“This had never been a game of chance…”
Earlier this week, in my discussion of Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter, I managed to avoid mentioning its single most famous—and controversial—plot point. Here’s what William Goldman had to say on the subject in Adventures in the Screen Trade:
Does anyone remember, say, the last part of Deer Hunter? Saigon is going up in flames, and Robert De Niro…is out of service and back in Pennsylvania. He hears about his old buddy, Christopher Walken, who’s still back there…Do you know what Walken has been doing all this time? He’s been playing that game of Russian roulette with real bullets. (The Russian roulette ploy was made up by the movie’s creators, by the way; it didn’t happen in reality.) For months and months, Walken has been taking on all comers in this loony tunes Russian roulette, and…he’s undefeated, untied, and unscored on.
It would take a computer a while to give the odds against that happening, but never mind, because now we’re into the confrontation scene. De Niro versus Walken at Russian roulette. If you looked at the billing of the picture on your way in, did you ever doubt who was going to win?
Obviously, De Niro survives and Walken dies. Goldman concludes that The Deer Hunter, for all its trappings of realism, is ultimately “a comic book movie,” and he adds: “What Deer Hunter told me was what I already knew and believed in: No matter how horrid the notion of war, Robert De Niro would end up staring soulfully at the beautiful, long-suffering Meryl Streep.” And while the film’s Russian roulette sequences are far from its only implausible element, they’ve always served as a focal point for the movie’s critics, both because of their air of racism and because they were invented by the screenwriters out of thin air. What really fascinates me, though, is that these scenes were actually the seed of the entire story, and they came before Vietnam, Pennsylvania, or anything else. The producer Michael Deeley had bought a script called The Man Who Came to Play about games of Russian roulette in Las Vegas, which he called “a very clever piece of writing,” and it was rewritten by Cimino and his collaborator Deric Washburn to take place during the war. You could almost say that these scenes, as arbitrary as they seem in relation to the real Vietnam experience, are what is truly essential, and the rest—all that loving atmosphere at the steel mill and the wedding and the deer hunt and Chopin’s Nocturne—is incidental. And despite my mixed feelings about the movie, I have to concede that Cimino’s fundamental instinct, which was that the Russian roulette element would provide a spine strong enough for him to tell literally any story he wanted, was brilliant. As Roger Ebert, who liked The Deer Hunter far more than I did, wrote, it becomes “the organizing symbol of the film.”
Elsewhere, I’ve said that discovering this kind of narrative trick can feel like stumbling across a new industrial process, and I don’t think that’s ever been more true than it is here. Russian roulette, as a tool for generating suspense, is a writer’s dream: it’s infinitely expansible and compressible, meaning that it can be used to fill thirty seconds of screen time or serve as the motor that drives an entire third act, and it requires a minimum of setup. I’ve often suspected that the whole legal procedural genre sprang up around the fact that a jury delivering its verdict is the most foolproof scene in all of drama: even if the outcome is foreordained, when the foreman passes the folded note to the judge and the defendant is asked to rise, there’s always an increase in tension and anticipation. The trouble—if you’re a writer with the right amount of laziness, which is just another word for the pragmatic use of your limited resources—is you can’t just jump into a verdict scene without any preparation. It requires a fair amount of work to get there. Russian roulette, for better or worse, is a self-contained component: you can slide it in almost anywhere and it works, if only on the most primitive levels of the brain. It delivers violence, or the threat of it, at an unpredictable time in a structured way. I can’t think of anything else in fiction or real life that comes even close to it. Fortunately, perhaps, it’s the sort of thing that can only be done once on this kind of scale. As much as I dislike The Deer Hunter, I almost feel that Cimino deserved to win Best Picture, if only because he recognized the opportunity that the device presented and capitalized on it before anyone else ever could.
Of course, this hasn’t prevented other opportunistic writers from occasionally making use of it. (Among other things, it provides the backbone for the final act of my favorite episode of The X-Files.) And I resort to it here, in Chapter 57 of Eternal Empire, for all the reasons that I mentioned above. Pragmatically, the scene could be about anything or nothing: Maddy has been brought back by her enemies to the isolated dacha in Sochi, and the chapter’s only function is to crank our concern for her safety up to as high a pitch as possible, in roughly five pages, before Wolfe and Ilya storm the compound. A scene like this has to walk a fine line, and I do what I can to give Maddy as much agency as I can, as she tries to turn her captors against one another. But when Vasylenko takes out his revolver and removes all of the cartridges except for one, suddenly it’s all business, and you can almost sense me, as the writer, looking ahead to the next chapter and seeing that I have only a page or two to get my point across. It helps, obviously, that we’re in Russia itself, and Vasylenko’s brief excursus on the history of the game—which I lifted from James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe—goes a long way toward justifying it in my eyes. And Maddy’s final revelation, which is that none of this has been a game of chance, is really a character’s glimpse of her author. Like Cimino, I’ve rigged the game to get her here. In the end, the scene works, and Vasylenko doesn’t even need to pull the trigger. That’s the beauty of it. And it’s also why it still makes me a little uneasy…
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