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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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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

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