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The Godfather (parts I and II), Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Heat, Carlito’s Way… they are all in my top fifty movies of all time. They are all classics, with superb performances by the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and great directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. They combine superb scripts and stories, with breathtaking cinematography, passionate scores and the aforementioned performances to create visions that will be remembered for decades to come. Up there with those greats we also have Michael Cimino’s study of the effects of Vietnam, The Deer Hunter. Starring the amazing Robert De Niro in a typically towering performance, it is markedly one of Cimino’s best creations.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The

Movie


Michael, Nick, Stevie, Stan, John and Axel are best friends and co-workers at a steel-mill in the small town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. They work and play together, arguing, fighting, teasing one another, but also supporting each other through the good and bad events in their lives, the latest being Stevie’s wedding. Michael is ostensibly the leader, although he is slightly aloof and occasionally feels himself superior to the others, at least in terms of their favourite group pastime—deer hunting. His most trusted friend is Nick, the most diplomatic and reasonable member of the group, whose long-term girlfriend Michael has always had feelings for. Stan is the least reliable of the group, his flagrant capriciousness often annoying the hell out of Michael. John and Axel are big and loud and swear a lot and Stevie, well Stevie is the one who is getting married of course, and as a virgin no less. They all work well as a unit and nothing could separate them until the war. When Michael, Nick and Stevie join the Airborne Infantry and go off to Vietnam, their lives and the lives of their friends and families are changed forever.

It is difficult to know where to begin when studying a movie that is so near perfect. I suppose that I would like to first clarify that this is not a war movie, per se. It focuses on the effect of the Vietnam War upon these individuals, with only about twenty-five minutes of its massive three-hour runtime being dedicated to war sequences. We get to see how this closely-knit community, bonded together like a family, is torn apart by the harrowing experience. Before they leave, they are happy together and do everything together: work, drink, play pool and hunt deer. They even cheer at the very idea of fighting for their country: “send me where the bullets are flying!”

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The
With characters this important, the casting had to be perfect and who better to headline the movie that the great man himself—Robert De Niro. One of the best actors of all-time (although you would be forgiven for not seeing any of that former glory in his most recent efforts) he had already proven his worth with Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, as well as Coppola’s Godfather, when he was approached by Director Michael Cimino to do this movie. The role of Michael, the strongest of the group of friends, was perfect for the dominant presence of De Niro, who commanded the screen for every one of his scenes.

Oddly enough he was supported by a bunch of actors who few people had heard of before. Christopher Walken (who has since become renowned for his eccentric characters, as in The King of New York, Pulp Fiction and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) was a relative newcomer when he took on the tough role of Nick, Michael’s best friend, who probably suffers the worst effects—at least psychologically—following his experiences in ‘Nam. He is simply superb here, well deserving of his Oscar, even without the help of that trademark hammy over-the-top mad acting that he has since become famous for.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The
Then there’s Meryl Streep, another now-famous actress, who had simply done nothing of significance prior to The Deer Hunter. She is superb as Linda, the woman torn between being loyal to her somewhat disinterested partner, Nick, and succumbing to the interests of Michael, and then shattered by what the war does to the two men she loves. You can see in her here the fantastic quality of acting that has gone on to define her career. Francis Ford Coppola regular John Cazale (who was dying of cancer at the time of the production), John Savage (who has recently become popular on the small screen in TV productions like Dark Angel and Carnivale), George Dzundza (whose size often dictates his presence in movies like Basic Instinct and Crimson Tide) and Chuck Aspegren (a real-life steel mill worker recruited just for this part) round off the characters that make this excellent drama.

