The Deer Hunter is an expansive portrait of friendship in a Pennsylvania steel town, and of the effects of the Vietnam War. Led by the trio of Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken (who won a supporting actor Oscar), the first hour is dominated by an engrossing Russian Orthodox wedding and reception. When the drama moves overseas it switches from anthropologically realistic documentation of a community's rituals to highly controversial and still shocking Russian Roulette scenes, symbolising the random horror of war. Unforgettable as they are, the Vietnam sequences occupy less than a third of the three-hour running time; defying movie convention The Deer Hunter is fundamentally a before-and-after ensemble character study anchored by De Niro's great performance. Although it was the first serious Hollywood feature to address the Vietnam War, the plausibility of some of the later plot developments raises awkward questions. But the film remains powerfully effective, its deliberate pace, naturalistic overlapping dialogue and unflinching seriousness marking it very much a product of the 1970s. With nine Oscar nominations and five wins, including Best Picture and Director, it's a cinematic landmark that stands the test time, almost incidentally setting Meryl Streep on the road to superstardom in her first leading role. On the DVD: The Deer Hunter: Special Edition has the film on the first disc with a serious yet amiable Region 2 exclusive discussion track between director Michael Cimino and critic SX Finnie. The picture is anamorphically enhanced at 2.35:1, and perfectly reproduces Vilmos Zsigmond's deliberately desaturated, necessarily grainy cinematography. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack clearly reveals the mono original, being largely focused on the centre speaker and while it does a good job, some of the choral music does sound harsh. Dialogue is sometimes indecipherable, but that's due to the naturalistic nature of the original sound recording and mixing. Disc 2 offers excellent new interviews with Jon Savage (15 mins), Vilmos Zsigmond (15 mins) and Michael Cimino (23 mins). Also included is the original trailer (anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1), a routine photo gallery and a DVD version of the original press brochure. There's no trace of the 40 minutes of deleted material referred to by Cimino, but this presentation is still an object lesson in how quality of extras triumphs over quantity. --Gary S Dalkin
Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Deer Hunter is simultaneously an audacious directorial conceit and one of the greatest films ever made about friendship and the personal impact of war. Like Apocalypse Now, it's hardly a conventional battle film--the soldier's experience was handled with greater authenticity in Platoon--but its depiction of war on an intimate scale packs a devastatingly dramatic punch. Director Michael Cimino may be manipulating our emotions with masterful skill, but he does it in a way that stirs the soul and pinches our collective nerves with graphic, high-intensity scenes of men under life-threatening duress. Although Russian-roulette gambling games were not a common occurrence during the Vietnam war, they're used here as a metaphor for the futility of the war itself. To the viewer, they become unforgettably intense rites of passage for the best friends--Pennsylvania steelworkers played by Robert De Niro, John Savage and Oscar winner Christopher Walken--who may survive or perish during their tour through a tropical landscape of hell. Back home, their loved ones must cope with the war's domestic impact, and in doing so they allow The Deer Hunter to achieve a rare combination of epic storytelling and intimate, heart-rending drama.--Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com
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