Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, dies aged 77

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Michael Cimino, the director of the Vietnam war classic The Deer Hunter and the infamous epic western Heaven’s Gate, has died. He was 77.

Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, dies aged 77
Michael Cimino at the Rome Film Festival, in 2008. Photograph: AGF s.r.l./REX/Shutterstock

Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes film festival, tweeted the news on Saturday, saying: “Michael Cimino has died, in peace, surrounded by friends and the two women who loved him. We loved him too.”

Cimino directed eight films, starting in 1974 with the highly rated Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges-starring crime movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, for which he also wrote the screenplay. The Deer Hunter, a harrowing story of friends from working class Pennsylvania played by Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, in which a young Meryl Streep also appears and her then fiancé John Cazale takes his final role, followed in 1978.

The film was a critical and commercial success. On its re-release in 2014, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw saluted The Deer Hunter’s “combination of sulphurous anti-war imagery, disillusion and patriotic melancholy”.

“A simple, much-forgotten fact slaps you in the face after watching The Deer Hunter,” Bradshaw wrote. “Vietnam was different to Iraq and Afghanistan in one vital respect: the soldiers were drafted. They had no choice. The idea of sacrifice permeates everything, along with the cruelty and horror. This is Cimino’s masterpiece.”

Heaven’s Gate (1980), starring Walken and Kris Kristofferson and loosely based on the Wyoming Johnson County war of 1889-93, was a critical and commercial failure which hastened the demise of the United Artists studio and coloured the rest of Cimino’s career.

The film has since undergone something of a critical rehabilitation. In 2013, Bradshaw called it “colossally ambitious and mysteriously moving, with an unhurried, unforced pace, beautifully photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond”, the cinematographer who died in January at the age of 85.

Cimino’s other films included Desperate Hours (1990), a thriller starring Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins, and the gangster film The Sicilian (1986), which was adapted from a novel by Godfather author Mario Puzo.

In 2001 he published his only novel, Big Jane, a story of the 1950s and the Korean war. Speaking to the Guardian, he said of his ups and downs in film: “Hollywood has always been crazy. It’s controlled anarchy. But how can you loathe something that has given you so much?

Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, dies aged 77
The famous Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. Photograph: Picture library

“I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had without movies. Anybody who says they’re bitter is sick in their soul. They’ve given up.”

On Saturday, the writer, producer and director Christopher McQuarrie, tweeted: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter and yes … Heaven’s Gate. Michael Cimino. May the rest of us do half as well.”

The director William Friedkin said: “I wish I had paid tribute to Michael Cimino while he was alive. He was an important and masterful film maker. We will always have his work.”

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