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Film / The Deer Hunter

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Nick: I don't think about that much with one shot anymore, Mike.
Michael: You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot.

The Deer Hunter is a 1978 American war drama film directed, co-written, and co-produced by Michael Cimino. His second film as a director – and his last one prior to the infamous disaster that was Heaven's Gate – it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken.

In the late 1960s, three Slavic-American friends from a Pennsylvania steel town – Nick (Walken), Michael (Robert De Niro), and Steven (John Savage) – are enlisted to fight in Vietnam just as Steven weds his girlfriend. Nick and Michael, who both love the same woman, Linda (Meryl Streep), celebrate their last days of freedom by going deer hunting with another friend, Stan (John Cazale). When the trio do go to war, the experience is very much a nightmare; they are imprisoned by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian Roulette against each other. While they are able to escape their captors, they can't escape the consequences of the war.

Meryl Streep earned the first of her many Oscar nominations for her performance. Sixth and last film for John Cazale, who looks as gaunt as he does in the film because he was dying of cancer, and in fact didn't live to see its premiere.

The Deer Hunter contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Played straight at first, when Linda runs into Michael's arms for comfort when they are both convinced that her boyfriend Nick is dead. Subverted later on when Michael locates Nick in Saigon and tries to bring him home, only to watch Nick die right before his eyes. He never makes it home at all.
  • Abusive Parents: Linda's father, who beats her in a drunken rage.
  • The Ace: Michael seems to be skilled at everything he does, however small - from bagging a deer every season with one shot to having the magic touch with opening the trunk of his car with a gentle kick. He goes on to serve bravely and honorably as an Army Ranger, and it's his quick thinking that saves him and his friends from near-certain death at the Viet Cong POW camp. Not surprisingly, he's the only one among the three friends to come back from the war with his mind and body mostly intact.
  • Arc Words: "One shot".
  • An Arm and a Leg: Steven loses both his legs in the evacuation from the river. It also seems as though he only has the full use of one of his arms.
  • Artistic License – History: The film got some flak for its portrayal of the Vietnamese as exceedingly cruel and callous. In particular, the famous Russian roulette scenes were criticized as an invention of the cinema (which is true), but they work as a metaphor for the central theme of the film, that War Is Hell and no one is immune from its effects. note 
  • Bilingual Bonus: When Mike looks for Nick, you got the French gambler in Saigon cursing (justified in that Vietnam was once a French colony):
    Gambler: Enfoiré. Fais chier de voir des cons comme ça. Belle connerie, grand Dieu, j'me demande c'que je fous ici. C'est pas possible. note 
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mike and Steven survive the war, but not all in one piece, physically or mentally. Nick dies, but Michael brings his body home and has his funeral in America like he promised. It's implied that Michael and Angela will have a lasting long-term relationship and that at least Michael's life, for all of the trauma he experienced, is slowly on track to normalcy after the war.
  • Blood-Splattered Wedding Dress: Wine-spattered, but at the wedding, the priest says that Steven and Angela will have good luck all their lives, but only if they don't spill a drop of the wine that they chug. The camera carefully depicts a couple drops of wine falling on Angela's dress. Steven loses his legs in Vietnam.
  • But Not Too Foreign: The protagonists are Russian-Americans.
  • Butt-Monkey: Stanley for sure (a role actor John Cazale often fell into). Mike gives him an especially hard time, despising his weakness although he admits to Nicky that he ultimately loves him and their other friends even though he considers them "assholes". Stanley is a true friend to everyone however, making sure Stevie doesn't get too drunk before his wedding and sharing in the group's joy and grief.
  • Catchphrase: "Fuckin' A!", especially for Axel.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Averted. The characters are Eastern Catholics (specifically Ruthenian Catholics), and many things reflect that (e.g. using music from the Eastern Orthodox tradition—which is similar—in the wedding scenes).
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Nick comes across as a little... "out there", and becomes even more so and a dark, poignant Cloudcuckoolander after his experiences in combat and subsequently becoming addicted to playing Russian Roulette for money.
  • Death Seeker: Nick is more than looking forward to those Russian Roulette games. Which eventually costs him his life.
  • Den of Iniquity: The gambler's den in Saigon where the Vietnamese play Russian Roulette with expatriates.
  • Empty Shell: Nick has become this after his traumatic war experience.
  • Every Helicopter Is a Huey: And how.
  • Epic Movie: It clocks in at 3 hours and 2 minutes, with a plot spanning two continents and a very Leanian mixture of character-based storylines and sweeping historical drama.
  • Foreshadowing: The night before they're due to go off to 'Nam, Nick tells Michael "Don't leave me over there." That's what motivates Michael to go back to Vietnam to rescue Nick.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Stanley's insecurities make him full of obnoxious bravado that tries the patience of all of his friends, especially Michael.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Michael slaps Nick in the face to get him to play Russian roulette, knowing the alternative is being put in a rathole to die.
  • Grin of Rage: While kept as prisoners of war, Michael and Nick are forced to play Russian Roulette by the guards. The guard forcing Michael to participate slaps him across the face multiple times, getting Michael more and more angry. At two points, as his rage starts to peak, Michael looks at the guard and smiles at him with what can only be called pure hatred. This then turns into Mirthless Laughter, before Michael uses the bullet that was about to kill him to escape.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Michael, after coming back from the war and trying to go hunting again, realizes that he can't shoot a deer because it reminds him too much of killing a human being, and has a breakdown.
