Michael Cimino, 1939-2016

Michael Cimino, who won a Best Director Oscar for his highly acclaimed—and controversial–Vietnam War film, “The Deer Hunter, ” died July 2  at age 77.

That 1978 movie, starring Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, follows the lives of three working-class men from a steel-mill town in western Pennsylvania before, during and after volunteering to fight in the Vietnam War. One is killed, one severely wounded, and the other (De Niro, the deer hunter of the title) returns home even more emotionally disturbed than he was before he left.

The movie drew strong reactions from critics and the viewing public. Most critics loved it, praising the acting, the cinematography, and the gritty plot. The Hollywood establishment embraced the movie, which was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five: for Director, Best Picture of 1978, Supporting Actor (Walken), Film Editing, and Sound Mixing.

But this also was a movie that generated lots of criticism. Some critics complained that Cimino portrayed the enemy (in the comparatively few in-country war scenes) as one-dimensional blood-thirsty killers and the Americans as innocents in a corrupt land. The acerbic critic John Simon, for example, writing in New York magazine, all but shouted: “For all its pretensions to something newer and better, this film is only an extension of the old Hollywood war-movie lie. The enemy is still bestial and stupid, and no match for our purity and heroism; only we no longer wipe up the floor with him—rather, we litter it with his guts.”

Others derided what became infamous Russian Roulette scenes in Vietnam (something that never took place), and for the movie’s focus on all but stereotypically screwed up Vietnam veterans.

One incontestably good result of the film: After seeing “The Deer Hunter” in 1978 in Washington, D.C., a young lawyer and veteran of the Vietnam War, Jan Scruggs, came up with the idea of what would become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall).

Cimino directing De Niro in ‘The Deer Hunter’



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