Russian Roulette

We're talking about Russian Roulette, and other dangerous film stunts.

In this episode we're re-watching the Deer Hunter, the first film made about the Vietnam War after it ended, which featured scenes of POWs (and paid participants in back-alley gambling houses) playing what we know as "Russian Roulette", in which two participants shoot a revolver at their own heads with a bullet randomly placed into one chamber of the gun. This is a preview of a premium episode, if you like our content please become a patron to get all of our premium content as well as our public episodes ad-free.

It turns out that the history of Russian Roulette started as a ficitonal plot device but became more "real" for lack of a better word when it made it to American film audiences, as multiple people have actually died imitating the scenes from the movie with real guns and real bullets.

The film was a massive success for the director Michael Cimino, it was nominated for 9 Oscars and won 5 of them. It also launched the career of Meryl Streep, who was the lead actress of the film alongside her tragically dying lover at the time, John Cazale, who passed away from cancer shortly after the film was completed. Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro also starred in the film, and they of course went on to great acting careers as well. 1

Long term success was not in the cards for Cimino, however. He tried to rip off the author of the Deer Hunter, Deric Washburn, when the original story was modified into a film script but history has proven Washburn to be a more capable writer than Cimino. Cimino's next film, Heaven's Gate, was a massive failure that actually bankrupt United Artists, the studio which financed it.

While the film industry is distinctly American, Sandra's home country was not spared having to sit through all 3 and a half hours of the Deer Hunter either, she has a hilarious story of the one lady who translated all bootleg American films during the last days of communism, to varying degrees of accuracy. Irina Margareta Nistor was the voice of everyone in a film she translated, and thus the voice of American film for many Romanians. Sadly the title of the Deer Hunter was not available when she translated it back in the 1980s and it came out as "Dear Hunter" which Sandra says is still a running joke today. 2

We also talk about other dangerous (or marketed as dangerous) film stunts, such as the tragic deaths of Vic Morrow and two children on John Landis's set for the film version of The Twilight Zone in the 1980s, The multiple cases of accidental shootings on film sets most notably Brandon Lee's fatal shooting on the set of The Crow, and Alec Baldwin's accidental shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust. 3, 4

1. Peter Biskind on Michael Cimino’s Twisted, Tortured Legacy: “A Mystery in Death as He Was in Life”. Hollywood Reporter. July 2016. 

2. Kit Gillet. The Voice That Brought Hollywood Films to Communist Romania’s TV Screens. The Guardian. December 2014. 

3. youtube user Seawyatt. "The Program" deleted scene. Youtube. September 2012. 

4. Pilot Voiced Fears, 'Zone' Co-worker Says. The Washington Post. January 1987. 

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