(director/writer: Michael Cimino; screenwriters: Louis Garfinkle/Deric Washburn; cinematographer:Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Peter Zinner; cast: Meryl Streep (Linda), Christopher Walken (Nick), Robert De Niro (Michael), John Savage (Steven), Shirley Stoler (Steven’s mother), Rutanya Alda (Angela), John Cazale (Stan), George Dzundza (John), Chuck Aspegren (Axel), Pierre Segui (Julien), Amy Wright (Bridesmaid), Joe Grifasi (Bandleader), Paul D’Amato (Sergeant); Runtime: 183; A Universal release; 1978)

“It is an astonishing film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Set in the mid-’60s in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small steelworker’s town steeped in hellish fire and smoke, crested by the Allegheny Mountains. A saga of friendship unfolds among three guys who work in the mill, hunt together, drink in the same bar, go bowling together, belong to the same Russian Orthodox Church, and who don’t want to escape from their ordinary existence, quite content to live out their life in such a blue-collar town. What they do, that changes their life irrevocably, is enlist for military duty in Vietnam, joining the elite airborne unit, out of a sense of patriotic duty, at a time when America was beginning to question the war. But in their small town, there were no protests and their joining of the army was well-received by the locals in this close-knit community.

Steven (John Savage), just before the boys go to Vietnam, does the honorable thing and gets married to his pregnant girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda), telling himself that he loves her and can’t leave her in this embarrassing predicament while he goes off to war and might never come back. His old-fashioned Russian immigrant mother (Shirley Stoler) is upset about this marriage, not understanding why he is marrying her and what is happening to the world nowadays, as she complains about this to the reticent Russian priest.

The wedding is a traditional affair, as the camera catches it in all its glitter and ceremony inside the local Russian church. It brings together the three life-long friends he enlisted with. The de-facto leader of the group is the quiet but hard-to-figure expert hunter, Michael (Robert De Niro), while Nick (Christopher Walken) is the regular guy, who will be the kingly best man at the wedding. Nick’s date is the queenly best lady, Linda (Meryl Streep), someone Michael has his eye on and would love to go out with, but does not go out with her, to her dismay, because of his loyalty to his close friend.

At the lengthy reception the inner circle of friends make their presence felt and the viewers get to know them rather intimately, as they are so comfortable with each other that their gibes at one another are taken with a grain of salt. There is Stan (John Cazale-he was Fredo in The Godfather– he died of cancer after making this film), who likes to carry a pistol around with him and act macho. John (George Dzundza) is the bartender where they hang out, and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) works with the boys in the mill. They all join in the merriment of the feast, loosening up by consuming an ample supply of vodka and beer. The wedding reception was a long drawn out affair, showing everyone in the community pitching in and helping with the celebration. Even with a minimal amount of conversations taking place, the characters were seen dancing and horsing around and their personalities were allowed to shine forth in a natural manner. The one very pertinent conversation to occur, was when a Special Forces sergeant (D’Amato) walked into the bar and Michael and some of the boys tried to get friendly with him and ask him about Vietnam and all he would respond with is: “F*ck it.” There was one more scene to be remembered, where the bandleader (Grifasi) offers the wedding couple wine attached with two cups on one long stem and tells them that the tradition is not to spill any wine and the marriage will be a long and happy one. As an omen of things to come there are a few drops, unnoticed by the wedding party, that spill on her wedding dress during the ceremony.

This epic film that runs for 183 minutes, is really divided into three parts: the friends before Vietnam, during Vietnam, and after Vietnam. The first part closes with a metaphorical deer hunt, as all the close friends of the three volunteers are together for the last time before they go into the service tomorrow. For Michael, the hunt is like a religious experience, a deer has to be taken with one shot or else he lets it go. That he has no respect for the sniveling Stan as a hunter, who comes to the hunt without a pair of boots, is evident as Michael picks a silly fight with him and refuses to lend him his extra pair of boots. He does this in order to let Stan know, that even though they are both hunting together, they do not have the same attitude about hunting. When Michael stalks a deer and takes him down with one shot, somehow, his kill seems to be the right way to do it.

Part 2 takes place in Vietnam. It graphically shows the horrors of the war and the torturous experience these three friends undergo after they are captured by the Vietcong. The three friends come out of this tragic situation different people. Being forced to play “the one shot-one kill game” of Russian roulette by their captors. In reality, this never occurred in Vietnam; but, it is used by Cimino as a metaphor to show how insane the war is. This one-shot theory when it is used for deer hunting can be seen as something sensible, as if it reflects true sportsmanship. But when the tables are turned and the men become the prey, like in war or in Russian roulette, the one-shot hunter’s theory doesn’t seem to hold up anymore as some great humanitarian concept.

