Hearing of director Michael Cimino's death this weekend at 77, his masterpiece The Deer Hunter comes immediately to mind. The scenes of Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette seared into my head all these years later. The film won Best Picture and Cimino an Academy Award for Directing. While De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken were all nominated, only Walken's devasting performance took home the Oscar.
The film affected me—and most of us who saw it when it came out in February of 1979—deeply. I remember walking out of the theatre on a cool night in San Francisco, feeling battered, shattered. I can still see the expression on my boyfriend's face. Like he'd been punched in the gut. The brutality of war so vividly depicted, not the usual blood and gore, but the awful mental toll the Viet Nam war took on its soldiers. We couldn't find the words to talk about it, the usual after-movie coffee and pie not on the menu that night.
Those scenes of Russian roulette, of the men being imprisoned in rice paddies, have stayed with me but so too have the beautiful scenes of the friends before they go to war. John Savage's shotgun wedding, the sizzle of De Niro and Meryl Streep's attraction for each other, and the sheer joy the friends share in the bar. Without those moments of beauty, that evocation of friendship and love, Walken's descent into madness wouldn't have been so powerful.
I've read that the film was very loosely inspired by the German novel Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque about three German soldiers in World War 1. I don't know if that's true, it's not credited on the imdb listing. The Russian roulette scenes came from an unpublished screenplay set in Vegas.
Here's your Sunday Slacker video. That scene of the friends in the bar, playing pool before the wedding, before they go off to war. When I think of the darkness, the horror of The Deer Hunter, I always think of this scene too. I love you baby!
RIP Michael Cimino
February 3, 1939–July 2, 2016
For those interested in diving deep into Cimino's head, visit the link to read the transcript of a two hour conversation Michael Cimino had with The Hollywood Reporter.