The Deer Hunter is a 1978 British-American war drama film co-written and directed by Michael Cimino about a trio of Russian American steelworkers and their infantry service in the Vietnam War. The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza. The story takes place in Clairton, a small working class town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh and then in Vietnam, somewhere in the woodland and in Saigon, during the Vietnam War.
The film was based in part on an unproduced screenplay called The Man Who Came to Play by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker about Las Vegas and Russian Roulette. ProducerMichael Deeley, who bought the script, hired writer/director Michael Cimino who, with Deric Washburn, rewrote the script, taking the Russian Roulette element and placing it in the Vietnam War. The film went over-budget and over-schedule and ended up costing $15 million. The scenes of Russian roulette were highly controversial on release.
The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was named by the American Film Institute as the 53rd Greatest Movie of All Time on the 10th Anniversary Edition of the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list.
In Clairton, a small working-class town in western Pennsylvania, in late 1967, Russian American steel workers Michael "Mike" Vronsky, Steven Pushkov, and Nikonar "Nick" Chevotarevich, with the support of their friends and coworkers Stanley and Peter "Axel" Axelrod and local bar owner and friend John Welsh, prepare for two rites of passage: marriage and military service.
The opening scenes set the character traits of the three main characters. Mike is the no-nonsense, serious but unassuming leader, Steven the loving, near-groom, pecked at by his mother for not wearing a scarf with his tuxedo and Nick is the quiet, introspective man who loves hunting because, he likes ". . . the trees . . . the way the trees are . . ." The recurring theme of "one shot", which is how Mike prefers to take down a deer, is introduced. Before the trio ships out, Steven and his girlfriend Angela Ludhjduravic, who is pregnant by another man but loved by Steven nonetheless, marry in an Orthodox wedding. In the meantime, Mike contains his feelings for Nick's girlfriend Linda. At the wedding reception held at the local VFW bar, the guys get drunk, dance, sing, and have a good time, but then notice a soldier in a U.S. Army Special Forces uniform. Mike buys him a drink and tries starting a conversation with him to find out what Vietnam is like, but he ignores Mike. After Mike explains that he, Steven, and Nick are going to Vietnam, the Green Beret raises his glass and says "fuck it" to everyone's shock and amazement. The soldier again toasts them with "fuck it". After being restrained by the others from starting a fight, Mike goes back to the bar and in a mocking jest to the soldier, raises his glass and toasts him with "fuck it". The soldier then glances over at Mike and grins. Later, Steven and Angela drink from conjoined goblets, this being a traditional ceremony, and it is believed that if they drink without spilling any wine, they will have good luck for life. A drop of blood-red wine unknowingly spills on her wedding gown, foreshadowing the coming events. After she catches the bouquet of flowers that Angela threw, Nick asks Linda to marry him, and she agrees. Later that night, after a drunk Mike runs through the streets of town, stripping himself naked along the way, Nick chases him down and begs him not to leave him "over there" if anything happens. The next day, Mike, Nick, Stanley, John, and Axel go deer hunting one last time, and Michael again scores a deer with "one shot".
The film then jumps abruptly to a war-torn village, where U.S. helicopters attack a Communist occupied Vietnamese village with napalm. A North Vietnamese soldier throws a stick grenade into a hiding place full of civilians. An unconscious Mike (now a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces) wakes up to see the NVA soldier shoot a woman carrying a baby. In revenge, Mike kills him. Meanwhile, a unit of UH-1 "Huey" helicopters drops off several U.S. infantrymen, Nick and Steven among them. Michael, Steven, and Nick unexpectedly find each other just before they are captured and held together in a riverside prisoner of war camp with other U.S. Army and ARVN prisoners. For entertainment, the sadistic guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. All three friends are forced to play. Steven plays against Mike, who offers moral support, but he breaks down and loses control of the gun, grazing himself with the bullet when it discharges. As punishment, the guards put Steven into an underwater cage, full of rats and the bodies of others who earlier faced the same fate. Mike and Nick end up playing against each other, and Michael convinces the guards to let them play with three bullets in the gun. After a tense match, they kill their captors and escape. Mike had earlier argued with Nick about whether Steven could be saved, but after killing their captors he rescues Steven. The three float downriver on a tree branch. An American helicopter accidentally finds them, but only Nick is able to climb aboard. The weakened Steven falls back into the water and Mike plunges in the water to rescue him. Unluckily, Steven breaks both legs in the fall. Mike helps him to reach the river bank and then carries him through the jungle to friendly lines. Approaching a caravan of locals escaping the war zone, he stops a South Vietnamese military truck and places the wounded Steven on it, asking the soldiers to take care of him. Nick, who is psychologically damaged, recuperates in a military hospital in Saigon with no knowledge on the status of his friends. After being released, he aimlessly stumbles through the red-light district at night. At one point, he encounters Julien Grinda, a champagne-drinking friendly Frenchman outside a gambling den where men play Russian roulette for money. Grinda entices the reluctant Nick to participate, and leads him into the den. Mike is present in the den, watching the game, but the two friends do not notice each other at first. When Mike does see Nick, he is unable to get his attention. When Nick is introduced into the game, he grabs the gun, fires it at the current contestant, and then again at his own temple, causing the audience to riot in protest. Grinda hustles Nick outside to his car to escape the angry mob. Mike cannot catch up with Nick and Grinda as they speed away.
Back in the U.S., Mike returns home but maintains a low profile. He tells the cab driver to drive past the house where all his friends are assembled, as he is embarrassed by the fuss made over him by Linda and the others. Mike goes to a motel and struggles with his feelings, as he thinks both Nick and Steven are dead or missing. He eventually visits Linda and grows close to her but only because of the friend they both think they have lost. Mike is eventually told about Angela, whom he goes to visit at the home of Steven's mother. She is lethargic and barely responsive. She writes a phone number on a scrap of paper, which leads Mike to the local veterans' hospital where Steven has been for several months. Mike goes hunting with Axel, John, and Stanley one more time, and after tracking a deer across the woods, takes his "one shot" but pulls the rifle up and fires into the air, unable to take another life. He then sits on a rockescarpment and yells out, "OK?" which echoes back at him from the opposing rock faces leading down to the river, signifying his fight with his mental demons over losing Steven and Nick. He also berates Stanley for carrying around a small revolver and waving it around, not realizing it is still loaded. He knows the horror of war and wants no part of it anymore. Mike visits Steven, who has lost both of his legs and is partially paralyzed. Steven reveals that someone in Saigon has been mailing large amounts of money to him, and Mike is convinced that it is Nick. Mike brings Steven home to Angela and then travels to Saigon just before its fall in 1975. He tracks down Grinda, who has made a lot of money from the Russian roulette-playing Nick. He finds Nick in a crowded roulette club, but Nick appears to have no recollection of his friends or his home in Pennsylvania. Mike realizes that Nick thinks that he and Steven are dead, since Nick was the only one who made it back on the helicopter. Mike enters himself in a game of Russian roulette against Nick, hoping to jog Nick's memory and persuade him to come home, but Nick's mind is gone. At the last moment, after Mike's attempts to remind him of their hunting trips together, he finally breaks through, and Nick recognizes Mike and smiles. Nick then tells Mike, "one shot", raises the gun to his temple, and pulls the trigger. The bullet is in the gun's top chamber, and Nick kills himself. Horrified, Mike tries reviving him, but to no avail.
Back home in 1975, there is a funeral for Nick, whom Michael brings home, good to his promise. The film ends with everyone at John's bar, singing "God Bless America". Mike toasts in Nick's honor.