Michael Cimino is a director who gathers praise and opprobrium in equal measure. Few deny his abilities as a film-maker; what his critics can’t bear is his often melodramatic self-importance which clouds almost all his movies and sometimes renders them ridiculous.
However, recently some of his detractors have been forced to revalue the otiose but magnificent Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s greatest flop at the time of its release in 1980. What was considered an appalling waste of money and talent, and a reason for the collapse of United Artists, is now hailed as a masterpiece.
It will be intriguing to see if a similar fuss is made over the director’s cut of the fully restored The Deer Hunter, made two years before Heaven’s Gate and the chief reason why Cimino was able to spend so much money and time on that film.
It is an astonishing piece of work, colourfully haranguing us about the effect of combat on the working-class military grunts who do most of the dirty work when politicians go to war on our behalf.
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage star as a trio of buddies from a Pennsylvania mill town who go to war in Vietnam, have an increasingly traumatic time and return to America totally changed.
There is no doubt that the acting is superb, the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is extraordinary and even Visconti couldn’t top some sequences. But I can clearly remember a coterie of young critics discussing among themselves whether to accord the film good or bad reviews.
One American critic went as far as to say that if dementia had a name it must be Michael Cimino. And those securely on the Left were not best pleased at the portrayal of the Vietnamese as torturing monsters.
As for my own view, I am, perhaps boringly, on the fence. Cimino has an astonishing talent, fully apparent in this film, which won Best Film and Best Director at the Oscars. But he is also equipped with a tendency to murder truth with overemphasis. He says of himself: “I am not who I am and I am who I’m not.” Thank you, Mr Cimino. That explains everything.
The Deer Hunter is rereleased on August 1 at the BFI Southbank until Aug 19.