Why ‘The Deer Hunter’s Russian Roulette Scenes Can Still Blow You Away (Video)

Director Michael Cimino, who died Saturday at 77, created some of the tensest scenes in movie history in his 1978 Vietnam War classic

When you think of movies about the Vietnam War, a few come immediately to mind: Francis Ford Coppola‘s “Apocalypse Now,” Oliver Stone‘s “Platoon,” Stanley Kubrick‘s “Full Metal Jacket” and Michael Cimino‘s “The Deer Hunter.”

Those four films cast such an immense shadow over all of cinema that most other Vietnam movies barely even register. And the main standout may be the first to land in theaters: “The Deer Hunter,” which won five Oscars in 1979, including Best Picture and Best Director for Cimino, who died Saturday at age 77.

Released back in 1978, “The Deer Hunter” contains harrowing scenes in which the main characters, American POWs played by Robert DeNiro, Jon Savage and Christpher Walken are forced by their Vietnamese captors to play Russian roulette, betting their lives that the single bullet in the pistol they fire at their own head is not in the chamber.

You can watch the most famous of those scenes, in which the game finally comes to an end, above.

When the movie was released, the Russian roulette scenes sparked major controversy for taking liberties with the Vietcong’s actual treatment of U.S. soldiers during the war. Several battlefield reporters argued that there was no documented proof that the Vietcong ever forced prisoners to play the deadly game of chance.

But critics like Roger Ebert defended the inclusion of the scenes on artistic grounds: “It is the organizing symbol of the film: Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological statement about the war superfluous.”

“The Deer Hunter” was, oddly enough, roughly based on a screenplay called “The Man Who Came to Play,” about a group of men playing Russian roulette — not in Vietnam, but in Las Vegas.

When Cimino came on board the project, he and co-screenwriter Deric Washburn transplanted the game to Vietnam. It was a chaotic process, as the two didn’t work together directly most of the time — but somehow the pieces of “The Deer Hunter” fell into place.

The controversy of the Russian roulette scenes has faded as time has passed and “The Deer Hunter” has taken its place in the annals of American film history, as has Cimino himself.