Scene Description Spotlight: “The Deer Hunter”

During the Vietnam War, two American prisoners are forced to play Russian roulette.

I can still remember seeing The Deer Hunter for the first time. I was living in Aspen, Colorado. Had a rare night off from playing music. Came out of the theater just gutted by the movie — and in particular the two Russian roulette scenes. Michael (Robert DeNiro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are three long-time buddies and factory workers from Pennsylvania. They enlist in the Army and find themselves fighting in Vietnam. Captured by the Viet Cong, they have been abused and beaten. Steven (named Sal in the script) is in bad shape. Michael (named Merle in the script) has to convince Nick to do something seemingly insane, as you will see as the scene unfolds:

EXT. CLEARING IN THE JUNGLE — THE “PITS” — DAY

SAL has absolutely no comprehension of what is about to
happen to him. His eyes are dreamy, far away, as if he had
mentally transported himself to some distant place. There are
great gashes in his head from the blows he has received and
as he stands waiting in the pouring rain he looks exactly
like a very small child who has experienced some terrible
confusion.

Suddenly the GUARD standing beside SAL wrenches him around.

We see the pit now, CLOSE UP. There are four bloated CORPSES
floating in the muck.

We SAL’S FACE, CLOSE UP. He gives a CRY and tries to turn
away.

We see the GUARDS pick SAL up, SCREAMING. We see the SPLASH
as SAL hits the water and then we see him surface between the
bloated CORPSES, STILL SCREAMING, paddling desperately and
trying to find something solid to hod him up.
EXT. CLEARING IN THE JUNGLE — WAITING PRISONERS — DAY

NICK stands motionless, stunned, listening to SAL’S SCREAMS.
MERLE has his attention focused on the GUARD IN CHARGE and
when he glances in their direction MERLE slugs NICK in the
stomach and begins beating him furiously to the ground. NICK
struggles to his feet. MERLE attacks him again and now, as
the GUARD IN CHARGE comes over to see what’s going on, MERLE
begins hopping up and down, pointing at NICK, pointing at the
revolver in the GUARD’S hand and screaming.

MERLE
Him and me!!! Him and me!!!

The GUARDS look at each other, interested.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Him and me, goddamn it! Him and me!

INT. THATCHED HUT — HEAVY RAIN — DAY

MERLE and NICK sit facing one another across the rose
patterned kitchen table. The GUARDS are all grinning and even
the SOUTH VIETNAMESE are watching with grim fascination. NICK
has the revolver. He is trembling visibly. Already MERLE has
managed to draw the GUARDS in closer and as NICK spins the
cylinder and cocks the hammer MERLE jumps up and begins
pounding on the table.

MERLE
This is it, motherfuckers! Now he’s
going to do it! Watch! You watch!

NICK almost loses what little control is left and his hand
begins shaking violently.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Look at him! See! This is it and he
knows it!

Side bets begin changing hands.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Last chance to lose your money
there, guys. Goodbye money! Hurry,
hurry. Here he goes!

NICK puts the revolver against his temple and pulls the
trigger. There is a dull CLICK.

NICK puts the revolver back on the table. His hand is shaking
so badly it falls with a clunk. MERLE grabs it, spins it,
sticks it to his temple and CLICKS OUT, talking all the time:

MERLE (CONT’D)
This is stupid! You understand
stupid? On and on! At this rate
we’ll still be here tomorrow!
(throws the revolver on
the table)
Wait a minute. I know! Hey, I got
it. More! Put in more! You
understand more? More! More
bullets!
(he mimes with his
fingers)
Three bullets! You understand
three? That way BLAM! BOOM!

MERLE hops up and down, laughing maniacally.

MERLE (CONT’D)
KA-POWIE!!! BA-ROOM!!!… ’Cause I
want that bastard! Him I want boom!
Him or me!!!

The GUARD IN CHARGE looks at his COMPANIONS. They all begin
shouting for him to go ahead. The GUARD IN CHARGE purses his
lips, as if imitating a general coming to a decision, and
then nods his assent. The GUARDS all howl. MERLE joins right
in.

MERLE (CONT’D)
He’s terrific! Great fucking guy!

