Watch: 'The Deer Hunter' and Three Ways to Pursue the Perfect Scene
One of the most famous excerpts from The Deer Hunter is examined to find out what makes up a truly great scene.
There's a famous quote from legendary movie director Howard Hawks, to the effect of, "In order to make a good movie all you need is three good scenes and no bad ones." But what makes a great scene? Jack's Movie Reviews checks out the most famous of the "Russian Roulette" scenes from Michael Cimino's 1978 breakthrough smashThe Deer Hunter in order to see what makes the moment tick almost 40 years later, and how it drives the movie.
A 183-minute, five-time Oscar winner,The Deer Hunter isn't a typical film, and certainly not a typical war film (with Apocalypse Now, it was among the first movies about combat in Vietnam). It tells the story of three friends from small-town Pennsylvania whose lives are irreparably changed by the conflict.
To set up the scene examined in this video, the film begins not in the heat of combat, but rather with a wedding scene that takes up the first 51 minutes of screen time and presents an entire way of life, as well as the lives of the main characters: Michael (Robert DeNiro) Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (Jon Savage). We see them hunting—Mike and Nick consider it a sacred activity—and we see Steven's wedding to the woman who is carrying another man's child. Near the end of this first part, they encounter a foreboding solider in uniform who refuses to answer when they question what it's like "over there," instead only smiling and toasting them. Below, you can read our three takeaways about the elements of a perfect scene.
1. Great scenes set up the rest of the film
If Hawks is correct, it follows then, that "a great scene isn't self-contained: they generally require an effective set-up, and a great scene can have an impact that changes the entire film...it can change your perception of everything you think you knew." During the slow beginning of the film, we were introduced to an entire way of life, a universe of characters and stories that will never appear in the film again, but that helped to situate the three friends Mike, Nick, and Steven within a world, and to establish their philosophies of life.
"In order to make a good movie all you need is three good scenes and no bad ones."
When they are later captured and forced by sadistic prison guards to play Russian Roulette against each other, the audience is directly invested and involved in their lives. This great scene is not just a plot device, but a sort of crucible for their friendship, and the relationships and power dynamics between sensible Mike, the "aggressive, serious" leader, Nick, who is "group-oriented and a gambler," and Steven, the weakest of them, more follower more than anything else.
2. Great scenes develop their themes and characters cinematically
From the time when the friends are captured, Director of Photogropahy Vilmos Zsigmond"constantly reminds us of how the characters are trapped...in just about every shot featuring one of the three characters, we see barbed-wire fences" and the only door, a trap door, "is always out of frame, reinforcing that there is no escape." But that is just what Mike plans after Steven is thrown into a pit, and the the escape is carried out within the scene embedded inside its deceptive simplicity, which is composed of "shot, reverse shot editing, and a handful of over-the-shoulder shots." Crucially, before the game begins, Michael sees the guard placing the bullets into the gun, three of them and next to each other, and he takes calculated risk that leads to their freedom (Note: the clip below is not the entire scene under discussion, which lasts about 20 minutes, but between this and the essay, above, you should get an idea.)
As the action progresses, the rhythm of the cutting increases, along with the suspense, all leading to an unbearable tension, terrible violence, and eventually their freedom when Michael's gamble pays off. But even though they get away from the camp, the scene radiates out from its seat in the abyssal center of the film, affecting (poisoning, really) everything that is to come after it, and reaching retrospectively back to taunt them, like the soldier at the wedding.
3. Great scenes represent the film's thematic core
This great scene represents the thematic core of the film, or the thesis that is then proven by the rest of the movie: for Cimino, the game represents the Vietnam War itself, "full of random and unnecessary violence" that leaves scars on all who take part. In this case, those scars are both physical (Steven, who is confined to a wheelchair) and emotional (Michael, and, to a far greater degree, Nick, who, having left behind his old life and discovered an intensity of experience in Vietnam he had never known, chooses to live it over and over, until it destroys him.) Nothing is ever the same for these friends after their escape, and this escape, far from being the height of heroic derring-do found in the majority of previous Hollywood war films, is merely the low point of the war, or the bottom of one valley.
An instantly iconic cinematic moment, the The Deer Hunter marked the high point in the career of Michael Cimino, who, following the studio-sinking failure of his next movie, ended up in the hinterlands of Hollywood for the rest of his career. But in The Deer Hunter, he crafted a work of art that is uncompromising in form and masterful in its execution of themes. The image of Russian Roulette as as metaphor for war was so powerful that it continues to resonate, and the way it was deployed in the film was so integral to the characters themselves that the movie, and especially the scene, feels carved from one block of stone. As such, any filmmaker would be wise to study it as a model of characterization, action, and consequence.