Filmsite Movie Review
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Second Act:

Cut to two years later. Fiery, forceful explosions from helicopter rockets and mortars - again the theme of fire - blast a peaceful Vietnamese hamlet. An enemy North Vietnamese soldier raises the top of an underground bamboo shelter where innocent Vietnamese peasants and villagers cower (mostly women and children). He thoughtlessly tosses in a grenade and closes the shelter's top. Shortly after, he senselessly murders an injured civilian mother who staggers around. Bloodied and filthy-faced from combat, a crazed Michael responds with spray from a flamethrower, wielding it like a industrial blow-torch and incinerating the brutal soldier as pigs gruesomely eat the fleshy remains of singed victims. Helicopters appear out of nowhere with an American unit to provide relief support to the village. Michael meets up with the squad of soldiers, including Steven and Nick, but he is so shell-shocked that he ignores their friendly reunion after a long absence. The trio are captured by an assault of North Vietnamese.

In the film's most shocking, emotionally draining and terrifying sequence (approximately 20 minutes in length), they are captured as POWs of the Viet Cong, and held in a riverside pontoon hut. The poorly-fed, beaten prisoners are placed in a bamboo pit (a tiger cage) half-submerged in the corpse-, disease- and rat-infested water, and in a similar enclosed, bamboo cage under the command shack. Along with other traumatized prisoners, they are yanked up one-by-one through a trap door by their brutal, savage captors and forced to play a diversionary 'parlor game.' It is an unequal, suicidal form of Russian roulette. Guard-onlookers place wagers on who will survive or die. The game is played under the watchful gaze of a small black-and-white picture of Ho Chi Minh. Prisoner-participants are viciously slapped when they hesitate or are unwilling to pull the trigger. This memorable scene of gambling with human lives is a vivid metaphor of the insanity of the war, in which there is no logic to who lives and who dies.

The gun barrel's loaded cylinder, with one bullet in the chamber [the noble 'one-shot' philosophy carried to its utmost extreme] is spun to a random position. Something in Steven snaps as he waits below and hears others tortured and killed point-blank by their own hand. Blood spurts from the head of an unlucky participant and runs down from above onto the awaiting contestants. When it is Michael's and Steven's fateful turn to play the deadly game, Michael bravely urges and consoles an hysterical Steven to pull the trigger, while the foreign tormentors bark unintelligible orders at them. When Steven finally fires, a bullet is released, but because of the angle of the gun barrel and the position of his quivering hand, it only grazes the side of his head. The Viet Cong enjoy the sport, laughing at Steven's failed attempt and punishing him by dragging him to the pit to experience a torturous death in water up to his neck.

Released for a short while, Michael expresses fears to Nick that Steven won't make it, but Nick recoils at him: "What do you think you are, God?" Michael devises a crafty plan for escape - he suicidally suggests raising the odds against his own survival: "We gotta play with more bullets...That means we gotta play each other...You gotta listen to me. You wanta stay down here and die?" The pals become the next two players and Michael urges Nick to pull the trigger: "Go ahead Nickie. It's gonna be all right." But when Nick balks, Michael convinces the evil game-leader to let them wager on three bullets in the gun (cutting their odds of survival to 50-50), and assures Nick: "Don't worry, in five minutes we're gonna be outa here." (The ever-calculating Michael realizes that the bullets loaded into the gun's chamber are side-by-side, increasing their chances of survival.)

When the gun is spun and points toward Michael, it is his turn. In a show of bravado, he laughs and doggedly proceeds to play, with a blank click against his own temple. When it's Nick's turn again, Michael encourages him not to crack under the intense pressure: "It's gonna be all right, Nickie, go ahead. Shoot. Shoot, Nickie." The gun miraculously clicks on an empty chamber a second time. On the third time around, a steely-eyed Michael abruptly and swiftly swings the gun from his own temple toward the sadistic leader and shoots him square in the middle of his forehead. They both grab rifles from the other surprised gamblers and strafe them with gun-fire. Michael must subdue Nick as he senselessly seeks revenge and repeatedly beats in the head of one of the guards with a rifle butt.

