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The Deer Hunter begins with an hour long act in which there is a young couple getting married in an elaborate Russian Orthodox ceremony and reception rolled into a bit of a sendoff party for Michael (Robert DeNiro), Nicky (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage, also the groom) before they are sent over to Vietnam.

The significance of the Russian-American culture in the film is a bit elusive, but given the length of the sequence, must be quite important to the writers. I can't tell if this backdrop was used due to a prevalence of Russian ethnicity in the Western Pennsylvania steel towns, or if it was meant to forge some kind of a connection to the "Russian Roulette" which played an important role in the wartime sequences and especially in the conclusion of the film with Nicky's death.

What was the significance of this choice?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is no evidence that Russian Roulette had its origins in Russia, so that seems a superficial connection. It was probably chosen, as you suggest, partly because of its prevalence in the West Pennsylvania steel towns and partly because it is so heavily ritualistic and ritual is a theme of the movie - a Wedding, the dances at the Wedding party, hunting trips, men drinking together after work, a funeral, people gathered to gamble, the brutal rituals of war. (David Nolan, The Slow Review)

The original idea for the movie came from a script called The Men Who Came to Play which was set in Las Vegas (Wikipedia). This was combined with ideas from the plot of The Best Years of Their Lives, which chronicles the lives of three veterans returning from WWII to smalltown middle America. (Nolan) I have yet to find an interview indicating why the director Michael Cimini or the screenwriter Deric Washburn chose the Pennsylvania steel town to begin with. One can only guess - the likely camaraderie of steel workers, the small town environment where people grow up together into adulthood, the gritty color/non-color of steel factory backdrop which foreshadows the war setting, the Russian Orthodox religious connection....

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I hadn't picked up on a couple of those rituals, but I see them now. Thanks :) (thought I was on Libraries for a second) – jonsca Jul 6 '12 at 2:56

The orthodox faith (by it's very name) is rich with ritual and order. I think this part of the film is important as contrast to the chaos and horrors of Vietnam. The first part of the film showed people living tough lives in a hardscrabble environment. The church served as a stable axle in their lives, a reference point of sanity from which the war veterans would later become untethered. I agree with the previous comments, there's no meaningful connection of this first act of the film to Russian roulette.

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I think it showed the bonds of all the friends. So with church, drinking, work, hunting, and even war, the friends did everything together. It also hinted at De Niro's character's disdain for the religious rituals. This goes on to shows us that he is not like the others.

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I think that it also ties in with a larger theme in the film, one that was not necessarily intended by the filmmakers.

The Vietnam conflict was a pointless war that the US didn't win, and it was played out within the context of the larger Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union (with China also a player). The war was about fighting Communism. The irony is that the men who go to the war are Americans, but they happen to be of Russian descent.

In one scene, Nick is sitting on a balcony in a hospital in Saigon when a doctor comes to verify his identity. He is "shell shocked" and clearly suffering from survivor's guilt having been rescued by the helicopter while his two friends fell back into the river. The doctor calls him by the Russian name on his record. He doesn't answer until the doctor asks him if his name is Russian. He says "no, it's American."

The point here is that these were hapless, working class Americans from all backgrounds who were sent to this futile war to fight and suffer and die for the benefit of larger powers involved in an ideological and global economic/political struggle. The Russian Roulette isn't Russian, but its name makes us think of Russia. And it is a deadly game of chance that is played, ultimately, by people who exchange money as bets on human lives, much like the powers that control wars.

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