While Apocalypse Now is better known today for its agonizing production process, Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter was no picnic either. What starts as a deliberately small film focused on a group of working-class steel laborers expands into a sprawling, yet granular examination of the America-Vietnam conflict. Cimino's film is marked by a commitment to both realism and character that some believe Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now - often considered The Deer Hunter's counterpart - shrugs off.
The fact The Deer Hunter's budget ballooned - or that Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and the rest of the cast and crew endured hellish conditions while filming - comes as no surprise. Those factors were part of the "New Hollywood" approach - a method of which the film was very much a product. By examining the details behind Cimino's vision, The Deer Hunter's audacity may finally be understood.
Despite the ambition of the film's stunts, Robert De Niro and John Savage eagerly threw themselves into the process. During the bridge sequence - in which their characters nearly escape their river prison - their commitment to realism came close to calamity.
Due in part to Thailand's lack of a formal film infrastructure, the production had to rely on helicopter pilots who were not trained for film work - inexperience that ultimately put the cast at significant risk. The closest call came when the pilot for the rescue sequence nearly caught his helicopter skids in the rope handholds of the bridge on which De Niro and Savage were standing. The sequence was such a botch that the pilot also sliced through the actors' safety cables with his rotors, leaving De Niro and Savage dangling below the helicopter's cabin nearly 60 feet above the river.
Their final fall capped a stunt that came close to ending them.
Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken's lives were nearly lost while filming The Deer Hunter's famous log scene. The three were holding onto loose logs as they floated down the River Kwai, but eventually, the water's choppiness trapped Savage behind a massive tree trunk.
When the rolling motion nearly forced Savage underwater, De Niro managed to make a last-second adjustment, rescuing him. Camera operators tracking the action ultimately dropped a camera - film and all - out of the boat while working to free the actors. Their lost footage never resurfaced.
While Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken's star power certainly helped sell the final film to audiences, it was quite the liability on set. According to John Savage, the trio's prominence was of particular interest to Thailand's roving militants, who saw them as an opportunity to make a quick buck.
The looming risk of losing any one of his stars led Michael Cimino to hire armed guards for the production, ensuring the talent wouldn't be lost to the jungle.
The first hour of The Deer Hunter is dedicated to establishing the relationship among Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and the rest of the characters, mainly through an extended wedding sequence. This opening act's production only foreshadowed the scale of Michael Cimino's excesses.
Reportedly, Cimino filmed a considerable amount of material for the set piece, partly due to his lack of a clear story goal. In the end, De Niro and John Cazale's characters stumble to the floor after a marathon dance. This moment was not scripted - the two only collapsed after exhaustion as a result of Cimino's aimless, take-upon-take direction. Though the movie was only halfway through principal photography at the time, the sequence put it well over its initial budget.