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DVD Pick: "The Deer Hunter" Legacy Series Edition

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User Rating 4 Star Rating (1 Review)

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"The Deer Hunter" (1978) is a powerful drama starring Robert De Niro. The movie was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. It ranks 79th on AFI's list of the 100 Greatest American Films.

The movie is set in the first half of the 1970's—a time when, it seems to me, Americans' consciousness of themselves as a people went through a major change. And I believe the great strength of "The Deer Hunter" is that it captures certain aspects of that painful transition.

The film follows a small group of young adults. They are blue-collar folks who live in a grimy Pennsylvania town dominated by an ugly steel mill. The movie's first 50 minutes are taken up by a bravura wedding and reception sequence that I find one of the most memorable in all of cinema.

If you insist that films must have tightly plotted stories that build to a Hollywood-style climax, you probably won't like "The Deer Hunter." However, it seems to me the movie has a strong three-act structure. Act I establishes a group of Americans living ordinary lives in a small town. Act II depicts the devastating experiences of three of those Americans while they serve as combat soldiers in Vietnam. Act III shows that the Vietnam War has changed the lives of the people in the group forever.

The Pennsylvania town takes great pride in its veterans, and the film's protagonist makes a statement by wearing his military uniform on special occasions after his discharge. But the Vietnam War takes a heavy toll on the group of young adults the movie follows: one of their number ends up dead, another loses both his legs, and all appear to be psychologically scarred.

"The Deer Hunter" begins with a boisterous wedding and ends with a somber funeral. I find the film's final sequence very moving when the group softly sings "God Bless America" and drinks a quiet toast in memory of their friend who has died.

I am quite impressed with the movie's cinematography and editing. Also, I like all the performances, especially those of Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken. The visual style is realistic, and the acting is naturalistic.

However, I would characterize "The Deer Hunter" as operatic. I've read that some have criticized as too fanciful the scenes where characters bet on the outcome of Russian roulette, but I have no problem with them. They seem to me a good metaphor for nations sending their young people off to war.

Michael Cimino won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on "The Deer Hunter," but his next film was the extravagantly expensive "Heaven's Gate" (1980), a widely reviled movie that was a box-office disaster. I've always felt that for many years the outrage over "Heaven's Gate" diminished the reputation of "The Deer Hunter."

The Legacy Series Edition DVD of "The Deer Hunter" is a two-disc set containing a digitally remastered version of the feature film with completely restored audio. However, I'm a little disappointed that such an outstanding movie didn't get more and better bonus materials.

I would have liked to have heard from Cimino on the DVD, but he's conspicuously absent. Instead, there's an audio commentary track featuring the movie's cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and film journalist Bob Fisher. I found Zsigmond's remarks about the shooting of "The Deer Hunter" to be occasionally informative. Fisher provides no particular insights into the film and functions rather like an interviewer.

The only other bonus material of any consequence consists of 17 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, which I don't think add much value to this package. Since the feature film and audio commentary track are fully contained on Disc 1 of the DVD set, Disc 2 has very little on it.

On the next page, I've listed all the details for the Legacy Series Edition DVD containing "The Deer Hunter."

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