“The Deer Hunter” should not have been as good as it is. The production was beset by major problems from the start, including bitter infighting, a terminally ill cast member, a runaway budget, and a narcissistic director who may not have been cut out for the job. But it hardly mattered. The Vietnam War drama won five Oscars at the 1979 Academy Awards, and is still widely regarded as one of the greatest films of the 20th century.
At three hours long, the film is an epic saga about the transformative power of war that is as engrossing as it is historically inaccurate. But “The Deer Hunter” was never supposed to be realistic. Or at least that’s the official stance director Michael Cimino adopted after critics began sounding the bullshit alarm. “[If] you attack the film on its facts, then you’re fighting a phantom, because literal accuracy was never intended,” Cimino once said in an interview.
Nevertheless, the response from many of those who’d experienced the war, which ended only a few years before the film’s release, was harsh. “‘The Deer Hunter’ and its apologists insult the memory of every American who died in Vietnam,” wrote Vietnam War correspondent John Pilger.
Pilger’s anger was not misplaced. Hollywood plays a crucial role in shaping the way Americans understand and remember our country’s conflicts, and “The Deer Hunter” was incredibly impactful in that regard. The image of a shell-shocked soldier holding a revolver to his own head has become emblematic of the Vietnam War experience, even though that “soldier” is actor Robert De Niro.
Historically accurate or not, “The Deer Hunter” is a masterpiece. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are tangible, and the narrative, which is broken into three distinct acts, deftly captures what it’s like to uproot your life in America to fight an unpopular war in a foreign land and then return. The story behind the film is no less rich. Actually, it’s pretty insane. If you consider yourself a fan, here are seven things you should know.
1.Michael Cimino’s career never recovered.
In its initial review of “The Deer Hunter,” The New York Times declared that Cimino’s vision was “that of an original, major new film maker.” “The Deer Hunter” was Cimino’s second film. He made five more. All of them bombed. His last feature, “Sunchaser,” which stars Woody Harrelson, came out in 1996. However, Cimino’s name has appeared on the credits for a number of film projects that never came to fruition, including adaptations of “The Fountainhead” and “Crime and Punishment.” It is widely accepted among critics that Cimino’s reputation as an irresponsible director with quixotic ambitions (a reputation that was largely established during the filming of “The Deer Hunter”) is to blame for his inability to achieve enduring Hollywood success.
2. Cimino lied about his military service while making and promoting the film.
According to Vanity Fair, a number of people who worked closely with Cimino during the film’s production wrongly assumed that Cimino had drawn from his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam to make the film. Meanwhile, Cimino did little, if anything, to quell that assumption. “Mike is or was a pathological liar,” the film’s screenwriter, Deric Washburn, told Vanity Fair. “The movie never would have gotten made had he not been.” Following production, during an interview to promote the film, Cimino told a reporter that he had enlisted in the Army in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, and was “attached to a Green Beret medical unit” but never deployed. It was a lie. Cimino had joined the Army in 1962, had served for only six months and was never attached to Special Forces.
3. Screenwriter Deric Washburn didn’t interview a single veteran to research the script.
Washburn claims that he and Cimino hammered out the idea for the movie over three days in a hotel in Los Angeles. However, Cimino alone had been contracted to rewrite the original script, which was written by Louis Garfinkel and Quinn Redeker. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, because Cimino is a pretty slippery guy, he had subcontracted to another writer, Deric Washburn,” producer Michael Deeley recalled in an interview with the Independent. Washburn, who received the sole credit for “The Deer Hunter” screenplay, had written for the theater before but had extremely limited film experience. A carpenter by trade, Washburn didn’t know anything about Vietnam outside of what he saw on the news, and he didn’t bother to do any real research. “I had a month, that was it,” he told Vanity Fair. “But all I had to do was watch TV. Those combat cameramen in Vietnam were out there in the field with the guys.”
4. Actor John Cazale died shortly after filming.
Cazale had already emerged as one of the dominant actors of his generation by the time he landed on the cast of “The Deer Hunter.” He had starred in the first two Godfathers, “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Conversation,” and was highly influential among his peers. “I learned more about acting from John than anybody,” Al Pacino once said of Cazale. But at 42 years old, Cazale was dying of bone cancer. Afraid the studio would fire him if they found out, Cimino kept Cazale’s illness a secret as long as he could. “John was dying the whole time we were shooting ‘The Deer Hunter,’” Cimino told the NewStatesman. Eventually, the studio did find out about Cazale’s illness and refused to insure him, so Robert De Niro footed the bill. Cazale was also dating co-star Meryl Streep, who remained by his side until he passed.
5. The wedding scene didn’t go according to plan.
And that’s because there wasn’t much of a plan to begin with. To prepare for the scene, which was filmed in a Russian Orthodox church in Cleveland, Cimino took the principal cast to an actual Russian wedding in West Virginia. For added authenticity, the 30-minute scene stars an actual priest as the priest, and actual drunk Russian immigrants as the wedding guests. “Michael didn’t know what he was looking for,” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond told Vanity Fair. Thus, Cimino staged a nonstop dance party over the course of five days that drove the actors to exhaustion, and at one point De Niro and Cazale collapsed to the floor, which can be seen in the film. “They were so tired,” said Zsigmond. “That was obviously an accident, but that’s what he was looking for.”
6. Filming was postponed so the film’s military liaison in Thailand could stage a coup.
Cimino insisted on filming in Thailand to ensure the Vietnam scenes looked as real as possible — a decision that, according to the LA Times, ultimately inflated the budget from $7 million to $13 million. It was a logistical nightmare. The Deer Hunter began filming in 1977, less than a year after a student uprising in Thailand resulted in the brutal massacre of dozens of civilians and the overthrow of the elected government by the military. Despite the fact that he was helping run the country, the military’s supreme leader, Kriangsak Chomanan, took on the additional responsibility of serving as “The Deer Hunter”’s liaison in Thailand, providing the film with tons of military vehicles, weapons, and aircraft. Then, one day he asked for it all back. In an interview with Vanity Fair, producer Barry Spikings recalled what happened when he attempted to protest. The general said, “Barry, Barry — please, please. You’re making a movie — I have a military coup. But it won’t take long. There’ll be a few people who’ll get shot on Sunday, and then you can have the stuff back.”
7. There was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette during the Vietnam War.
That fact was first highlighted in Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Peter Arnett’s scathing critique of the film, which was published shortly after its release in The Los Angeles Times. “I have found that enthusiasts are genuinely hurt when I tell them that while Vietnam had all manners of violence, including self-immolating Buddhist monks, fire-bombings, rape, deception, and massacres like My Lai in its 20 years of war,” Arnett wrote, “there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette, not in the voluminous files of the Associated Press anyway, or in my experience either. The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.”