Fresh from Shout! Factory: ‘THE DEER HUNTER’ – Michael Cimino’s acclaimed epic now evokes power and divisiveness in 4K

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Rated R, 183 minutes.
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep and John Cazale

THE DEER HUNTER

THE DEER HUNTER is one of those films that fans of cinema could know of even if they’ve never watched it. Yes, it won multiple Oscars near the end of the 1970s – the most daring period moviemaking – and is heralded as an American classic. But its greatest distinction is for two scenes. Much like the shower scene in PSYCHO or DELIVERANCE’s “Squeal Like a Pig,” THE DEER HUNTER’s most talked-about moments are so heavy and uncomfortable that their impact have overshadowed the feature as a whole.

I thought I had seen Michael Cimino’s war drama previously, but I could only recall the dramatic climax, in which two friends reunite and play a deadly game. The scene is so affecting that it has remained forever ingrained in my movie psyche. 

Nearly a month after Francis Ford Coppola wrapped principal photography on APOCALYPSE NOW – a tumultuous production that involved 238 days of shooting in the Philippines – Cimino would start shooting his own Vietnam War epic on location. Originally conceived as a film about Russian roulette set in Las Vegas, the revised script fleshes out the aspects of the central character’s personality and turns them into three characters. They would become Mike (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken), three friends and steel mill workers from Clairton, Pennsylvania, that enlist in the Army to fight in Vietnam. 

THE DEER HUNTER maintains the traditional three-act narrative but defies formula by having each act get progressively shorter. The first act is to establish the characters and relationships, including another friend, Stan (John Cazale), and Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep). Its big set piece is a Russian Orthodox wedding and reception, and together they nearly take up a third of the total running time. Cimino had to fight to keep it complete – ultimately clashing with editor Peter Zinner who was trying to shorten the wedding scenes (likely at the insistence of Universal Studios wanting a shorter run time) – and continued to rile the executives because he was so steadfast that it all remains as envisioned.

Knowing nothing of the turmoil that went into making the picture, I watched this heralded classic confused, sometimes a little bored, and doing my best not to note the passage of time. Perhaps my naivety played a role. During the 1970s, the movie audience was becoming more adventurous and accepting of a new generation of storytellers pushing boundaries. By the time THE DEER HUNTER was released, people had watched Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER and its sequel, so a three-hour war epic should be a breeze. Only the depiction of blue-collar buds going off to serve their country was less about hooah pride and more directed at the crushing blows dealt with each friend. Michael Cimino’s film is not about American pride but American disappointment. The baby boom of the greatest generation were lambs to the slaughter to conflict across the globe. The pain and sacrifice in war are lost echoes back home.    

THE DEER HUNTER evokes all these themes and many more. But had it not been for the performances – my understated favorite being Chuck Aspegren, the only non-actor among the principal stars and a real-life foreman at a Chicago steel mill – Cimino’s audaciousness in capturing the realism of working-class living before a seismic shift in pacing and overall tone, and two pivotal scenes involving Russian roulette, the film wouldn’t carry such praise. 

Even now, more than forty years after its original release, I’m conflicted about what I experienced. Respect to what the cast and crew were able to achieve but far from what I’d classify as an epic. 

Considering all the handwringing between Universal and Cimino during post-production, it’s not all that surprising THE DEER HUNTER has its 4K UHD release through a secondary label. Despite five Oscars (including Best Picture) and being part of AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list, Shout! Factory is the distributor to bring the war drama to 4K. THE DEER HUNTER also marks the company’s first non-documentary title to get a UHD release. 

Unfortunately, such distinction results in an underwhelming release. The 4K video is fine; the featurettes special to this Collector’s Edition are a bust. 

Four new interview segments – with catchy titles that have no bearing on the subject – are poorly constructed by the production entity responsible. So lousy that Paramount Pictures, not Universal, gets a courtesy credit at the end of the featurette for the use of footage from its film THE DEER HUNTER.

Aside from John Savage recounting the helicopter rescue where he and Robert De Niro performed their own stunts falling into the river, or hearing from former Universal Marketing executive Willette Klausner (the first woman to hold an executive rank at Universal) in how she knew SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was going to be a hit from a test screening she did for an audience full of sh*tkickers, most of the anecdotal history can be ascertained through Google searches.    

The included Blu-ray retains the theatrical trailer and audio commentary track with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher (also on the 4K disc) that were found on Universal’s 2012 Blu-ray release, as well as a section of deleted scenes. However, this new Collector’s Edition release includes previously unavailable extended scenes, radio spots, and a photo gallery. 

The best feature is a 24-minute interview with film critic David Thomson, which was included on StudioCanal’s 4K release back in 2018. What makes it a compelling listen is hearing a critic outside of the United States examine and reflect on THE DEER HUNTER. Thompson attended the original critics’ screening and offered his thoughts about the war-drama’s themes and legacy. 

For being the first major Hollywood film to tackle the Vietnam War, the extras included seem more than a little perfunctory. Presented in halfhearted fashion, it would seem that even the producers of this release are just as conflicted on THE DEER HUNTER being defensible as a classic piece of cinema.   

Movie Grade: C+

THE DEER HUNTER includes the following bonus features:

DISC ONE: 4K UHD

  • Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond And Journalist Bob Fisher

DISC TWO: Blu-ray

  • We Don’t Belong Here” – An Interview with Actor John Savage
  • “The War At Home” – An Interview with Actress Rutanya Alda
  • “A National Anthem” – An Interview with Producer Michael Deeley
  • This Is Not About War” – Interview with Post Production Supervisor Katy Haber And Universal Marketing Executive Willette Klausner
  • Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond And Journalist Bob Fisher
  • Interview with Film Critic David Thomson
  • Deleted and Extended Scenes
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Radio Spots
  • Still Gallery

Extras Grade: C

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