Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 26 Oct 2015.]

It’s an unlikely choice of music for this movie, but WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at how The Deer Hunter theme came into existence, and why it still haunts us almost 40 years later.

The violence in this Vietnam War film is noteworthy even among war films, and is controversial for a depiction of something no one has said they have ever witnessed: a scene where North Vietnamese soldiers force prisoners to play Russian roulette.

But traversing the worlds from a hard-scrabble Pennsylvania town and its surrounding mountains to the jungles and urban warrens of Southeast Asia, The Deer Hunter is, to many, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Its theme music, however, is about the last thing you’d expect.

English film composer Stanley Myers scored The Walking Stick in 1970, and guitarist John Williams convinced him to work up one bit of it for him. That tune, called Cavatina, became, in 1978, The Deer Hunter theme.

It is as piercing now as it was in the years following the war. Set against type, set against the struggle of brutality, incomprehension, loss, and inklings of love, it is a bittersweet plea of longing. It is also, somehow, comforting.

Stanley Myers wrote music for more than 70 films. His theme to The Deer Hunter is an astonishing moment of cinematic brilliance.