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The Deer Hunter

Well, itís the second week of deer camp, and all you guys are here, so letís drink, play cards, shoot the bull, and watch 1978ís Oscar winner for best picture, The Deer Hunter. Despite the title, this movie has more to do with the Vietnam War and the psychological after effects on those who fought in it than it does with hunting.

Robert de Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage play Michael, Nick, and Stephen, three buddies from a steel mill town south of Pittsburgh about to head off to Vietnam. Just before they ship out Stephen gets married and Nick and Michael go off on a hunting trip with three of their friends who arenít joining the military. In Vietnam, the three guys become POWís in a camp located in the middle of a river, submerged up to their waists in water. The NVA guards kill the time by playing Russian Roulette, but eventually this gets dull for them and they force the prisoners to play. This gives Michael an idea. He brags that he is tough enough to play with three live rounds in the gun, and the guards oblige him, resulting in him shooting all the guards and springing all of them from prison. They eventually find their way back to American lines, and Nick ends up in an army hospital where he has a complete breakdown. After his release from the hospital, Nick wanders Saigon, finding another Russian Roulette game.

Michael is released and heads back to the US, only to find out that Nick went AWOL and Stephen is in a VA hospital after having both his legs amputated and refusing to come home. Following a hunting trip where Michael seems far more distant from the rest of the gang, he heads back to Vietnam, where Saigon is about to fall to NVA forces. He finally tracks down Nick at a Russian Roulette table, but cannot convince him to stop playing, and the game ends tragically.

The first thing noticeable about this movie is Walkenís performance. The year before in Woody Allenís Annie Hall, he played a creepy and possibly dangerous guy with an odd cadence to his speech, and heís been playing essentially the same character for the 30 years since. But not here. In later scenes he plays Nick as being unhinged, but itís not the same type of insanity as every other role. Heís quiet, conveying that Nick is almost wishing thereís a bullet in the chamber, a threat only to himself.

Meanwhile the true greatness is in the difference between the two hunting trips. In the first the gang is your typical group of friends. Thereís the guy that forgets his gear, which results in Michael picking on him, and itís clear that Michael and Nick are closer than they are to the rest of the group, but itís still a bunch that enjoys each otherís company. In the second trip, Michael is distant from the others, and unable to shoot a buck that comes into his sights. When a disagreement arises in the cabin, Michael responds with violence.

But all is not well with this movie. The wedding and hunting trip at the beginning tend to drag by, taking up vast chunks of the first reel. They build the character development, so it isnít a total loss, but the movie could have done just as much with a much shorter scene. Once we get to the Vietnam scenes, business picks up quite a bit and the long scenes that drag by disappear, but you could kind of see that director Michael Cimino might be headed for a way-too-long and way over budget western that wound up being one of the biggest flops in movie history.

The only other notable best picture nominee was Heaven Can Wait, with Warren Beaty playing a back-from-the-dead QB of the LA Rams. But there were some good movies not nominated. It was a good year for horror movies with Dawn of the Dead and Halloween, but it was a comedy, Animal House, that really stands out. Despite a few corny moments, it never has any of those moments that lag the way The Deer Hunter does. Plus it created toga parties. Canít go wrong there.

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