamese as sadistic racists and killers. Cimino countered that his film was not political, polemical, literally accurate, or posturing for any particular point of view. He further defended his position by saying that he had news clippings from Singapore that confirm Russian roulette was used during the war (without specifying which article).
During the 29th Berlin International Film Festival in 1979, the Soviet delegation expressed its indignation with the film which, in their opinion, insulted the Vietnamese people in numerous scenes. Other socialist states also voiced their solidarity with the "heroic people of Vietnam". They protested against the screening of the film and insisted that it violated the statutes of the festival, since it in no way contributed to the "improvement of mutual understanding between the peoples of the world". The ensuing domino effect led to the walk-outs of the Cubans, East Germans, Bulgarians, Poles and Czechoslovakians, and two members of the jury resigned in sympathy.
In his review, Roger Ebert defended the artistic license of Russian roulette, arguing "it is the organizing symbol of the film: Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological statement about the war superfluous."
Film critic and biographer David Thomson also agrees that the film works despite the controversy: "There were complaints that the North Vietnamese had not employed Russian roulette. It was said that the scenes in Saigon were fanciful or imagined. It was also suggested that De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage were too old to have enlisted for Vietnam (Savage, the youngest of the three, was 28). Three decades later, 'imagination' seems to have stilled those worries ... and The Deer Hunter is one of the great American films."
In her review, Pauline Kael wrote, "The Vietcong are treated in the standard inscrutable-evil Oriental style of the Japanese in the Second World War movies ... The impression a viewer gets is that if we did some bad things there we did them ruthlessly but impersonally; the Vietcong were cruel and sadistic."
In his Vanity Fair article "The Vietnam Oscars", Peter Biskind wrote that the political agenda of The Deer Hunter was something of a mystery: "It may have been more a by-product of Hollywood myopia, the demands of the war-film genre, garden-variety American parochialism, and simple ignorance than it was the pre-meditated right-wing road map it seemed to many."
According to Christopher Walken, the historical context wasn't paramount: "In the making of it, I don't remember anyone ever mentioning Vietnam!" De Niro added to this sentiment: "Whether [the film's vision of the war] actually happened or not, it's something you could imagine very easily happening. Maybe it did. I don't know. All's fair in love and war." Producer Spikings, while proud of the film, regrets the way the Vietnamese were portrayed. "I don't think any of us meant it to be exploitive," Spikings said. "But I think we were ... ignorant. I can't think of a better word for it. I didn't realize how badly we'd behaved to the Vietnamese people ..."
Producer Deeley, on the other hand, was quick to defend Cimino's comments on the nature and motives of the film: "The Deer Hunter wasn't really 'about' Vietnam. It was something very different. It wasn't about drugs or the collapse of the morale of the soldiers. It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently. The film was about three steel workers in extraordinary circumstances. Apocalypse Now is surreal. The Deer Hunter is a parable ... Men who fight and lose an unworthy war face some obvious and unpalatable choices. They can blame their leaders.. or they can blame themselves. Self-blame has been a great burden for many war veterans. So how does a soldier come to terms with his defeat and yet still retain his self-respect? One way is to present the conquering enemy as so inhuman, and the battle between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them) so uneven, as to render defeat irrelevant. Inhumanity was the theme of The Deer Hunter's portrayal of the North Vietnamese prison guards forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The audience's sympathy with prisoners who (quite understandably) cracked thus completes the chain. Accordingly, some veterans who suffered in that war found the Russian roulette a valid allegory."
Cimino frequently referred to The Deer Hunter as a "personal" and "autobiographical" film, although later investigation by journalists like Tom Buckley of Harper's revealed inaccuracies in Cimino's accounts and reported background.
In 1986, critic Robin Wood examined what he viewed as the film's homosexual subtext. In the film's central "male love affair" Mike supposedly represents the powers of control and repression, whereas Nick stands for release and liberation. According to Wood, "Nick both is and knows himself to be in love with Mike and Mike reciprocates that love but can't admit it, even to himself". In the end, Wood argues that Nick shoots himself because "he has recognized that Mike offers nothing but a return to repression".
The final scene in which all the main characters gather and sing "God Bless America" became a subject of heated debate among critics when the film was released. It raised the question of whether this conclusion was meant ironically or not – "as a critique of patriotism or a paean to it".
The film's initial reviews were largely positive. It was hailed by many critics as the best American epic since Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. The film was praised for its depiction of realistic working class settings and environment; Cimino's direction; the performances of De Niro, Walken, Streep, Savage, Dzundza and Cazale; the symphonic shifts of tone and pacing in moving from America to Vietnam; the tension during the Russian roulette scenes; and the themes of American disillusionment.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars and called it "one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made." Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune praised the film, saying, "This is a big film, dealing with big issues, made on a grand scale. Much of it, including some casting decisions, suggest inspiration by The Godfather." Leonard Maltin also gave the film four stars, calling it a "sensitive, painful, evocative work". Vincent Canby of the New York Times called The Deer Hunter "a big, awkward, crazily ambitious motion picture that comes as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since The Godfather. Its vision is that of an original, major new filmmaker." David Denby of New York called it "an epic" with "qualities that we almost never see any more—range and power and breadth of experience." Jack Kroll of Time asserted it put director Cimino "right at the center of film culture." Stephen Farber pronounced the film in New West magazine as "the greatest anti-war movie since La Grande Illusion."
