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The Deer Hunter not quite a classic film
Starring in the 1978 Michael Cimino film “The Deer Hunter,” were John Cazale, second from left; Robert De Niro and John Savage, center; and Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep, far right.

With the Academy Awards only four days away, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit the Oscars of years past.

In its 85-year history, the ceremony has moved some great films into the realm of “classics” while others have slipped away into relative obscurity.

“The Deer Hunter,” which received an Oscar for Best Picture in 1979, is a film both artfully crafted and relevant to the events of today, yet it remains in the shadows of other similar war movies.

It is the story of several young Pennsylvania steel mill workers who go off to fight in the Vietnam War. It follows them from their anticipation before enlistment to their trials during wartime and ends with their struggles to reintegrate into civilian life after returning.

The movie opens with the three main characters working at the mill. Loud machinery and molten metal create a chaotic scene that quickly transitions into the friends celebrating at a local bar, which is no less raucous. It is the night before Steven (John Savage) gets married, and the group seems to be absorbed with excitement about the celebration and their impending enlistment.

This atmosphere is broken momentarily when Nick (Christopher Walken) drunkenly asks Michael (Robert De Niro) to bring him back home “if something happens.”

After the wedding is over, the Nick and Michael, along with two other friends from work, go deer hunting in the mountains.

Then “The Deer Hunter” picks up once the friends are in Vietnam, where they experience one of the more haunting scenes I have seen in a war movie.

The group is captured by the North Vietnamese and held in a cage built under a river dock to keep them partially submerged in water. Two by two, the captives are brought out to play Russian roulette while the enemy soldiers bet on the outcome.

The friends manage to escape, but the event leaves Nick emotionally wrecked and Steven loses three of his limbs after falling out of a rescue helicopter.

Afterward, the friends are separated and Michael returns home alone.

The small town hasn’t changed since before the war, but Michael finds it difficult to connect with his old friends. After a short stint with an old girlfriend, played by Meryl Streep, he finds out Steven has abandoned his family to live in a veteran’s hospital and Nick chose to stay in Saigon, despite its approaching downfall, to become a professional Russian roulette player.

Michael then sets to out to rescue his friends, again.

The movie is neither pro-war nor anti-war, but instead focuses on the individual struggles of the men, which makes a compelling story. With the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, this movie is a good reminder of what some veterans are facing.

However, “The Deer Hunter” is far from perfect. The lengthy beginning and somewhat pointless side stories of the town people cause the movie to feel drawn-out and directionless. The wedding sequence is longer than it should have been and mostly full of people drinking and singing together.

Plus, the movie is long, 3 hours long to be exact. So do not start watching it at 10 p.m. like I did, or you will be up until 1 a.m. waiting for it to finish.

And while the acting is mostly skilled, at times the lines feel disingenuous.

Underneath the flaws, the film is a surprisingly original and emotional tale.

“The Deer Hunter” is not available on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Instant, but it can be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray Disc from Amazon for $11.49.

Andrew Akers is a part-time reporter for The Times. He can be reached at

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