The GUARD IN CHARGE takes the revolver, opens the cylinder
and begins sticking in two more cartridges.

MERLE (CONT’D)
KA-POW!!! BA-ROOMIE!!!

MERLE hops up and down again, then screams at NICK, jabbing
his finger at him, as if in fury.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Both of us may have to pull on
this, so get your shit in fuckin’
shape!!!
(to the GUARDS)
Him or me!!! Now we got it, him or
me!!!
(he rubs his hands and
sits back down)
Place your bets, motherfuckers! Now
we’re going! Now we got a game!

The GUARD IN CHARGE places the revolver on the table, spins
it.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Watch! Now watch! He’s going to get
it. And then KA-POW! BA-ROOMIE!!!

The muzzle stops pointing at MERLE. MERLE scowls, looks over
at the GUARD IN CHARGE. The GUARD IN CHARGE has lifted the
barrel of his AK 47 and is watching him with caution. The
OTHER GUARDS, who are totally caught up in the game, are
yelling and shouting.

MERLE
You guys think I’m in trouble,
right?

MERLE picks up the revolver, spins the cylinder, cocks it…

MERLE (CONT’D)
No way! Never!!!
(he begins to chant)
MERLE IS MIGHTY! — HA!
MERLE IS STRONG! — HA!
MERLE IS MAGIC! — HA!
MERLE LIVES LONG!
Lemme hear it. Come on,
motherfuckers, lemme hear it!

MERLE starts it again. The GUARDS who are bett ing on him
JOIN IN:

MERLE (CONT’D)
(with GUARDS)
MERLE IS MIGHTY! — HA!
MERLE IS STRONG! — HA!
MERLE IS MAGIC! — HA!
MERLE LIVES LONG!

MERLE takes a glance at the GUARD IN CHARGE again. The GUARD
IN CHARGE is still eyeing him with caution.

MERLE places the revolver to his temple… and CLICKS into an
empty chamber.

MERLE (CONT’D)
See! Nothing to it.

He pushes the gun across to NICK. Then he stabs his finger at
him, screaming again, as if in a fit of rage.

MERLE (CONT’D)
You got an empty chamber and it’s
in your mind! Just put that empty
chamber in the gun!

NICK looks down at the revolver and picks it up. He stares at
MERLE for a moment. Then he spins the cylinder, cocks the
hammer, Puts it to his head… and CLICKS into an empty
chamber.

The GUARDS let out expressions of disbelief. Those betting on
NICK begin taunting those betting on MERLE.

MERLE sits motionless, as if stunned, as if utterly defeated,
his brow furrowed in a mighty frown.

NICK pushes the revolver across the table. His face is
twitching but he gives the gesture a certain flair, as if
throwing back a challenge.

MERLE stares at the revolver — stares at it with an
expression of utter gloom. Then he reaches out, takes the
revolver in his hand and pulls it toward him, as if he no
longer possessed the strength to pick it up.

MERLE (CONT’D)
(gloom)
Who’s for Merle?
(he thumps his fist on the
table)
Is anyone for Merle???

MERLE roams a glowering eve over the watching GUARDS, as if
suddenly discovering himself among traitors. Slowly, he
pushes himself to his feet. The gun is still on the table,
still in his right hand, and as he gets up he lets his body
sag over it.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who here is for Merle…?

There is absolute silence now except for the drumming of the
rain. It is as if the war had disappeared, vanished. The
GUARDS stand motionless, hardly breathing, so captivated by
MERLE’S performance that they suddenly resemble little
children.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who… here… is for Merle…?

MERLE begins his chant again. His voice is low, very
dramatic, and the GUARD IN CHARGE joins right in.

MERLE (CONT’D)
(with GUARDS)
MERLE IS MIGHTY! — HA!
MERLE IS STRONG! — HA!
MERLE IS MAGIC — HA!

MERLE snaps the revolver level in his hand and BLASTS the
GUARD IN CHARGE, hitting him full in the face. At the same
time NICK throws himself into the GUARD who is standing
behind him, spins and slams the GUARD’S AK 47 into his chin.
TWO MORE SHOTS BLAST OUT FROM MERLE’S .45 and we see TWO
GUARDS crash over the kitchen table. NICK now opens up with
AK 47, and as MERLE backs off beside him, also with an AK 47,
they GUN the remaining GUARDS to the floor.