However, The Deer Hunter was not without critical backlash. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote a positive review with some reservations: "[It is] a small minded film with greatness in it ... with an enraptured view of common life ... [but] enraging, because, despite its ambitiousness and scale, it has no more moral intelligence than the Eastwood action pictures." Andrew Sarris wrote that the film was "massively vague, tediously elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical ... It is perhaps significant that the actors remain more interesting than the characters they play." Jonathan Rosenbaum disparaged The Deer Hunter as an "Oscar-laden weepie about macho buddies" and "a disgusting account of what the evil Vietnamese did to poor, innocent Americans". John Simon of New York wrote: "For all its pretensions to something newer and better, this film is only an extension of the old Hollywood war-movie lie. The enemy is still bestial and stupid, and no match for our purity and heroism; only we no longer wipe up the floor with him—rather, we litter it with his guts."
Author Karina Longworth notes that Streep "made a case for female empowerment by playing a woman to whom empowerment was a foreign concept—a normal lady from an average American small town, for whom subservience was the only thing she knew". She states that The Deer Hunter "evokes a version of dominant masculinity in which male friendship is a powerful force". It has a "credibly humanist message", and that the "slow study of the men in blissfully ignorant homeland machismo is crucial to it".
The film holds a metascore of 73 on Metacritic, based on seven reviews, and 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 48 reviews. The RT summary reads:
Its greatness is blunted by its length and one-sided point of view, but the film's weaknesses are overpowered by Michael Cimino's sympathetic direction and a series of heartbreaking performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken.3rd—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert also placed Deer Hunter on his list of the best films of the 1970s.
3rd—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
Academy Award-winning film director Miloš Forman and Academy Award-nominated actor Mickey Rourke consider The Deer Hunter to be one of the greatest films of all time.
Cimino's next film, Heaven's Gate (1980), debuted to lacerating reviews and took in only $3 million in ticket sales, effectively leaving United Artists bankrupt. The failure of Heaven's Gate led several critics to revise their positions on The Deer Hunter. Canby said in his famous review of Heaven's Gate, "[The film] fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the Devil has just come around to collect." Andrew Sarris wrote in his review of Heaven's Gate, "I'm a little surprised that many of the same critics who lionized Cimino for The Deer Hunter have now thrown him to the wolves with equal enthusiasm." Sarris added, "I was never taken in ... Hence, the stupidity and incoherence in Heaven's Gate came as no surprise since very much the same stupidity and incoherence had been amply evident in The Deer Hunter." In his book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate, Steven Bach wrote, "critics seemed to feel obliged to go on the record about The Deer Hunter, to demonstrate that their critical credentials were un-besmirched by having been, as Sarris put it, 'taken in.'"
More recently, BBC film critic Mark Kermode challenged the film's status, "At the risk of being thrown out of the 'respectable film critics' circle, may I take this opportunity to declare officially that in my opinion The Deer Hunter is one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self indulgent, self aggrandizing barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion, and notable primarily for its farcically melodramatic tone which is pitched somewhere between shrieking hysteria and somnambulist sombreness."
However, many critics, including David Thomson and A. O. Scott., maintain that The Deer Hunter is still a great film, the power of which hasn't since diminished.
Film producer and "old-fashioned mogul" Allan Carr used his networking abilities to promote The Deer Hunter. "Exactly how Allan Carr came into The Deer Hunter's orbit I can no longer remember," recalled producer Deeley, "but the picture became a crusade to him. He nagged, charmed, threw parties, he created word-of-mouth – everything that could be done in Hollywood to promote a project. Because he had no apparent motive for this promotion, it had an added power and legitimacy and it finally did start to penetrate the minds of the Universal's sales people that they actually had in their hands something a bit more significant than the usual." Deeley added that Carr's promotion of the film was influential in positioning The Deer Hunter for Oscar nominations.
On the Sneak Previews special "Oscar Preview for 1978", Roger Ebert correctly predicted that The Deer Hunter would win for Best Picture while Gene Siskel predicted that Coming Home would win. However, Ebert incorrectly guessed that Robert De Niro would win for Best Actor for Deer Hunter and Jill Clayburgh would win for Best Actress for An Unmarried Woman while Siskel called the wins for Jon Voight as Best Actor and Jane Fonda as Best Actress, both for Coming Home. Both Ebert and Siskel called the win for Christopher Walken receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
According to producer Deeley, orchestrated lobbying against The Deer Hunter was led by Warren Beatty, whose own picture Heaven Can Wait had multiple nominations. Beatty also used ex-girlfriends in his campaign: Julie Christie, serving on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival where Deer Hunter was screened, joined the walkout of the film by the Russian jury members. Jane Fonda also criticized The Deer Hunter in public. Deeley suggested that her criticisms partly stemmed from the competition between her film Coming Home vying with The Deer Hunter for Best Picture. According to Deeley, he planted a friend of his in the Oscar press area behind the stage to ask Fonda if she had seen The Deer Hunter. Fonda replied she had not seen the film, and to this day she still has not.