Michael emerges from his war experiences with an inner strength and courage that makes him tough it out, not giving an inch to his tormentors and by his sheer will-to-survive leads an escape. He seems to be a natural leader. On the other hand Nicky becomes a basket case, losing control of who he is, losing contact with everyone, remaining in Saigon and playing Russian roulette for a living in the underground gambling clubs there. The lesson learnt is that the men can’t escape from Vietnam, just like they can’t escape from where they were born.

Part 3 is emotionally powerful and gripping, taking place for the most part back in western Pennsylvania. Their deep friendship is played out against the American failures in Vietnam, as the war is by now considered a lost cause by the public. Steven can’t face himself as a cripple and shrivels up, afraid to come home from the hospital, and is viewed as a defeated man. Michael, the war hero, comes back to his hometown looking sharp in his uniform and seeming to be on the surface back to his normal self, but when he goes out hunting with the boys he misses with his one shot at the buck. That is something he never did before. So even he can’t hide how the war has gutted his insides and changed him. As for Nick he is lost somewhere in Vietnam and can’t be saved by Michael, who tried unsuccessfully to get him back from Vietnam alive.

The most eerie scene in the film is saved for last, as the friends huddle together all of them disappointed and devastated about how their lives turned out. They are trying to hold onto the only thing that has weathered the storm for them the unswerving friendship they have for each other and the sense of community that prevails, as they have breakfast together and begin to sing with all sincerity, like it was meant to be sung, “God Bless America.” The film tragically ends with De Niro proposing a toast to Nick.

This film offers a very puzzling and complex moral take on the war and on those who were directly affected by it. Cimino makes no apology for the volunteer soldiers fighting a bad war, he only revels in how poignant Michael’s odyssey is–for he is the hero of this story and the most compelling one in it. The deep tragedy is, that even he can’t feel at home after returning safely. His war experiences were too mind-boggling for him to even talk to others about what is bothering him.

What makes this film exceptional is the performers who take the story to spell-binding heights; they make you care enormously about the characters they play. De Niro gives a riveting performance as he searches for meaning to his life, making his patriotism seem genuine and his participation in a war that made no sense to a lot of people something that needs no apology, just like his deer kill is done like a true sportsman would do it; that is, if you must kill a deer, at least, do it the right way. Streep’s performance is more subtle, as her facial expressions give way to the great psychological strain she is under, not sure of what is happening to her but realizing that there is a tremendous void in her life. John Savage is convincing as a good guy who got a few bad breaks in life and couldn’t fully recover from it. Walken won an Oscar as a supporting actor in a film that won a total of five including those for best picture, editing, sound, and director. Walken was believable, playing a regular guy who just lost it in Vietnam and went into a shell. The remainder of the cast added to the haunting feeling that this was a tale of significant moral and political weight. Cazale’s performance as a weasel, staying out of the war, hiding behind a phony macho persona, is a fitting one in contrast to the guys who enlisted.

It is an astonishing film. A one of a kind experience. A film that in its minute details of the friend’s lives glaringly reveals how war shatters everybody, whether they go to war or stay home. The stupidity of the war and all its atrocities as it is stunningly presented by the filmmaker, leaves one without a chance to escape the moral implications of the war or does it give one a chance to recapture a lost innocence. The filmmaker seems to be saying you can run away from the Vietnam War and try to avoid it but you can’t get completely away from it, its devastation touched every part of America. This film’s viewpoint is not taken from the liberal side of the political spectrum, as anti-war films usually are, but wants to respect the opinions of conservative working-class Americans, the ones who sent their sons to fight this war. And what the film offers as a poignant reminder about war, even as it is a testament to the soldiers of the war, is how the war harmed even those who coolly survived it and how it left the American psyche scarred for life. The film also clearly showed the transformation of character for the three (Michael emotionally, Steven physically, and Nick psychologically). The protagonists go from being happy-go-lucky types, gung-ho proud to be born in America poster boys, to being disillusioned about what has taken place and are forced to sing a patriotic song at the film’s end in order to try and regain that natural feeling they once had, realizing that something has gone out of their American Dream forever. It is clearly shown that even these close friends couldn’t save each other from the tragic events of the war.