The 1978 film The Deer Hunter was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, and won 5, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christopher Walken), Best Director, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. It tells the story of a group of friends/steelworkers, their horrific experience while fighting in the Vietnam War, and the effects that experience had on them and the other people in town. The film is divided into three distinguishable acts, each shorter than the previous one.
In the first act of the film, we meet friends Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), Steven (John Savage), Stan (John Cazale), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), who all work at the steel mill in their small Pennsylvania town. When not getting drunk (or even shortly afterwards), the guys like to head into the woods of the Alleghenies to hunt for deer, along with bar owner/friend John (George Dzundza). Michael, Nick and Steven have enlisted and will be heading off to Vietnam the following week. They have one last hunting trip planned before they go, but first it’s time to celebrate Steven’s shotgun marriage to Angela (Rutanya Alda), in a combo wedding/military send-off party. And just a few days after this last hurrah, the three men head off to war. The second act picks up some time later as the three soldiers are reunited in a horrific Viet Cong prison camp. The men are tortured and forced to participate in games of Russian Roulette, as their perverse captors laugh and gamble on the outcome. Escaping this living hell seems nearly impossible, and even if they manage to, the mental toll this experience has had will be long-lasting. The third/final act of the film follows the aftermath of the soldiers’ experience, and how it has affected and changed them as well as their relationships with friends and family back home.
I had never seen this film before, so I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew going into it was that it was an award-winning film set around the Vietnam war. I have to say that, despite all its accolades, I found the film to be pretty disappointing. Clocking in at over three hours, the movie is excessively long, especially the first act—it takes nearly 70 minutes before we even get to Vietnam. Since both the director and the film won an Oscar, I guess they made the right editing decisions, but as a viewer, the seemingly-endless wedding and introduction to these characters and their relationships felt completely unnecessary. The same information could have been conveyed in less than a third of that time. It almost felt like the writer/director wanted to tell a completely different story, just following the friendship of these hunters in a small Pennsylvania town.
The second act, on the other hand, is quite strong, abruptly thrusting the viewer right into the thick of the horrors without any lead up or warning. The soldiers are being tortured physically and mentally, while Michael tries to keep his friends calm. The Russian Roulette scenes are wonderfully acted and shot, yielding some incredibly tense moments. These scenes are frankly quite brutal to watch, and I even found myself looking away at times. There was some controversy at the time of the film’s release that the use of Russian Roulette as a torture device was not historically accurate, but accurate or not, this mechanism proves to be very effective in delivering an emotional punch to the gut.
The third act of the film takes viewers back to that Pennsylvania town. It explores the aftermath of the wartime experience on the soldiers. Each of the men has been affected in a different way and to a different degree, and their trauma has also affected their friendships, relationships and loved ones. I also found this act to be quite successful, and probably what earned Christopher Walken his Oscar.
While The Deer Hunter was showered with lots of praise from Academy voters, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a great film. The director took extreme self-indulgence with the first act, and as a result exhausts the viewer before even getting to the crux of the film. The second act is a profound but brutal piece of filmmaking. While I can appreciate its merit, it’s not something I yearn to watch again any time soon. And the final act does a nice job of bringing things full circle, showing the aftermath of the war on these soldiers, and the long lasting damage that was done. I wish there had been a shorter cut of the film that I could actually recommend watching, but once the film won “Best Picture”, the idea that it could be re-cut became impossible. That said, the cast and performances are excellent once you get by the 70 minutes of fluff at the start of the film. Robert De Niro is the heart of the film, the brave soldier who tries to keep things together and save his friends, while Christopher Walken and John Savage deliver the more emotional performances as we see them struggle with the damage and aftermath of war. There is also a small, Oscar-nominated performance by Meryl Streep as a woman in love with one of the soldiers, anxiously waiting for him to return home.
Shout! Factory’s release includes both a Blu-ray and a 4K Ultra HD copy of the film. I’m not sure if the picture was remastered for this Blu-ray release, but I thought it looked quite fantastic—though with a few excessively dark scenes. While the 4K picture does have a slight uptick in detail, it also has a bit more grain as well. Overall, I didn’t notice a huge difference between the Blu-ray and 4K pictures, and found both to be generally quite satisfying, though a little dark at times (particularly in the Vietnam scenes). As for the audio track, I viewed the film with the 5.1 track, but the majority of the sound still seems focused on the center channel. The stereo and surround channels were more noticeable during the sound effect heavy scenes, such as those involving the whirring of helicopter blades.
