The Deer Hunter

Collected Works: Film


The Deer Hunter

directed by Michael Cimino
Feature film

View a still from the film

The hour is late, the setting a bleak, industrial Appalachian town. A closed bar hosts a group of factory-worker friends drunkenly toasting a successful hunt. But the mood soon grows sombre, the joy extinguished, as one of the company plays a melancholic piece on the bar’s piano. From the silence that results, beating helicopter blades eight-and-a-half thousand miles away fade into focus, thrusting us into the midst of a roaring Vietnamese warzone.

The Deer Hunter is fuelled by slow-burning menace; its entire first hour is dedicated to exposition. A gleeful Russian-American community celebrates a marriage while the groom readies himself to depart, with two friends, to serve abroad. The hunt provides meditative, sobering preparation for the trio, presaging their imminent military service. That striking jump shot from bar to battlefield is a microcosm of the film that pivots around it, shrinking the distance travelled into a matter of seconds.

Rather than relying upon the depiction of repellent violence and shock for impact, the film explores the duality between combat and home, one so engrained in American culture. Those left behind are impacted by the events overseas, their compassion forming a stark contrast to the intense, harrowing scenes unfolding elsewhere. Love triangles sizzle; friendships are tested and toughened. Conflict is critiqued on a humane plane, and the film is all the more socially relevant as a result.

The great irony of Russian-Americans fighting the United States’ proxy war with the Soviets adds another tragic edge, with the trio’s shared heritage drawing them together. Even the brutal roulette set pieces are underpinned by this resilient fraternity, the tension building to a monumental climax. As emotionally resonant and beautifully rendered as it is traumatising, The Deer Hunter matches the bullet in its chamber with the grey matter in its head.

Words by Hugh Maloney

More to discover

Watch a fanmade trailer for The Deer Hunter here. 

Question of the day

Which films from 1978 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Violette Nozière, directed by Claude Chabrol – based on a true French murder case of 1933.

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Twitter →)

Days of Heaven, directed by Terrence Malick. The climactic scene in which we see locusts contentedly nibbling on crops, only to be soon set ablaze, is both beautiful and terrifying. (→)

– John Wadsworth, Silent Frame's Editor-in-Chief (via Patreon →)

Read more: Feature films