They escape and flee from their floating prison after freeing Steven from his watery grave. [Other prisoners are left to their own devices.] Holding onto a log, they float downriver as a strong-willed, determined Michael supports both buddies to keep them from drowning. As they hear the approach of rapids, they also listen to the whirring of blades that signals the approach of a US Army helicopter. As they maneuver under a make-shift, dilapidated foot bridge that hangs precariously over the river, the wounded heroes grab ahold and let go of their log. During a dangerous, mid-air evacuation attempt, the copter pulls Nick to safety, but because of Steven's weakened state, he is unable to hold on and plunges back into the rock-strewn river far below - and shatters both his legs on a submerged shelf of rocks. To save his friend from drowning, Michael also releases his grip on the runners of the airborne copter and swims to the rescue. He hauls his comrade up onto the bank of the river, noticing Steven's mangled legs and protruding bone fractures. He carries his pal on his back for many miles, eventually encountering a desperate mass evacuation. Behind South Vietnamese lines, a retreating convoy of jeeps, civilians and refugees on foot, and soldiers clogs the already-littered and crowded road, filled with burning and abandoned vehicles. Exhausted by his trek, Michael persuades an officer in an ARVN jeep to carry Steven on the hood and seek medical attention. Afterwards, he joins the frenetic horde on their streaming march.

Far from the front, a noisy and crowded U.S. Army Hospital in Saigon is well-staffed with white-starched nurses and a staff of doctors caring for the many casualties of war - amputees and emotionally-scarred survivors. Sitting on a patio's balcony ledge, a slightly-catatonic, autistic, lost Nick observes body bags being laid out in the courtyard below before they are placed in shiny, silver-colored coffins. When asked a few simple questions about his family, Nick sputters and struggles with answers. Asked if his name, Chevotarevich, is a Russian name, he patriotically replies: "No, it's American." In a lobby of the military hospital where a bank of telephones are provided for GI's, Nick begins placing a call to his hometown of Clairton - which he slowly spells letter-by-letter for the operator. But before he gives Linda's phone number, he declines: "Never mind."

None of the friends can escape from the radical effects of their Vietnam war experience. Numb and traumatized by the war, a uniformed and zombie-like Nick snakes his way through the crowded, congested night-time streets of Saigon, roaming and wandering to find his friends - particularly Michael. Neon-fronted nightclubs, massage parlors, strip bars, and whorehouses cater to American soldiers. In one bar named the Mississippi Queen Saloon, where scantily-clad young Vietnamese go-go dancers bump and grind their hips (to American pop songs) on platforms doused in reddish light and where wagon wheels provide the decor, Nick picks up a prostitute after being propositioned. He is led to her dingy, dark, squalid one-room hovel lit by a bare light bulb, where she asks what he would like to call her. He replies: "Linda." When her infant cries next to the bed in which they plan to have tawdry sex, he quickly scrambles for fresh air onto her balcony and then escapes from the claustrophic room.

Intrigued and attracted by gunshots coming from a dark, somber alley, Nick investigates and discovers corpses (with red headbands around their foreheads) being dragged out. An unscrupulous, exploitative Frenchman Julien (Pierre Segul) welcomes him and explains how willing young Vietnamese men play a civilian version of wartime Russian roulette for "a great deal of money." The champagne-drinking foreigner insistently offers to lead (and lure) Nick into the game of the netherworld, commenting: "What is there to be afraid of in this war? The war is a joke, a silly thing...I pay my players - cash - American. However, should you prefer German marks or perhaps Swiss francs, that of course can be arranged."

Amidst cheers from an all-male audience of Vietnamese high-stakes gamblers waving bills in a smoke-filled room, two red-banded contestants compete in the deadly suicidal, repellent yet fascinating game. Unbeknowst to Nick, Michael, now bearded and wearing civilian clothes, is one of the betting spectators attracted to the performance. Snapping, Nick impulsively seizes the weapon (with one bullet) from one of the players, pulls the trigger with the gun resting against the temple of one of the players, and also fires an empty chamber into his own head. In an unstable flashback to his days as a captive, he relives the game of chance and dares to 'literally' shoot the memories out of his head. Michael recognizes his pal, now praised by the delighted and frenzied crowd, but cannot reach Nick before he staggers from the room. The entrepreneurial Frenchman drives Nick away in his coupe, and promises to make him a 'native' and willing participant in the sport: "If you are really brave and lucky, I can make you very, very rich."

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