The Deer Hunter (1978) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • An in-depth examination of the ways in which the Vietnam War impacts and disrupts the lives of several friends in a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania.

  • Michael, Steven and Nicky are 3 best friends who enjoy going deer hunting quite often. These men get enlisted to head to Vietnam to fight for their country and celebrate with a farewell party, as well as Steven marrying a pregnant woman named "Angela." After the horrors during the war and edge-grabbing games of Russian Roulette that these men are forced to play, Michael returns home and realizes that his deer hunting outings aren't the same as they used to be, because of the war and he eventually finds out that Steven is handicapped and Nicky hasn't returned from Vietnam, and in response, he heads back to Vietnam to rescue him.

  • 1968. Michael, Nick and Steven are only three of a group of friends and coworkers at the local steel mill in their small town of Clairton, Pennsylvania - they and most of their community blue collar of Eastern European heritage - but they are the only three in the community who will imminently be heading off into combat in Vietnam. In the days before they leave, they will attend to a few items, Steven who will marry Angela in a lavish event for the entire community, and the male friends, without Steven, who will go deer hunting the following morning, a highly ritualized activity especially for Michael. Steven is not the only one who will leave behind a girl, Nick in a serious relationship with Linda, she wanting to escape the abuse inflicted on her by her alcoholic father. Besides Linda's, there are many issues underneath the otherwise happy and joyous surface of the community, that surface joy only ramped up with the wedding and everyone, including the three subjects, seeing Michael, Nick and Steven as the honor and duty of them all and of the country. The three will find that the community hopes of their time in Vietnam is not what they want, their Vietnam experience which will inextricably be tied to the way they deal with life, with those that head home, either wanting or able, unwilling or unable to express how the war has damaged them. The three may be the only ones to help the other(s) who didn't come out the other end in one piece, either physically or emotionally.

  • Michael, Steven and Nick are young factory workers from Pennsylvania who enlist into the Army to fight in Vietnam. Before they go, Steven marries the pregnant Angela, and their wedding party also serves as the men's farewell party. After some time and many horrors, the three friends fall in the hands of the Vietcong and are brought to a prison camp in which they are forced to play Russian roulette against each other. Michael makes it possible for them to escape, but they soon get separated again.

  • Michael, Nick, and Steven are three buddies from the steel mill town of Clairton, Penn.They work together, hang out in a local bar and enjoying weekends deer hunting Ina a larger group with three other friends. But their placid life is soon to be changed after the three buddies enlist in the airborne infantry to go to Vietnam. So they all celebrate a goodbye at Steven's wedding and they leave for Vietnam. They are captured by the enemy and forced to play games of Russian Roulette to amuse their guards. They escape and Mike returns home to find Nick has stayed in Vietnam and Steven is handicapped after losing his legs and the use of one arm after the escape. Mike finds that deer hunting has changed for him after Vietnam and he returns to Vietnam during the fall to attempt to rescue Nick.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In the Western Pennsylvania foundry town of Clairton, during the late 1960s, Russian-American steel workers Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken), Stanley (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) are preparing for two rites of passage: the marriage of one and military service for three of them.

    They work together, hang out in a local bar and enjoy weekends deer hunting. But their placid life is soon to be changed after three enlist in the airborne infantry and go to Vietnam. Before they go, Steven marries the pregnant Angela, with whom he has not had sex, and their wedding party is also the men's farewell party. The hall is decorated with the boy's high school pictures and lots of American flags.

    Nick's girlfriend, Linda, makes breakfast for her father while wearing a bridesmaid's dress. Her father, an abusive and hallucinating alcoholic, is upstairs and alone, having an alcoholic attack and has trashed his room. Linda brings him his breakfast and he hits her a couple of times leaving a bruise on her face. She leaves for the wedding and takes her belongings to Nick's where she asks to stay for a while. Mike is upset and walks out when Linda shows up.

    At the Russian wedding reception, there is lots of drinking, ethnic dancing and wedding rituals. This is a very long scene and sets up the relationships and foreshadows some of what is to come. Mike spends a lot of the time at the bar drinking and watching Linda from afar. During the final ceremony of drinking from a dual wine cup, the convention is the couple will have a good life if they don't spill any wine but the camera catches some drips on the bride's dress. Nick proposes to Linda after she catches the bouquet and she accepts. The bride and groom leave the party in Mike's decorated Cadillac and Mike chases after them stripping himself naked as he runs, winding up with Nick in a basketball court. Nick makes Mike promise to bring him back to Clairton if something happens.

    The morning after, with the car still decorated from the wedding, the men drive into the mountains to go deer hunting. Mike takes hunting very seriously, having expressed his one shot theory to Nick previously, and gives Stan a cold shoulder when Stan wants to borrow socks and then can't find his hunting boots. He asks Mike for his extra pair and Mike refuses, having grown tired of Stan's lack of preparedness on previous trips. Frustrated, Stan pulls out a small handgun he carries and Nick breaks up the confrontation. The next morning, Mike and Nick go out into the woods and hunt (to Rachmaninoff's dramatic piece "Praise the Name of the Lord"). Mike has told Nick he is the only one of the group he will hunt with, having no respect for the others. Mike stalks and shoots a deer, bringing it down in a single shot.

