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By Brad Cook | October 19, 2005

If you’re a fan of “The Deer Hunter,” beware: this is easily the worst two-disc Special Edition I’ve ever seen (issued under the auspiciously-named “Legacy Series” banner, no less). True, this version of the film features an incredibly vibrant print—from what I’ve read online, it’s much better than any edition of this movie on home video. But if you’re hoping for a pair of discs jam-packed with hours of extra features detailing the making of a highly-acclaimed movie, you’re going to be severely disappointed.

Before I move on to the bonus stuff, let me offer my thoughts on this film. I had actually only seen parts of it before sitting down to watch the whole thing when I received this DVD, so I’m not coming at it from a “Here’s what I thought when I saw it years ago, here’s what I think now” perspective. However, I can see how audiences of the late 1970s reacted positively to this film’s mixture of the “war is hell” theme with unabashed patriotism.

Conservatives of that era may have thought “The Deer Hunter” was un-American, anti-military, etc., but I guess they didn’t stick around for the sweet rendition of “God Bless America” that closes the movie. And, of course, director Michael Cimino clearly wanted to celebrate small-town life with this film, not look down on it as a place for small-minded people to swear blind obedience to the flag. The characters in this film are clearly grappling with competing attitudes about a war that went wrong versus love for their country, much the same way I imagine some Iraq War veterans are feeling right now.

As I’ve seen another online reviewer note, Cimino was clearly looking to upstage the opening sequence of “The Godfather” with the wedding that starts “The Deer Hunter,” except he went the Russian ethnic route instead of the Italian one. The film’s first act probably could have stood a little trimming here and there, but I disagree with critics who think Cimino should have aggressively sliced it up: Much of what we see here lays the groundwork for the rest of the story, as all good first acts should. There’s portent in everything, from a confrontation with a disillusioned Vietnam War vet to the simple drinking from a two-headed cup of wine.

This sequence, along with the hunting trip that follows it, introduce us to Steven, Michael and Nick, three best friends who live and work in a small Pennsylvania steelworking town and who are due to ship out to Vietnam. As a post-hunting celebration in a bar winds down with a melancholy tune banged out on a piano, Cimino abruptly cuts to ‘nam, where the s**t has hit the fan. It’s a nice way to mimic the jarring effect recruits must have felt upon arriving in that country.

Rather than belabor the second act with extended combat sequences, the film wisely cuts to the chase as the three friends become POWs. While some critics have complained about the lack of proof that the Viet Cong forced POWs to play Russian Roulette, I think it’s safe to give Cimino and screenwriter Deric Washburn some leeway here. The Viet Cong put captured American troops through psychological and physical hell, and I think this part of the film does an amazing job of capturing that through the game they force the POWs to play. It’s a hard sequence to watch. Who cares if it’s not exactly the way the Viet Cong tortured people?

Act three, however, is where things start to break down. One of the friends shot himself in the head during Russian Roulette and survived, but we don’t see any evidence of brain damage; rather, his legs are amputated and one arm appears to be useless, even though we never see him sustain those injuries, aside from a broken lower leg that doesn’t appear too bad. Another friend has lost himself to the madness of playing Russian Roulette for money in Saigon, which staggers belief: Why would anyone do that? The gladiators in Rome at least had their physical skills to determine their fate; Russian Roulette is about nothing but playing the odds.

I suppose the idea of playing Russian Roulette for money is supposed to show us the depths of the despair the Vietnamese people feel as their country crumbles around them, but I can’t help but feel like Cimino and Washburn should have chosen a different route here. Sure, I can see one person staying behind, a lost, vacant zombie whose emotions have been squeezed out of him by his experiences, but why couldn’t it be for a different reason?

Likewise, I don’t understand how Michael manages to make his way back to Vietnam as Saigon is literally falling and people are crowding the US embassy rooftop to await chopper evacuation. I assume he’s done with his service to his country, although he continues to wear his uniform back home, so perhaps he’s now a career military man and has the ability to pull some strings. If so, that’s never made clear.

I do appreciate, however, how Michael occupies this film’s moral center. His struggle to bring his lost friends back home—one physically, one emotionally—is a moving one, as is his relationship with Linda, who is played with grace by Meryl Streep in one of her first film roles. Given that Linda is one of his friend’s girlfriend, Michael is clearly torn over his feelings for her, and Cimino and Washburn handle the situation as delicately as it would likely unfold in real life. There’s passion here, but it’s all below the surface, waiting to be unleashed after the end credits have rolled.

Ultimately, those gaps in the third act begin to unravel what could have been a better film, but if you forget about them, you have a well-wrought commentary on the bonds of friendship and love, and how those things help provide the immense mental fortitude required to survive incredibly brutal conditions. When I remember “The Deer Hunter,” that’s the stuff I recall, not the credibility gaps.

Moving on to the rest of this DVD, however, I decided to go beyond my usual half-star ding and knock a full star off this release, in light of the paucity of the extras. I can’t recall ever seeing a two-disc set, especially one for a classic film, that contains less than 30 minutes of material on the second platter. Where is the in-depth making-of documentary? We get the theatrical trailer, along with 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes that literally show us just a little bit of unused dialogue, the rest of it being unused angles on stuff that’s already in the film. Oh, and a few screens’ worth of text-based production notes.

That’s it.

Please tell me that Universal planned for more than this but lost it due to rights issues or something. And if that’s the case, why didn’t they just delay this release until they could resolve those problems? Buena Vista yanked the “Ed Wood” DVD at the last minute over a featurette that Tim Burton didn’t want on there. I realize Cimino lost his power in Hollywood over the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco, but why didn’t someone at the studio say “Wait a minute, we can’t release ‘The Deer Hunter’ like this”?

Yes, we have a commentary too, but it features cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and film journalist Bob Fisher, who feeds Zsigmond questions and keeps the discussion moving as they watch the film. It’s not a bad track: Zsigmond relates plenty of interesting production anecdotes, in addition to discussing the film in technical terms, but Cimino recorded a commentary for a previous DVD release that should have been included here. If that wasn’t possible, he should have recorded a new one.

So, if you’re a fan of “The Deer Hunter” and you crave the best picture quality possible, this Legacy Series release of the film is worth your while, despite the lack of extras. If you’re like me, though, and you expect classic films to be treated better, you might want to hold off for the next DVD, which seems inevitable in this age of “Release ‘em on home video over and over again.”

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