Soldiers remembered in “The Deer Hunter,” now in 4K Ultra HD
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
The controversial Russian roulette scene between Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro) and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) at a back-alley gambling hall in Saigon.
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“THE DEER HUNTER”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray; 1978; R for war violence, profanity
Best extra: Commentary with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher
THE ARRIVAL of Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” marks the 12th motion picture in the 10th Anniversary of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest American Films of All-Time to make the jump to 4K Ultra HD. Cimino’s Vietnam era epic, his second film as director, is positioned at No. 53 between “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “M*A*S*H (1970).
Good news – three more AFI top 100 films will premiere on 4K disc in late June: No. 7 “Lawrence of Arabia (1962), No. 26 “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and No. 39 “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964).
Oddly, “The Deer Hunter” didn’t make AFI’s original Top 100 list in 1997. The cause centered on many things including the controversial Russian roulette scenes, and the use of Asian stereotypes. Then there was the length, an agreed-on two-hour film that ultimately came in at three, including an endless wedding sequence. Cost was a factor; production started in the steel mill towns along the Ohio River and then jumped to the jungles of Thailand. Cimino and the producers busted the budget, almost doubling it.
To this day, British producer Michael Deeley feels the front end of the picture is “overbalanced,” he says during a new interview included in the Shout! Factory set. “Of course we needed the buddies, and the obvious justification of the deer hunter title, and the whole background [covered at the wedding],” he says. But, Cimino was determined to make his movie the same length as “Gone With the Wind,” Deeley says. “It shows how big his ego was.” For the producer, it was always a matter of lost revenue, because the movie lost one show per day at its longer length.
(1) Russian-Americans Michael Vronsky (De Niro), Nick Chevotarevich (Walken), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), Stan (John Cazale), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) work at a Clairton, Pennsylvania steel mill. Sadly, Cazale died of terminal cancer before the movie was released. (2) The guys head to John's (George Dzundza) bar and sing Frankie Valli's classic "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." (3) Ladies from the Russian Orthodox church walk Steven and Angela's (Rutanya Alda) wedding cake to the VFW hall. (4) After the wedding, the guys are going deer hunting. "You have think about one shot. One is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don't listen," says Michael.
The production also nearly killed two of its main stars, Robert De Niro and John Savage. In an escape for a Viet Cong POW camp, their characters jump onto an American helicopter. The runners caught under a bridge cable, without the pilot knowing it. The actors were doing their own stunts when the copter began to twist. “You know you’re hanging from a helicopter and the thing is going to crash for sure. It’s caught up, and there was Bobby [De Niro] and I just hanging, 75 feet over the River Kwai, but we survived…hairy times!,” Savage says in the 64-page booklet included in the UK 4K version released two years ago for the film’s 40th anniversary.
During the Shout! interview, Deeley details how he had just moved to the U.S. in the mid-1970s and set up an office in Beverly Hills. Then one day a script just “plopped onto my desk,” he says. “The Man Who Came to Play, the original title for “The Deer Hunter,” immediately caught his attention. “I was shocked by it. I was excited about it. And, I was very keen on doing something with it.”
“I always felt that ‘The Deer Hunter’ was going to be good movie; Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. It had its flaws, but there was something very special about it.” – Robert De Niro
He started by knocking on every Hollywood studio door to try to get it made, but everyone turned it down – afraid of its Vietnam storyline. “Americans were trying to forget [the war] rather than be reminded,” Deeley explains. Eventually, he sold his American company to EMI, a huge British entertainment conglomerate who decided to finance half of the project, while Universal Studios provided a set amount; Deeley said he would back the rest.
All along the producer felt the script needed a better opening, so he hired Cimino, with the possibility he could become the director. After a recommendation by Clint Eastwood, who had starred in Cimino’s first film “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” he got the director’s chair.
“The Deer Hunter” opened to rave reviews in December of 1978 from East to West Coast critics and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. Even so, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker blasted it: “The Viet Cong are treated in the standard inscrutable-evil Oriental style of the Japanese in the Second World War movies.”
Steven & Angela’s wedding
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond says, "Michael [Cimino] did not really know what he was looking for, so we shot it as though it was a real wedding." In the script, the wedding was only four pages, but they keep shooting until something special happened.
When Academy Award nominations were announced in January, “The Deer Hunter” received nine nods including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for De Niro, Best Writing, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, the first nomination of her career, Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, and a number of technical selections. Deeley credits De Niro with recruiting most of the excellent cast, who he had worked with in some form or fashion in the New York theater/film industry.