Shout! Factory has ported over the bonus material from previous physical releases and added some new retrospective interviews with some cast and filmmakers. The new material includes over 45 minutes of new interviews with actors John Savage & Rutanya Alda, producer Michael Deeley, post-production supervisor Katy Haber, and Universal Marketing executive Willette Klausner. The legacy features include an audio commentary with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher, a 24-minute interview with film critic David Thomson, just under 40 minutes of deleted/extended scenes, a photo gallery, the theatrical trailer, and some radio spots. The disc comes packed in a standard UHD keepcase with a slipcover, and like many other Shout Select releases, the insert inside the cover is reversible, giving the viewer a choice in how to display this title in his or her collection. The alternate view for this title can be seen below:
4K Ultra HD:
- 2160p / Widescreen 2.35:1
- Dolby Vision / HDR10
- Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital Audio
- Subtitles: English SDH
- 1080p / Widescreen 2.35:1
- Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
- Subtitles: English SDH
The audio commentary is available on both discs, but the rest of the features only appear on the Blu-ray disc.
- Audio Commentary with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher (3:03:43)
This audio feature commentary was originally recorded for the 2005 DVD release. Journalist Bob Fisher serves as a moderator, fascilitating a discussion with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond about the filming locations, technology, scope, and more. The track in generally pretty interesting and informative, though Zsigmond has a raspy, heavily-accented voice that can be difficult to understand at times.
- NEW We Don’t Belong Here — John Savage on The Deer Hunter (8:26)
In this brand new interview, actor John Savage (“Steven”) talks about how working on a play with Robert Duvall led to his role in this film, filming the Russian Roulette and helicopter stunt scenes, and the reactions to film.
- NEW The War At Home — Rutanya Alda on The Deer Hunter (11:28)
In this brand new interview, actress Rutanya Alda (“Angela”) talks about how she was cast in the film, filming in Pittsburgh, learning the Russian dances, working with director Michael Cimino, dripping the wine, her character’s final line, saying goodbye to the other cast members, the length of the wedding scene, working with Robert De Niro, the audience reactions to the film, and watching the Oscars.
- NEW A National Anthem — Michael Deeley on The Deer Hunter (13:50)
In this brand new interview, producer Michael Deeley talks about the process of trying to get the film made, finding the right writer to add an opening to the script, finding the right director, the excessive length of the first act, casting the film, working with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, finding a safe jungle location to double as Vietnam, the Russian Roulette and helicopter stunt scenes, the editing process, the controversy surrounding the release, and the Academy Awards.
- NEW This is Not About War — Katy Haber and Willette Klausner on The Deer Hunter (12:54)
In this brand new interview, post-production supervisor Katy Haber and Universal Marketing executive Willette Klausner, talk about how they each got into the film business and ultimately ended up working on this film. The women also discuss the debate over the length of the film, being the first female executive at Universal, an awkward first meeting with director Michael Cimino, the struggle over editing the film, the mementos they each kept from the film, and winning the Oscars.
- Interview with David Thomson (24:03)
In this interview, film critic David Thomson talks about his memories of seeing the film for the first time and the mixed audience reactions. He also discusses the director and the cast, the rumors about the evolution of the film and script, the working class characters, the impossible mountain setting, the Russian Roulette sequences and the controversy of whether or not they were historically accurate, and more.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (39:53)
Collection of raw footage from the film’s second act, some without audio. It is mostly comprised of extended or alternate takes of existing scenes, without much happening. While it’s nice to see it included, this is really for the die-hard fans who thought the 3-hour film wasn’t already overkill.
- Theatrical Trailer (2:47)
Presented in 4:3 letterboxed format.
- Radio Spots (1:53)
Two radio spots play back to back.
- Still Gallery (1:51)
Manually step through this slideshow of 22 production photos, or allow the photos to auto-advance every 5 seconds.
Given all the awards that it has won, I found The Deer Hunter to be way overrated. The first act is in desperate need of some heavy editing and exhausts the viewer before the film even really gets started. However, the rest of the film is quite strong, with some excellent and emotional performances, though it can be really rough viewing at times. Shout! Factory’s release provides solid picture and sound, and 45 minutes of new retrospective interviews with some of the cast and filmmakers, along with a host of other bonus material ported from previous home video releases. Fans of the film will likely want to pick this up, but first-time viewers may wish to rent the movie first to assess the replay value to them.