The Deer Hunter is one of those films which I never *got* the first time I was able to watch it in its original widescreen ratio, as like a lot of films when I was growing up, once released on VHS, they languished in 4:3 pan-and-scan hell, completely destroying the vision of, in this case, director Michael Cimino and cinematograper Vilmos Zsigmond.
Steelworker Steven (John Savage) is about to get married to Angela (Rutanya Alda), but as he heads off to spend a weekend of bliss with his new wife, co-workers Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) head off for a hunting weekend to shoot some deer. After that, Steven, Mike and Nick have been drafted to fight in the Vietnam war, but as De Niro comments early on, “I just don’t like no surprises”.
For a three-hour film, once the wedding is done and dusted – which takes up the majority of the first hour – the deer-hunting and the early Vietnam scenes pass by surprisingly quickly until the men are captured and forced to play Russian Roulette in the movie’s outstanding, iconic scene.
If any of them make it out alive, to say they’ll be changed men is an understatement.
Yes, three hours is a long film, but it doesn’t feel that long as you watch it and I was really glad to check this out properly, as you watch the story unfold, and see each of the men deal with their personal demons once the war is over. The wedding scenes do feel a bit too long, although they are enjoyable to watch. Beyond that, the film is utterly compelling.
It’s sad to learn that while John Cazale filmed this, he was in the late stages of suffering from lung cancer, and died soon after filming was completed, and before the film was premiered.
Now that Studiocanal have released this, I’d be curious to see a release for the director’s cut of Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate, which ended up overrunning so much, it lasts 5 hours and 25 minutes! These days, though, that would be a short TV series. Hmm… someone up for a remake?
The film is presented in the theatrical 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and in 1080p high definition. Shot on 35mm film, and blown up to 70mm for such prints, I don’t know whether it’s for this release but it’s had a great remastering along the way and looks fantastic.
The audio is in a few strange options. In English, there’s 2.0 Dolby Stereo, plus Six Track Dolby Stereo. The disc tells us “This audio was sourced from an original 6-channel magnetic soundtrack. It would have played in 70mm presentations and would have been marketed as 70mm Six Track Dolby Stereo. Due to technological advances, we are unable to replacate this exactly on a modern surround system. However, all efforts have been made to recreate what this would have sounded like.”
So I gave it a whirl, anyway. After all, it was either that or regular stereo. The other option is French DTS dual mono.
In the end, the Six Track soundtrack didn’t sound noticeably different from a regular stereo soundtrack.
There are some superb extras across two discs. The audio commentaries are on the first disc, as you’d expect, while the rest are on disc 2. Only the first extra has never been seen before:
- New interview with David Thomson – Film Critic (24:03): He comments on the fact that only the leads were actors, and everyone in the background were people who’d never acted. This includes real-life steelworker Chuck Aspegren, who played Axel. In addition, he has some theories about the film itself, but I think it depends how much you want to read into it.
- South Bank Show: 1979 ITV interview with Michael Cimino (17:40): Not the whole programme, but just the director talking about the film and the Vietnam war. This clip is presented in the original 4:3 ratio, and expect some picture blemishes given its age, but it still looks very good indeed. It’s interesting to note that the wedding scene dialogue was all recorded on the set with no dubbing (aside from some tidying up in the studio, afterwards) and that every last bit of dialogue wasn’t always meant to be eard.
- Realising The Deer Hunter: Interview with Michael Cimino (23:33): The first of three interviews in these extras from 2003 (I presume for a 25th Anniversary release), starting with Mr Cimino, where he comments that this was the film he made for Warner which they thought would be the least successful, and things turned out the opposite way. He also recounts a number of other tales, such as what the actors went through when filming in a river, including doing some of their own stunts.
- Shooting The Deer Hunter: Interview with Vilmos Zsigmond (15:31): The cinematographer talks about the problems with the film such as the wedding being too long, and how they sometimes have to shoot in the wrong season, which leads to having to remove all the leaves from the trees to make it look like it’s the autumn.
- Playing The Deer Hunter: Interview with John Savage (15:39): John Savage, aka Steven, who recollects the problems of filming in the river, and all the dangers they faced.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (16:57): Six scenes, all set in Vietnam, including a lot of the Russian Roulette scenes. I assumed they were all tightly scripted, but you can see they let the cameras roll and let Robert De Niro do a lot of improvisation.
- Audio commentaries: Two of them. One from director Michael Cimino, and the other from cinematograper Vilmos Zsigmond with journalist Bob Fisher.
The menu is a neat mix of the cover artwork with clips from the film and a short piece of John Williams’ Cavatina in the background. However, nil points to whoever did the chaptering, though. Most discs go for an underpowered 12. I work on the rule of thumb of one every five minutes. The Deer Hunter runs for 184 minutes, so that would be 36-37. This one has… you guessed it, 12. Subtitles are in English for the hard of hearing, as well as French.
A previous release is also available on DVD.
Running time: 184 minutes
Released: August 20th 2018
Picture: 1080p High Definition
Sound: English: Dolby Stereo 2.0, Six Track Dolby Stereo; French: DTS dual mono
Languages: English, German
Subtitles: English, German
Widescreen: 2.39:1 (Anamorphic Panavision); (theatrical release in 70mm: 2.20:1)
Disc Format: 2*BD50
Director: Michael Cimino
Producers: Michael Cimino, Michael Deeley, John Peverall and Barry Spikings
Screenplay: Deric Washburn
Story: Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K Redeker
Michael: Robert De Niro
Stan: John Cazale
Steven: John Savage
Nick: Christopher Walken
Linda: Meryl Streep
John: George Dzundza
Axel: Chuck Aspegren
Steven’s Mother: Shirley Stoler
Angela: Rutanya Alda
Julien: Pierre Segui
Axel’s Girl: Mady Kaplan
Bridesmaid: Amy Wright
Stan’s Girl: Mary Ann Haenel
Linda’s Father: Richard Kuss
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.