This multi-Oscar nominated film from Michael Cimino has gained praise and criticism at the time of its release and since then. It can be divided broadly along the lines of its three-hour duration into three acts.
The first act sees our protagonists at home in the heavy industrial heartland of Clairton, Pennsylvania, where Michael (Robert de Niro), Steven (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken), following a night shift at the factory, hit their local bar to wind down prior to Steven’s wedding at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in their otherwise austere town. Cimino is keen to show us the back story of his protagonists (although some critics found this sequence overlong) before their departure to serve in the Vietnam war, for which none of their previous life experiences could prepare them. Following the nuptials, the men depart to the mountains on a deer hunting trip, continuing their masculine rough play and banter.
In act two, the three friends have fallen into the hands of the North Vietnamese forces and are being held in nightmarish conditions, where they are forced to play the deadly game of Russian Roulette for the amusement and financial gain of their captors. The story unfolds in an edge-of-the-seat but harrowing style, as we see the effect that their individual
experiences have on their physical and mental states.
Act three sees us back in Clairton, where both Michael and Steve have returned home but Michael realises he will have to return to Saigon, where Nick (implausibly) is still living, to fulfil a promise made on the night of the wedding, to bring him back – as the Vietnamese capital is falling.
Dir: Michael Cimino, USA, 175 minutes, 1978.
There are sequences in the film that will remain forever etched in the mind of the horror of war but Cimino’s somewhat sketchy development of character leaves the viewer having to fill in the gaps in the protagonists’ motivation and behaviour, which is disappointing. Nevertheless, the film deserves revisiting periodically as a reminder of previously accepted mores such as male bonding, mindless patriotism, the dehumanising effects of war, Nixon’s ‘silent majority’.
With its iconic music, extravagant cinematography and stellar cast, the film was an exceptional tour de force into the numerous ways war affects working people. Mostly remembered for its scenes of Russian roulette, the film has so much more to offer and to think about that there are many reasons why it is a cinematic ‘must-see’. An exceptional film that has stood the test of time – with probably more contemporary poignant resonance than on its first release.
This was my second viewing of the film and it made me think about much of its content quite deeply – always a big plus for me. However, I don’t think it is as good a film as it is often hyped-up to be.
With its bold and extravagant cinematography, this film should be seen on a big screen!
A powerful, gripping and immersive melodrama but rather too long.
The film seemed to be predominantly about male bonding, with a sub-text that a certain level of violence is acceptable and taken-for-granted.
Many of the significant moments/scenes in the film were clunky, heavy-handed and unsubtle plus some of the narrative required a degree of suspension of disbelief. However, what came across was just how deeply patriotic American working class society was (still is?). In the ‘Vietnam’ section, portrayal of the Vietcong as totally evil conformed to the USA stereotypes of the day.
The Russian roulette scenes provided a motif for the adrenalin rush of hyper-violence and hence the male addiction to war.
The last scene, with its sombre rendering of ‘God Bless America’, was a metaphor for the ultimate disillusionment of what America stood for.