By Oscar night, April 9, 1979, “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home,” another Vietnam story, were battling for top honors. Protesters, mostly from Vietnam Vets Against the War, lined the streets outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, while actress Jane Fonda led a campaign against it. She called it a Pentagon-sponsored right-wing movie. Later that night, Fonda won Best Actress for “Coming Home” as a Marine officer’s wife who falls in love with a paraplegic veteran while volunteering at the Veterans hospital. A month earlier, British actress Julie Christie led a walkout during “The Deer Hunter” at the Berlin Film Festival, due to its “racist overtones,” in which the Viet Cong force the three main characters – Michael Vronsky (De Niro) and his buddies Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (Savage), former Pennsylvania steelworkers from a Russian Orthodox community – to take part in a torturous game of Russian roulette.
“The Deer Hunter” ended up winning five Oscars that night including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
The difference between the new Shout! 4K and the UK version is mostly the bonus features (and soundtrack). Four extras are included in both sets, with the commentary from Hungarian Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) the most interesting. It’s included on the Shout! 4K disc, a good move since the space needed is minimal and we can easily toggle between audio tracks while watching the Ultra HD. Subtitles would’ve been a nice touch since Zsigmond’s accent at times can be difficult to understand. The commentary is full of backstories, technical detail and personal insights, while journalist Bob Fisher keeps firing questions.
Another highlighted extra in both editions is an interview with British film critic David Thomson, based in the US. He recalls his first viewing at a media screening in Boston. Right off the bat, he mentions the wedding scene and how beautiful it was, “But going on and on,” he says. “I thought this was a Vietnam film, when are we going to get there?” he asked himself. Suddenly, the film drops us there, without any introduction. “Your characters, the ones you’ve been following, are now in a perilous situation,” Thomson says. “You could feel the jolt, with that transition.”
(1&2) The region around Mt. Baker in Washington subs for the Pennsylvania Allegheny Mountains for the deer sequences. (3-5) Thailand subs for Vietnam as Michael, Steven and Nick find each other as a village is overrun by the Viet Cong.
Many of the media had some involvement with the war. “Men were crying out in helpless anguish, pain and hurt,” he says. There were conflicting opinions since some felt the Vietnam sequences were pure fiction – especially the roulette scenes. “I still think it’s one of the most savage juxtapositions in film construction. It throws you into the danger.” Thomson recalls how critics poured out onto the sidewalks, where “furious arguments” broke out. Everyone questioned, “What the film had done, what it said, what it meant or what it got wrong,” Thomson says. Still today, he considers it a “Great film, [though] there’s a lot to be said against it. That doesn’t disqualify it.”
The 4K Shout! presentation is a clone to the UK version, which is sourced from the original camera negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio), and scanned in 4K 16-bit by StudioCanal and Universal for its 40th anniversary. It extracts a high level of natural film grain most evident in darker and interior scenes, while the overall sharpness is very good from wide shots to close-ups. Daylight shots are especially stunning captured by Zsigmond, earning him that Oscar nomination. Plus, the texture detail from costumes in the wedding sequence is brought to the forefront, with added resolution.
The HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning are darker than the HD version – especially once the story hits Vietnam, with deeper shadows and controlled highlights with the fireball explosions. Facial toning is also natural and balanced.
(1&2) Michael and Steven are held at a Viet Cong POW camp and find a way to escape. (3&4) Nick recovers at a Saigon military hospital and views the courtyard where metal caskets are being loaded.
For some reason, the audio varies from the U.K. version. The Shout! disc includes the six-channel DTS-HD uncompressed soundtrack and the commentary. While the StudioCanal disc includes the same 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, plus the two-channel stereo DTS-HD track, and dropped the commentary from the 4K. The Oscar-winning sound now has a full soundstage, with plenty of effects pushed to surround speakers. The bass response is solid, while keeping the dialogue front and center. Stanley Myers’ score is nicely staged, showcasing classic guitarist John Williams playing “Cavatina,” which became one of his most requested concert numbers.
There’s no doubt “The Deer Hunter” will continue to spur conversations both pro and con, but as British writer Jay Glennie points out in the UK booklet, co-producer Barry Spikings said it best: “'The Deer Hunter' is a metaphor of what America was doing with its young men during the Vietnam conflict; it was playing Russian roulette with their lives.”
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1&2) Michael returns home and visits Linda's (Meryl Streep) workplace. (3) Michael returns to the woods. (4) Michael visits Steven at the VA hospital.
(1&2) Michael returns to Vietnam as Saigon is about to fall, with the hope to bring Nick home. But, he finds his friend succumb to drugs and the Russian roulette game. (3) Michael and Linda at Nick's funeral. (4) Linda starts to sing "God Bless America," during the wake.