As the Oscars drew near, the backlash against The Deer Hunter gathered strength. When the limos pulled up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 9, 1979, they were met by demonstrators, mostly from the Los Angeles chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The demonstrators waved placards covered with slogans that read "No Oscars for racism" and "The Deer Hunter a bloody lie" and thrust pamphlets berating Deer Hunter into long lines of limousine windows. Washburn, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, claims his limousine was pelted with stones. According to Variety, "Police and The Deer Hunter protesters clashed in a brief but bloody battle that resulted in 13 arrests."
De Niro was so anxious that he did not attend the Oscars ceremony. He asked the Academy to sit out the show backstage, but when the Academy refused, De Niro stayed home in New York. Producer Deeley made a deal with fellow producer David Puttnam, whose film Midnight Express was nominated, that each would take $500 to the ceremony so if one of them won, the winner would give the loser the $500 to "drown his sorrows in style."
The Deer Hunter won five Oscars at the 51st Academy Awards in 1979:Best Picture—Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino and John Peverall (John Wayne's final public appearance was to present the award)
Best Director—Michael Cimino
Best Actor in a Supporting Role—Christopher Walken
Best Film Editing—Peter Zinner
Best Sound—Richard Portman, William McCaughey, Aaron Rochin and Darin Knight.
In addition, the film was nominated in four other categories:Best Actor in a Leading Role—Robert De Niro (lost to Jon Voight for Coming Home)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role—Meryl Streep (lost to Maggie Smith for California Suite)
Best Cinematography—Vilmos Zsigmond (lost to Néstor Almendros for Days of Heaven)
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen—Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker (lost to Robert C. Jones, Waldo Salt and Nancy Dowd for Coming Home)
Cimino won the film's only Golden Globe Award for Best Director. Other nominations the film included Best Motion Picture – Drama, De Niro for Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama, Walken for Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role, Streep for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Supporting Role, and Washburn for Best Screenplay – Motion Picture.
The Deer Hunter was one of the first, and most controversial, major theatrical films to be critical of the American involvement in Vietnam following 1975 when the war officially ended. While the film opened the same year as Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Sidney Furie's The Boys in Company C, and Ted Post's Go Tell the Spartans, it was the first film about Vietnam to reach a wide audience and critical acclaim, culminating in the winning of the Oscar for Best Picture. Other films released in the late 1970s and 1980s that illustrated the 'hellish', futile conditions of bloody Vietnam War combat included:Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)
Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986)
Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987)
John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987)
Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989)
Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth (1993)
Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994)
Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers (2002)
David Thomson wrote in an article titled "The Deer Hunter: Story of a scene" that the film changed the way war-time battles were portrayed on film: "The terror and the blast of firepower changed the war film, even if it only used a revolver. More or less before the late 1970s, the movies had lived by a Second World War code in which battle scenes might be fierce but always rigorously controlled. The Deer Hunter unleashed a new, raw dynamic in combat and action, paving the way for Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films."
In a 2011 interview with Rotten Tomatoes, actor William Fichtner retrospectively stated that he and his partner were silenced after seeing the film, stating that "the human experience was just so pointed; their journeys were so difficult, as life is sometimes. I remember after seeing it, walking down the street — I actually went with a girl on a date and saw The Deer Hunter, and we left the theater and walked for like an hour and nobody said anything; we were just kind of stunned about that."
The deaths of approximately twenty-five people who died playing Russian roulette were reported as having been influenced by scenes in the movie.
In 1996, The Deer Hunter was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
American Film Institute included the film as #79 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, #30 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills, and #53 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
The film ranks 467th in the Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time, noting:
Cimino's bold, powerful 'Nam epic goes from blue-collar macho rituals to a fiery, South East Asian hell and back to a ragged singalong of America the Beautiful[sic]. De Niro holds it together, but Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Savage are unforgettable.
Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who became a counselor with the U.S. Department of Labor, thought of the idea of building a National Memorial for Vietnam Veterans after seeing a screening of the film in March 1979, and he established and operated the memorial fund which paid for it. Director Cimino was invited to the memorial's opening.
The Deer Hunter has twice been released on DVD in America. The first 1998 issue was by Universal, with no extra features and a non-anamorphic transfer, and has since been discontinued. A second version, part of the "Legacy Series", was released as a two-disc set on September 6, 2005, with an anamorphic transfer of the film. The set features a cinematographer's commentary by Vilmos Zsigmond, deleted and extended scenes, and production notes.
The Region 2 version of The Deer Hunter, released in the UK and Japan, features a commentary track from director Michael Cimino.
The film was released on HD DVD on December 26, 2006.
StudioCanal released the film on the Blu-ray format in countries other than the United States on March 11, 2009. It was released on Blu-ray in the U.S. on March 6, 2012.