It was 20 years ago today: `The Deer Hunter' brings it all back home

When The Deer Hunter opened in the UK on 3 March 1979, critical reaction was respectful if detached. Michael Cimino's epic study of the effect of the Vietnam war on three Pennsylvania steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage) was the first major cinematic response to the conflict. The Daily Telegraph felt it was easy "to harden one's British heart" to it: "It goes on for three hours ... it comes trailing clouds of would-be glory in the shape of nine Oscar nominations"; but "the spirit of comradeship at home, at work and war fastens with ... powerful sincerity." The Observer insisted it was "not a political or polemical film"; the Financial Times hailed it "a film of lacerating and astonishing brilliance"; the Sunday Telegraph felt "the Vietnamese war is hardly what the movie is about".

Outside the UK, this was precisely, and controversially, what it was about. After a limited pre-Christmas run, its US general release coincided with the Oscar nominations ... and an Eastern bloc walkout in protest at its showing at the Berlin Film Festival. The Soviets accused the film of insulting "the heroic people of Vietnam". The US public was primed.

The IoS's David Thomson was then a critic on a Boston paper, and remembers the preview screening. "There were people standing up and saying `No, no' in a protest at the presentation of the Vietcong as people who used Russian roulette torture. Equally there were Vietnam vets who were clearly in tears at the overall horror and terror of the film. In the lobby, there were fierce arguments over whether it was great, or a manipulation, or politically dishonest. It broadly polarised right or left, but I have seldom been at a screening with such an emotional response."

The critical debate was no less emotional. Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam reporter Peter Arnett called the chilling Russian roulette scenes "a bloody lie". Documentary-maker John Pilger claimed "this is how Hollywood created the myth of the Wild West, and how the Second World War and the Korean War were absorbed into box-office folklore".

Outside the Oscars on 10 April, there were running battles between the police and veterans who insisted the film was "a con job, trying to convince everyone that American imperialism is the best thing in the world". It won five Oscars, including best picture and director; the Soviet paper Izvestia accused Hollywood of "extending a helping hand to the Pentagon"; box-office takings spiralled; and the 'Nam blockbuster was born.

Five months later, in August 1979, Apocalypse Now was released. Oliver Stone's trilogy - Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth, was to follow, along with Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. But The Deer Hunter was where it all began.