Facts About the Award-Winning and Controversial Vietnam Epic, ‘The Deer Hunter’

Photo Credit: Moviefan2 / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: Moviefan2 / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB

The Academy Award-winning film The Deer Hunter (1978) is the most controversial Vietnam-era film – that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Starring Robert De Niro as Staff Sgt. Michael “Mike” Vronsky, it portrays the conflict in a way that rubbed many people the wrong way. Among the aspects that bothered audiences the most were its depiction of America’s involvement, the actions of the Viet Cong and its perceived lack of accuracy.

Despite the outrage, The Deer Hunter went on to receive critical acclaim and became the recipient of five Oscars. The following is a list of facts viewers might not know about the film.

Robert De Niro nearly walked off set

Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken as Staff Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky and Cpl. Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich in 'The Deer Hunter'
The Deer Hunter, 1978. (Photo Credit: Flaying / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

One of the most memorable scenes from The Deer Hunter is when Christopher Walken, who portrays the psychologically scarred Cpl. Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich, spits in Robert De Niro‘s face when confronted over his lack of self-preservation. A powerful scene, it underscores just how emotionally jarring the Vietnam War was for those who served.

What many might not realize is this action wasn’t included in the script. Director Michael Cimino had approached Walken prior to filming the scene and somehow convinced him to spit in De Niro’s face without his knowledge. This may have been a bad idea, as it almost resulted in the latter walking off set in a fit of rage.

Afterward, Cimino said of Walken, “He’s got courage!”

John Wayne’s final public appearance

John Wayne dressed in a suit
John Wayne, 1979. (Photo Credit: Images Press / Getty Images)

Despite not being involved in The Deer Hunter, famed Western star John Wayne is a part of the move’s legacy. During the 59th Academy Awards, Wayne was suffering from stomach cancer. However, this didn’t stop him from taking the stage to present the Oscar for Best Picture.

“Well, Oscar and I have something in common. Oscar first came to the Hollywood scene in 1928. So did I,” he told the audience before announcing that The Deer Hunter would be taking home the award. “We’re both a little weather-beaten, but we’re still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer.”

Wayne passed away a few months later, on June 11, 1979.

Real-life Russian Roulette

Robert De Niro as Staff Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky in 'The Deer Hunter'
The Deer Hunter, 1978. (Photo Credit: Kupca / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

Robert De Niro is known for being a method actor. In fact, he’s so dedicated to it that he requested that the Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter be a bit more authentic, vis-à-vis a live round in the chamber of the gun.

The scene itself is already jarring to watch, with the audience growing ever more tense as the weapon passes between the soldiers. To increase the perceived danger among the actors, De Niro requested the addition of a live round, which his co-star, John Cazale, agreed to, but under one condition: the gun be checked before each take, to ensure the bullet wasn’t in the next chamber.

To make the sequence even more authentic, Michael Cimono brought in live mosquitos and rats to irritate the actors, and even had a local actor surprise Christopher Walken mid-scene by slapping him, making his reaction all the more realistic.

The cast rallied around John Cazale

Meryl Streep resting her chin on John Cazale's shoulder
John Cazale and Meryl Streep on the set of The Deer Hunter, 1978. (Photo Credit: Moviefan2 / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

The late John Cazale portrayed Stanley, and while he might not have looked it, he was suffering from end-stage lung cancer at the time. Best known for portraying Fredo Corleone in The Godfather franchise, his was a name Michael Cimono wanted attached to The Deer Hunter, a fact that became even-more evident on the actions taken to ensure the studio didn’t remove Cazale from set.

When Universal Pictures wanted to replace Cazale with another actor, a number of the film’s stars threatened action. Not only did Cimino say he’d walk away from the project, Meryl Streep also revealed she’d quit if he was removed. As well, Robert De Niro put up his own money for Cazale’s insurance, as he’d been ruled un-insurable by the production company.

All scenes involving Cazale were filmed first, to ensure he could appear in them. He died shortly after, having never seen the completed movie.

Christopher Walken’s restrictive diet

Christopher Walken as Cpl. Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich in 'The Deer Hunter'
The Deer Hunter, 1978. (Photo Credit: hilts / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

To better show the psychological wounds Nick suffers as a result of his service in Vietnam, Christopher Walken drastically changed his diet. In fact, he changed it so much that he’s hardly recognizable in The Deer Hunter. Consuming nothing but bananas, water and rice, he lost a significant amount of weight, which contributed to his character’s gaunt appearance.

His dedication to the role earned him critical acclaim – he even won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 51st Academy Awards.

One scene has forever stuck with Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro and John Savage as Staff Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky and Cpl. Steven "Steve" Pushkov in 'The Deer Hunter'
The Deer Hunter, 1978. (Photo Credit: Flaying / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

There are a number of emotional scenes in The Deer Hunter, but one has remained with Robert De Niro. When speaking in the 2003 special, AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Robert De Niro, the actor revealed that the moment his character visits Cpl. Steven “Steve” Pushkov still brings him to tears decades after filming wrapped.

The character, portrayed by John Savage, became paralyzed after falling from a helicopter and shattering his legs. Prior to visiting him in the hospital, Michael gives Steve a call, which prompts his visit. What ensues is an emotional conversation about money being sent from Saigon, which culminates in Michael making the executive decision to bring Steve home from the hospital.

Michael Cimino lied about his military service

Portrait of Michael Cimino
Michael Cimino, 1991. (Photo Credit: Jacques PRAYER / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)

Throughout the course of filming and promoting The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino claimed to have drawn upon his own personal experiences to write the script. In actuality, his military service was little more than a brief stint.

In interviews, Cimino claimed to have enlisted in the US Army in 1968 and, while never deployed to Vietnam, was attached to a Special Forces medical unit. Some digging later proved that he’d actually joined the service six years prior to that. What’s more, he’d never been assigned to the Green Berets.

Speaking with Vanity Fair, screenwriter Deric Washburn later said, “Mike is or was a pathological liar. The movie never would have gotten made had he not been.”

Robert De Niro and John Savage performed their own stunts

Robert De Niro and John Savage as Staff Sgt. Michael "Mike" Vronsky and Cpl. Steven "Steve" Pushkov in 'The Deer Hunter'
The Deer Hunter, 1978. (Photo Credit: Moviefreak1983 / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

It’s a well-known fact that Robert De Niro and John Savage performed their own stunts for The Deer Hunter‘s helicopter scene. What many might not be aware of, however, is that the two were almost seriously injured while filming the sequence.

While De Niro and Savage awaited rescue from a rope bridge that crosses the Khwae Noi river, one of the helicopter’s skids caught the bridge, causing it to twist and shake. De Niro, worried the chopper would come down on top of him and Savage, began yelling at the crew, “There’s something wrong, move it back.” However, that’s not what happened.

“The helicopter went straight up in the air, pulling the bridge upside down,” explained Savage in an interview with Vanity Fair. “Bobby and I flipped over and were hanging next to each other underneath the helicopter, whose blades barely were missing the steel cable on either side of the bridge.”

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The pair did the only thing they could: jump into the water below. Despite the river being filled with large rocks and tree stumps, they made it out unscathed.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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