    • Nick, after assuming the other two died in Vietnam.
  • Heroic Russian Émigré: The three protagonists of Russian origin who fight in the Vietnam war on the side of US.
  • Hidden Depths: John plays the piano very well and sings in a chorus.
  • Holiday in Cambodia: The Saigon scenes (actually filmed in Bangkok).
  • "I Know You Are in There Somewhere" Fight: A very cruel subversion: Michael successfully snaps Nick out of his Heroic BSoD by reminding him of their earlier deer hunt. Nick then takes his turn on the roulette table... and gets the bullet.
  • Incoming!: Michael and his unit scream "Incoming!" as shells from the North Vietnamese fall on their position. The movie cuts to all three of them in a horrifying POW cage.
  • Ironic Echo: "One shot."
  • Meaningful Funeral: Nick's, when Michael fulfills his promise to bring him back home... after his death at the roulette table.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The Pennsylvania hunting scenes were shot in Washington state, and professional animal wranglers provided the deer, which are European red deer, not the whitetail deer that one would see in Pennsylvania. The boreal Pacific Northwest spruce forest is equally out of place in Pennsylvania, qualifying as Misplaced Vegetation.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The music that plays during the deer hunting scene would not be out of place accompanying the birth of Jesus.
  • No One Gets Left Behind:
    • Michael jumps back in the river after being rescued by the helicopter to help Steven.
    • Nick makes Michael promise not to leave him in Vietnam. After the war, he goes back to find him.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: For all three of the heroes after the war ends.
  • Oscar Bait: It was the Trope Maker for the now familiar strategy of "serious drama + limited December release + rack up nominations and buzz = win Best Picture + wide release".
  • Pittsburgh: Much of the movie was filmed there (Long before it was a desirable destination to film in) and the protagonists all are Pittsburgh steelworkers.
  • Present-Day Past: One would expect 1960s fashion in a Vietnam-era film, but the civilians tends to wear the styles of the 1970s, the decade of filming.
  • Pretty Little Headshots:
    • A fairly egregious example when Michael shoots his Vietnamese captor in the head at point-blank range.
    • Nick's death, where he shoots himself in the head at point-blank range. He bleeds a lot, but it's not too gory. It's the emotional impact of the scene that makes it hard to watch.
  • Prolonged Prologue: The first 45 minutes of the movie are an extended sequence involving Stevie's wedding. Characters are defined and the Love Triangle is set up, but the plot doesn't really get into gear until they're in Vietnam.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Michael gives one to Stanley while holding a gun to his face.
  • Returning War Vet: Michael, in full uniform. He's not comfortable with having a party for his return though.
  • Russian Roulette: One of its most prominent depictions in film.
  • Scenery Porn: The mountain scenes. True, they're supposed to be the Appalachians when they're really the Cascades, but the incredible scenery makes up for the geography error.
  • Self-Harm: It is implied that Nick engages in this, with suicidal intent, when Mike grabs hold of his arms, revealing scars and wounds all over his wrists (however it could also be construed that these are track marks from a heroin addiction).
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: All three of the lead characters after the war, but Nick most of all.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Steven and Angela's, because she's pregnant.
  • Steel Mill: The protagonists are steelworkers.
  • Survivor's Guilt: Nick suffers from this big time as he fears that Michael and Steven didn't made it out alive after the helicopter that rescued him, failed to rescue them. It is this that drives him to be a Death Seeker.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: The steel town that all the characters live in is heavily Russian Orthodox. The three soldiers who go off to Vietnam have the last names Vronsky, Chevotarevich, and Pushkov. Do they do the Russian squat dance at Steven and Angela's wedding? Yes, yes they do,
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer consists purely of 5 second clips of the film, from start to finish, with a black screen saying "The Deer Hunter" in between. It cuts away before Nick shoots himself in the final game of Russian roulette, but plays the sound of a gunshot, making it fairly clear what happens.
  • Trope Maker: For Oscar Bait tactics. It was limited to a short screening in New York and LA when the audience was mostly critics and Academy members, giving the film hype for its award nominations to draw in audiences. It also aired on Z Channel, the influential local LA pay cable channel that a lot of Academy members subscribed to, in an early example of allowing voters to screen a film with Oscar buzz in their homes (in the era before screener tapes/discs and streaming). Similar moves were later used for other films striving for both the awards and the public's money.
  • Video Credits: For all the main characters at the end. A fairly rare use of this trope in a serious drama as opposed to a comedy or adventure movie.
  • War Is Hell: So much that Michael can't even bring himself to shoot a deer after returning from Vietnam and instead suffers a breakdown.
  • Warrior Poet: Michael stands out among his friends for his tendency to philosophize and express himself poetically when talking about seemingly mundane things like deer hunting. He also turned out to be an extremely brave and adept Army Ranger.
  • Wretched Hive: Saigon, of course - squalor and poverty, whorehouses, opium dens, and gambling parlors (including ones where you get to gamble with your life).


Video Example(s):


Nick's Deadly Game

Mike finds his old friend Nick playing Russian roulette at a gambling den. He briefly points the revolver to his head before handing it over to him. Despite Mike's best efforts to dissuade Nick from pulling the trigger, he eventually does it and dies from the bullet lodged into his skull.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / RussianRoulette

Media sources: