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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978): 3 Hours of Russian Roulette


Directed by: Michael Cimino || Produced by: Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, John Peverall

Screenplay by: Deric Washburn || Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza

Music by: Stanley Myers || Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond || Editing by: Peter Zinner || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 182 minutes

One of the first films made about the Vietnam War is also one of the longest. At an approximate 182 minutes, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (TDH) sports the exhausting length of an average Bollywood movie. While its three-act structure is much better integrated and connected than Full Metal Jacket’s (1987) split narrative, its poor pacing and bloated first act (among other things) distract from its fantastic dramatic pieces, most of which include a session of Russian Roulette or two. However, the film has plenty going for it as well. In addition to the now infamous Russian Roulette (RR) scenes, it has many other strengths, such as a fantastic cast with the great Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale (Fredo!), and Meryl Streep, and intense cinematography in the Vietnam portions of the film.


De Niro’s humbling quest to find meaning and strength amidst his nightmarish journey is chilling to witness.

TDH follows the story of three blue collar steelworkers from the Pittsburgh metro area as they shift from their quiet, innocent lives in rural Pennsylvania to the cruel and bloodthirsty arena of southeast Asian warfare. The contrast between the tone of both settings is jarring and intentionally shocking, but in a good way. One of TDH’s major themes is this separation between two worlds, and the effects that this transition back and forth between them has on the trio of Average Joe American draftees.

One of the best moments in the film is the shocking transition from the end of the wedding sequence to a war torn battlefield in a Vietnamese village. The images of Walken and De Niro nostalgically shooting the breeze and later enjoying a game-hut, juxtaposed to those same characters blasting people to pieces with M16s, is a memorable contrast.

My favorite scene in the movie, however, is the introduction of RR in a North Vietnamese POW-camp, where the North Vietnamese force their captives to play at RR for their amusement. The graphic nature of this sequence is as powerful as it is frightening, especially when compared to the quaint, peaceful activities seen in the Pennsylvania opening act. Watching DeNiro and Walken try to outwit their NVA captors is a nail-biting experience.

It’s worth admitting that the war scenes would not be as powerful if not contrasted with the domestic parts of the story, but the proportion of the narrative that the latter scenes take up is asking for immense patience from the audience, especially taking into account that almost none of the dramatic or character development scenes outside the Vietnam setting are well paced or edited. There is no reason that the opening act, which spans the wedding celebration and the proceeding deer hunt, has to be an hour long. Yes, the red wine spilling on the bride’s gown unbeknownst to the wedding party is a nice touch, and a clever use of foreshadowing, but by no means does that entitle the first two scenes to last one third of the whole film.

Unfortunately, this poor editing returns whenever the action shifts from southeast Asia back to the United States. De Niro’s relationship with Streep is pointless and further bloats the narrative’s already poor pacing. When DeNiro’s character returns to Vietnam to track down Walken, the excitement spikes again and the movie once more becomes interesting. If the filmmakers had to include extensive sequences in Pittsburgh, they should have kept them at 1/3 the total running time of the movie, and not 2/3 as it is now.

The fact of the matter is that the The Deer Hunter does not have good pacing for most of its story. Fortunately for the viewer, the film’s exciting, interesting sequences count for more than the movie’s duller moments. The main reason The Deer Hunter remains watchable is that, when it is at its best, it presents brilliant filmmaking and unforgettable set-pieces. It is so unfortunate, though, that we have to wait so long in between those great moments.

deer hunter

One of the movie’s many frightening Russian roulette scenes.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Michael Cimino knows how to shoot a Russian roulette scene and gouge maximum tension in every Vietnam sequence of violence, strife, and despair. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken both put on spectacular performances for the full three hours.

However… the movie’s three hours long. The Deer Hunter is also a masterclass in overindulgent dialogue and scenes that drag on forever. Much of the film’s first and third acts are overstuffed with either worthwhile yet gratuitous drama or expendable scenes that should’ve been cut.

—> ON THE FENCE: Well meaning but ultimately a long-winded mess, The Deer Hunter’s unforgettable, pulse-pounding sections in Vietnam make the dreary domestic drama worth it only if you’re a Vietnam War-era history buff or war film guru. All other audiences have far better options from which to choose.

? I can imagine a 100-minute cut of this movie that is amazing. Has anyone ever attempted a fan-edit?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


3 thoughts on “‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978): 3 Hours of Russian Roulette

  1. While it was a rather long film, I think that it was essential to have the scenes at home as dry as possible to form a proper juxtaposition between civilian life and their struggles in Nam. If the scenes in the US hadn’t been as dry as they were, I feel the movie would have portrayed a completely different message. As is, it’s sort of saying that you have to enjoy the little things and enjoy a peaceful life, but then again I haven’t seen the movie in quite a while. That being said, I don’t think I would have such good memories of the movie if the “boring” scenes were more exciting or less extensive. Maybe I should watch it again.

    Posted by Scott | April 9, 2013, 3:30 pm
    • That’s a fair point, that in fact the rather “ordinary” setting and lifestyle of the Pittsburgh friends provided a necessary contrast with the harsh, brutal campaign of the Vietnam War. With that said, I still feel that those non-warfare sequences need not have been as colorless or as extended as they were, as any dialogue or social gathering can be made quite interesting if done well enough, e.g. the rather similar-looking opening wedding scene in the Godfather.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | April 9, 2013, 11:46 pm


  1. Pingback: ‘Platoon’ (1986): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - November 19, 2014

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