Then of course we have the man behind the lens, Michael Cimino. Having made The Deer Hunter, he suddenly found himself standing alongside the likes of Scorsese and Coppola, but with his follow-up film, the hugely over-long, over-budget Heaven’s Gate (which was shred-edited by the studios), his popularity was soon lost and he’s struggled in Hollywood ever since, making a fighting comeback with the flawed Oliver Stone-penned Mickey Rourke thriller Year of the Dragon before falling flat again by casting Christopher Lambert in the lead role of the Mario Puzo-penned Godfather spin-off, The Sicilian (a brilliant book ruined on the big screen by Lambert’s Orlando-Bloom-like woodenness). It seems increasingly unlikely that we will get another big, decent movie out of this man, and he will probably always be remembered (and justly so) for this magnificent creation.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The
With its tremendously powerful story, superb characters brought to life by an amazing cast, sumptuous cinematography (the deer hunting scenery is simply stunning), haunting soundtrack (the moving score is one of the most memorable of all-time, with John Williams guitar-work behind the main theme) and flawless direction, it is easy to see why this won no less than five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and has since become such an acclaimed classic. Fans will no-doubt recall the standout, well-known Russian Roulette sequence, which remains gripping and horrifying to this day, and newcomers have that and a great deal more to look forward to upon discovering this movie. It comes with the highest of recommendations.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The

Video


For this release we get a brand new 2.35:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer which looks pretty good. Sure, the movie is over twenty-five years old but the transfer on this special edition still stands up, with decent detail, little softness and negligible grain (other than in the original Vietnam news real footage). The colour scheme is largely limited to the cold Pennsylvania locations, but the Vietnam sequences add an extra dimension to the proceedings. The wonderfully broad scope of the picture and terrific use of it by Cimino (reminding you why cinematic ratios like this are so important) clearly overcome any reservations about the picture quality itself and the video presentation of this classic is likely not to disappoint.

Audio


Possibly the most noteworthy aspect of this release is the apparent inclusion of a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which would have set it apart from the previous special editions. Unfortunately it is one of the worst six-speaker efforts I have come across, being little more than a glorified stereo track. Although resoundingly disappointing, since it is the best thing that we have at the moment, we have to make the most of it. With clear dialogue and a reasonable presentation of the haunting score and the effects, it will suffice for the moment, but other than a few moments where the sub or surrounds see some action this is a strictly frontal affair.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The

Extras


First up we get an audio commentary by the director himself, Michael Cimino, who is often prompted by a random film critic who appears to be on board just to keep Cimino on track. His words often relate directly to the on screen actions, with him taking us through the proceedings in order, talking about how De Niro and the other cast members were actually tapping the steel themselves in the opening furnace sequence, how this movie was British-funded because America was not very interested in doing a Vietnam movie at the time, how De Niro was the first cast member they had on board and so forth. He talks about the impact of the short skip to 'Nam in the middle of the movie and the importance of the characters in this drama. It is an interesting affair that is well worth a listen.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The
Next we get three fifteen-minute interviews from the cast and crew. 'Realising The Deer Hunter' is an interview with director Michael Cimino, where he talks in depth about the production. It features far too much footage from the main film itself and offers little more than the commentary, other than getting to see the man himself. 'Shooting The Deer Hunter' is an interview with the cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who talks about the desaturated look that they wanted to achieve because the movie was supposed to be set in autumn, but how the April filming schedule made this difficult. Quite a technical offering. 'Playing The Deer Hunter' is an interview with actor John Savage, who played Stan. It is easily the most interesting of the three, with Savage relating stories about his father's experiences in World War II and how it was difficult to return to a normal life. Getting quite emotional at times, he first discusses how much fun the early half of the movie was—just lots of parties—and then goes on to explain the harrowing ordeal of the war sequences and the resulting tragedies.

Finally we get the original theatrical trailer, which, during its two-minute runtime manages to tell pretty-much the entire story, spoilers included. I highly recommend you avoid this if you have not seen the movie.

Deer Hunter: Special Edition, The

Overall


The Deer Hunter is one of the greatest movies ever made. Everything about it is all-but perfect: the superior acting, the superb direction and beautiful cinematography, the amazing score and the compelling story, with an oft-quoted script. It is truly a classic and should be given the respect that it deserves, so a solid special edition DVD release is a must. Unfortunately Optimum have basically re-released the previous special edition with different artwork, a slightly superior video presentation and a lame Dolby Digital 5.1 track which is likely to only irritate fans. Still, if you haven’t already got this in your collection then technically this is the best edition available and thus there is no reason for you not to pick it up now. The Deer Hunter deserves a place in everybody’s film collection.


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