When it opened for a peekaboo, Oscar-qualifying one-week run in December 1978, The Deer Hunter came with a warning. Literally. The word WARNING appeared above a block of text in newspaper ads, separate from — and much larger than — the standard R-rating logo. ”Due to the nature of this film,” read the text, ”under 17 requires accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian. (There will be strict adherence to this policy.)”
Moviegoers soon discovered the notice wasn’t just hype. Nobody had seen anything quite like the shocking ballistic tortures on display in director Michael Cimino’s three-hour epic, the sad story of a trio of Pennsylvania steel-mill workers (played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who volunteer for service in Vietnam and wind up POWs. They’re forced to play Russian roulette against one another with handguns in a series of brutal scenes that feel nightmarishly real, even now — and that’s saying something, post — Saving Private Ryan.
”Part of the reason the movie has such an intensity is because we were all so committed,” Cimino told EW in a March 2000 interview. ”We went to a lot of extremes.” (Now 65 — or a few years younger, if you go by his own statements rather than his army-reserve records — Cimino declined to speak again for this tribute.)
Cimino’s doggedness paid off on the night of April 9, 1979, when The Deer Hunter won five Oscars on nine nominations. The tally included Best Director and Best Picture — the latter doled out by noted hawk John Wayne — as well as Best Supporting Actor for Walken. (De Niro lost the Best Actor race to Coming Home’s Jon Voight, while Meryl Streep, who played girlfriend Linda to Walken’s Nicky, lost Best Supporting Actress — her first nomination — to California Suite’s Maggie Smith.) But the wins went down as some of the most controversial in the Academy’s history, arriving just as a backlash peaked against The Deer Hunter’s mainly laudatory initial reviews. Jane Fonda, after campaigning against the picture earlier that season, dissed it again from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pressroom after it had won the Oscar.
What most outraged the naysayers was Cimino’s depiction of Russian roulette as a pervasive Vietcong atrocity. ”The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam correspondent Peter Arnett in the Los Angeles Times. He was part of a chorus of objectors arguing that there was no historical record of the North Vietnamese inflicting such torments during the ’60s.
Though one article at the time described Cimino as ”bewildered” by the criticisms, he may well have expected them. ”Look, the film is not realistic — it’s surrealistic,” he told The New York Times the week of its debut in December ’78. ”If you attack the film on its facts, then you’re fighting a phantom, because literal accuracy was never intended.” On the commentary track of a Deer Hunter DVD released in England just last August — in which Cimino also speaks on camera sporting big black sunglasses, long blond-streaked hair, and metallic bracelets — he remains unapologetic. ”It is not meant to be a Vietnam movie, it never was,” he says. ”Everybody says [the roulette] was purely invention. I think that’s beside the point. The real point I had using it was, How do you dramatize war?”