It is over in an instant. The BODIES lie in a bloody, tangled
mess under a pathetic paper lantern. The rain drones on — 
uninterrupted, undiminished, eternal…

Notice how the sequence begins in crisis, describing Sal (Steven’s) deteriorating condition:

SAL has absolutely no comprehension of what is about to
happen to him. His eyes are dreamy, far away, as if he had
mentally transported himself to some distant place. There are
great gashes in his head from the blows he has received and
as he stands waiting in the pouring rain he looks exactly
like a very small child who has experienced some terrible
confusion.

This description drives home the reality to Nick — that in order to have any
chance to save Steven and themselves, they have to act now: First step is to get the captors to allow Nick and Michael to face each other, not an American and Vietnamese prisoner as before. Crazy move, but necessary for what Michael has in store.

With both Americans participating, the odds of one of them dying increase
exponentially. And see how the scene description infuses the moment with that threat:

NICK almost loses what little control is left and his hand
begins shaking violently.

NICK puts the revolver against his temple and pulls the
trigger. There is a dull CLICK.

NICK puts the revolver back on the table. His hand is shaking
so badly it falls with a clunk.

The shaking of his hand reflecting the tension, even insanity of the moment. But then the second part of Michael’s plan: Coax their captors to put three bullets in the pistol, thereby almost ensuring somebody’s death in the first go-round. Worried that the Viet Cong will catch on, Michael does his best to distract them by acting crazy:

MERLE hops up and down again, then screams at NICK, jabbing
his finger at him, as if in fury.

Then amazingly, two rounds of roulette — no gunshot. Which means that it’s virtually certain there’s a live round loaded and ready to go — and it’s Michael’s turn. Then this description:

MERLE stares at the revolver — stares at it with an
expression of utter gloom. Then he reaches out, takes the
revolver in his hand and pulls it toward him, as if he no
longer possessed the strength to pick it up.

MERLE (CONT’D)
(gloom)
Who’s for Merle?
(he thumps his fist on the
table)
Is anyone for Merle???

MERLE roams a glowering eve over the watching GUARDS, as if
suddenly discovering himself among traitors. Slowly, he
pushes himself to his feet. The gun is still on the table,
still in his right hand, and as he gets up he lets his body
sag over it.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who here is for Merle…?

There is absolute silence now except for the drumming of the
rain. It is as if the war had disappeared, vanished. The
GUARDS stand motionless, hardly breathing, so captivated by
MERLE’S performance that they suddenly resemble little
children.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who… here… is for Merle…?

MERLE begins his chant again. His voice is low, very
dramatic, and the GUARD IN CHARGE joins right in.

Michael’s performance “captivated” the men, an ironic choice of words because these are the captors. Then the pay-off:

MERLE snaps the revolver level in his hand and BLASTS the
GUARD IN CHARGE, hitting him full in the face. At the same
time NICK throws himself into the GUARD who is standing
behind him, spins and slams the GUARD’S AK 47 into his chin.
TWO MORE SHOTS BLAST OUT FROM MERLE’S .45 and we see TWO
GUARDS crash over the kitchen table. NICK now opens up with
AK 47, and as MERLE backs off beside him, also with an AK 47,
they GUN the remaining GUARDS to the floor.

It is over in an instant. The BODIES lie in a bloody, tangled
mess under a pathetic paper lantern. The rain drones on — 
uninterrupted, undiminished, eternal…

What a scene. What an ending. And its own denouement: “…BODIES lie in a bloody, tangled mess… rain drones on — uninterrupted, undiminished, eternal…”

It’s almost as if in this incredible twist pulled off by Michael and Nick — including somehow willing away two bullets which by all rights should have been loaded to go — they have taken this ‘profane’ moment and transformed it into a ‘sacred’ event through the blood sacrifice they make by slaughtering their captors.

This is a terrific example of using scene description to help build the tension in a scene to a powerful climax.

Here is the movie version of the scene:

For more Scene Description Spotlight posts, go here.

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Scene Description Spotlight: “The Deer Hunter” was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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