"The Deer Hunter" takes three solemn, literally torturous hours to contrast the fates of three pals from the steel-mining town of Clairton, Pa. -- Robert De Niro's Michael, Christopher Walken's Nick and John Savage's Steven -- who leave their jobs at the blast furnace to serve in Vietnam.

Filmmaker Michael Cimino clearly wants to compose a great movie around a major theme -- the impact of Vietnam on ordinary Americans. Indeed, the film emits an imposing aura of aspiration. And Cimino's pictorial talent, backed up by Vilmos Zsigmond's magnificent cinematography, sustains the grandiose pretensions up to a point.

Unfortunately, it becomes a breaking point. The wayward, maddening screenplay succeeds only in working up a gruesome melodramatic later -- hardly the catharsis promised by a bold treatment of the wounds of our most devisive war.

"The Deer Hunter," in fact, seems to require violently contrasted changes in scene just to get off the dime and work up a head of steam.

After spending about 80 or 90 minutes establishing the Clairton location (actually an artful composite drawn from seven or eight towns in the Ohio River Valley) and identifying the principal characters, Cimino jumps abruptly into a Vietnamese inferno, where Michael, Nick and Steven are inexplicably reunited in the midst of combat.

There's no denying that the change of scene is vividly contrasted. Clairton is depicted with lingering, nostalgic affection. Catapulted from this idyllic setting to the war-torn Vietnamese countryside and a vice-ridden Saigon, one goes from Home Sweet Home to Hell on Earth.

But tensions simmer under the beloved surface of Clairton. The men work at a dangerous job in an environment that would strike most people as hellish. We watch them on their last shift. After receiving the farewells of co-workers, they assemble at a favorite bar, Welsh's, to relax before attending the marriage of Steven later that day at a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

At a combination wedding reception-farewell bash staged at the local Legion hall, Nick and his girl Linda, played by Meryl Streep, decide to get engaged, but Linda and Michael exchange throbbing eye contact.

The Vietnam-bound friends approach a Green Beret officer at the party; he rebukes their inquiries with a terse, sullen obscenity. John Cazale's Stan, a friend and co-worker of the principals, inexplicably socks his girlfriend when another partygoer gets fresh with her.

Despite the disquieting undercurrents, Clairton is meant to be cherished. Enraptured with his own evocation of local color and ritual, Cimino prolongs set pieces like the wedding ceremony and reception. He lingers so long that one begins to crave warfare as a change of pace, a liberation from the monotony of his love for Clairton, which threatens to curdle into an ethnic, working-class twin city of The Hardy Family's Carvel.

Cimino desperately needs a writer who can articulate feelings, rationalize the exposition and clarify the time sequence in concise, eloquent words. "The Deer Hunter" has the outline of a great film and the appearance of a great film, but the banal, evasive writing undermines the director's potenitally stirring edifice.

If the characters simply talked at length every so often, Cimino would make things easier for the cast and the audience. Superlative performers like De Niro, Walken and Streep battle heroically but futilely to animate their phantom roles through sheer presence, sincerity and intensity.