THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
A film by Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale
One of several 1978 films dealing with the Vietnam War (including Hal Ashby’s Oscar-winning Coming Home), Michael Cimino’s epic second feature The Deer Hunter was both renowned for its tough portrayal of the war’s effect on American working class steel workers and notorious for its ahistorical use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam sequences. Structured in five sections contrasting home and war, the film opens in Clairton, PA, as Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stan (John Cazale, in his last film) celebrate the wedding of their friend Steve (John Savage) and go on a final deer hunt before the men leave for Vietnam. The film cuts to the horror of Vietnam, where the men are captured by Vietcong soldiers who force Mike and Nick to play Russian roulette for the V.C.’s amusement. Mike turns the game to his advantage so they can escape captivity, but the men are permanently scarred by the episode. Great performances by the Actors by far My favorite film of all time. Of course it became the cult movie of 1978. It is a heartbreakingly effective fictional machine that evokes the agony of the Vietnam time. The film’s screenplay, by Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn, was based, in part, on the script “The Man Who Came to Play”, a 1975 screenplay by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker about men who travel to Las Vegas to play Russian Roulette. A pre-release arbitration dispute secured Garfinkle and Redeker a co-“story by” credit on the film, although the two writers had nothing to do with its making. They also later shared an Oscar nomination with Cimino and Washburn. During the helicopter stunt, the runners caught on the ropes and as the helicopter rose, it threatened to seriously injure John Savage and Robert De Niro. The actors gestured and yelled furiously to the crew in the helicopter to warn them. Footage of this is included in the film. Director Michael Cimino convinced Christopher Walken to spit in Michael’s face. When Walken actually did it, Robert De Niro was completely shocked, as evidenced by his reaction. In fact, De Niro was so furious about it he nearly left the set. Cimino later said of Walken, “He’s got courage!” Robert De Niro claims this was his most physically exhausting film. Chuck Aspegren was not an actor when he was cast in the movie. He was the foreman at a steel works visited early in pre-production by Robert De Niro and Michael Cimino. They were so impressed with Aspergen that they decided to offer him the role. He was in fact the second person to be cast in the film, after De Niro himself. Robert De Niro, who prepared for his role by socializing with actual steelworkers, was introduced by his hosts and new friends as Bob, and no one recognized him. 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. Robert De Niro visited the homes of steelworkers and went to local bars to prepare for the film. 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. Robert De Niro and John Savage performed their own stunts in the fall into the river, filming the 30ft drop 15 times in two days. Meryl Streep improvised many of her lines. The deer which Michael allows to get away was actually an elk – the same one often used on commercials for Hartford Insurance. The crew had a very difficult time trying to get the elk to look at them, as it was apparently used to various noises; it finally looked at them when someone in the crew yawned. John Cazale was very weak when filming began, and for this reason, his scenes were filmed first. Michael Cimino knew from the start that Cazale was dying from cancer, but the studio did not. When they found out, they wanted to replace Cazale. When Meryl Streep learned of their intentions, she threatened to quit if they did. Cazale died shortly after filming was completed. Christopher Walken achieved the withdrawn, hollow look of his character by eating nothing but rice and bananas. During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors’ tension. This was Robert De Niro’s suggestion. It was checked, however, to make sure the bullet was not in the chamber before the trigger was pulled. Roy Scheider was originally cast as Michael. All scenes were shot on location (no sound stages). CBS paid $5 million for the exclusive network television broadcast rights for the film. The network (along with NBC and ABC) later backed out when the content was deemed inappropriate. The film made its television debut on election night, 1980, but not on any major network. Scouts for the film traveled over 100,000 miles by plane, bus, and car to find locations for filming. The cast and crew slept on the floor of the warehouse where the Saigon Russian roulette sequences were shot. The slapping in the Russian roulette sequences was 100% authentic. The actors grew very agitated by the constant slapping, which, naturally, added to the realism of the scenes.
When movie was being planned during the mid-1970s, Vietnam was still a taboo subject with all major Hollywood studios. It was the English Company EMI (headed by Sir Bernard Delfont) who initially arranged financing. Universal got involved with the picture at a much later stage. Robert De Niro recently explained that the scene where Michael visits Steve in the hospital for the first time was the most emotional scene that he was ever involved with. He broke down in tears while discussing the scene in AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Robert De Niro. The wedding sequences were filmed in the summer, but were set in the fall. To accomplish a look of fall, leaves were removed from trees and painted orange. They were then reattached to the trees. The scene where Savage is yelling, “Michael, there’s rats in here, Michael” as he is stuck in the river is actually Savage yelling at the director Michael Cimino because of his fear of rats which were infesting the river area. He was yelling for the director to pull him out of the water because of the rats… it looked real and they kept it in. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #53 Greatest Movie of All Time. According to the film’s cinematographer – Vilmos Zsigmond – the scene where the deer is shot by Michael (DeNiro) was filmed by giving the trained deer a sedative; it took half an hour for the drug to take effect; they had fenced off an area limiting the deer’s range and two cameras were used. John Wayne’s final public appearance was to present the Best Picture Oscar to The Deer Hunter at The 51st Annual Academy Awards (1979) (TV). It was not a film Wayne was fond of, since it presented a very different view of the Vietnam War than his own movie, The Green Berets, had a decade earlier.