The Deer Hunter is often talked about not just as a classic piece of Vietnam cinema, but as a cultural barometer of American society in the wake of that conflict. It’s all of those things, but also many more – a very complex film that touches upon a number of issues and themes, and marks what was arguably a career high for almost everyone involved. That was certainly the case for director Michael Cimino, who became too convinced of his own genius after this film (you can see hints of his impending fatal self-indulgence here, with every scene being just a tad too long), bankrupted a studio with his follow-up, and gradually sunk into obscurity, but almost everyone else involved went on to enjoy rich careers that still perhaps never quite blossomed as well as they do here, the cast in particular.

It almost gets taken for granted that Robert De Niro’s early work was near-uniformly excellent, but it shouldn’t be – he is unusually compelling in this film, with a naked emotional honesty that he doesn’t always display. He also behaved admirably during the making of it, covering co-star John Cazale’s insurance with his own personal funds when the studio refused to hire an uninsured actor (Cazale was terminally ill, and died shortly after filming was completed). Cazale’s partner at the time, Meryl Streep, made this her breakthrough film by rewriting her own lines and taking what was scripted as a perfunctory character and making her the heart of the story. And of course Christopher Walken, an actor so distinctive that parody has reduced his impact, plays an unforgettable game of Russian roulette here (although his scenes in Vietnam with the doctor are even better) that makes you think all the people who make fun of him now have never actually seen this film.

Yet maybe what should be lauded most of all about The Deer Hunter is its sociopolitical bravery. The first major American film made about the Vietnam war since the conflict ended, it broke dangerous ground in being so openly critical, and it’s also a damning indictment of the way all international wars devastate working class lives. Although the Russian roulette scenes might be of questionable historical accuracy, they function as a brutally effective metaphor for the arbitrary nature of the conflict (or indeed all wars), and while there are undeniably uncomfortable depictions of Vietnamese people it’s hard to claim the film was in any way justifying or supporting the American presence over there. So it’s messy, overlong and imperfect, but full of so much powerful allegory that it’s impossible to dismiss.

An allegory for the effect of war on the working class10
Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep when they were young and dangerous9
Christopher Walken when he wasn't a caricature10
Unnecessary length, historical inaccuracies and racist undertones4
The first major American film to criticise the Vietnam war10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
9Overall Score

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