    The troupe returns to Clairton and they go straight to John's bar. John plays a somber piece on the piano and the men sit mostly silent, contemplating their last night together as a group.

    The story shifts to a mountainous region of Vietnam where a small village is a battleground. Michael is there, lying unconscious among several dead bodies. A North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier walks into the village. He finds a small group of survivors, women and children, hiding in a small bunker. He casually arms a grenade, tosses it in and walks off as it explodes. Moments later he sees a woman, badly injured, carrying a baby. The soldier mercilessly shoots her. Mike springs up and blasts the soldier with a flamethrower. As Mike walks around shooting any surviving NVA soldiers, a unit of helicopters arrive and drop troops, among them are Nick and Steve. Mike, with a thousand-yard stare, doesn't seem to recognize them at first when incoming mortar shells from the NVA begin to hit the fields around the village. In the distance, a squad of NVA are approaching.

    The three are captured and held prisoner in a crude riverside encampment along with other US Army and ARVN prisoners. For entertainment, the guards force their prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome. Steven is suffering a mental breakdown and is chosen first. He pulls the trigger but the gun is aimed above his head, grazing him with the bullet. Though their captors laugh, he is punished by incarceration to a rat-infested partially submerged cage. Believing that the experience has broken Steven, Mike considers abandoning him in his planned escape attempt. Nick angrily rejects Mike's idea.

    Mike, convinces the guards to let him go head-to-head with Nick in the next round, after devising a plan to escape that requires three bullets in the pistol and shares his plan with Nick. Mike tells him to go after the closest gun when Mike makes his move. Mike successfully convinces their captors use three bullets in the cylinder. Coaxing their captors into laughing as a small distraction, Mike raises the gun to his head and at the last minute pushes the rifles pointed at him aside while turning the gun on his captors. Mike and Nick grab their captors' AK-47s and kill them all before freeing Steve.

    The three escape the camp by floating downriver on a tree. An American helicopter patrolling the river attempts to rescue them, but only Nick is able to get inside and the other two hang from the landing gear. The weakened Steven falls into the river. Mike jumps in after him, and helps him to the riverbank. Steven yells that he can't feel or move his legs. Mike carries him on his back to a steam of refugees and convinces the South Vietnamese troops to take Steve on their jeep while he joins the bands of refugees fleeing the conflict.

    The mentally-devastated Nick recuperates in a military hospital in Saigon, where the psychologist concludes he is not fit to remain there. After he's released, he tries to call Linda in Clairton but hangs up before the call is connected. He wanders aimlessly in the red light district. Nick encounters Julién Grinda (Pierre Segui), a champagne-drinking Frenchman outside a gambling den where men play Russian roulette for money. Grinda entices Nick to go in. Unbeknownst to Nick, Mike is in the crowd, as a spectator. Nick interrupts the match, puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger and then leaves in a hurry with the Frenchman. Mike follows but can't catch them as they drive away and Nick throws the money the Frenchman offers him into the street.

    Returning to Clairton Mike avoids a welcome celebration and shows up to meet Linda alone. Nick is still missing. Mike finds out that Steve is alive and has returned from Vietnam and visits Angela, Steve's wife, to find out where he is. She is stuck in bed and non-communicative but writes down a number for him. It is the number for Steven's veteran's rehabilitation clinic.

    Michael reunites with Steven, who is still traumatized and has lost both his legs and the use of an arm. Steven reveals that someone in Saigon has been mailing large amounts of cash and carved elephants to him. Mike suspects the money is from Nick, who may still be alive and earning the money from Russian roulette gambling. Mike takes Steven home over Steven's protests.

    The boys go hunting and Mike hunts alone but can't go through with shooting the deer. He has another confrontation with Stan in the hunting cabin after Stan gets mad and aims his pistol at one of them. Mike takes his pistol and throws it away.

    Mike goes back to Saigon just before its fall in 1975 to find Nick. With the help of the Grinda, he finds Nick in a crowded roulette club, but Nick has no recollection of Mike or his home in Pennsylvania. Mike tries unsuccessfully to buy Nick from the gamblers. Mike and Nick end up pitted against each other in an attempts by Mike to help Nick remember who he is. Mike's attempts to jog his memory and persuade him to come home fail and he notices track marks on Nick's arm, suggesting his minders are forcing him to use heroin to turn him into a mindless roulette player. Mike and Nick go through a few rounds of roulette until Nick raises the gun to his head and kills himself.

    The film ends with Nick's funeral back in America and his friends' response to it. Everyone's there, and even Angela and Steven seem to be on the mend. At the wake in the bar they all mournfully sing "God bless America", and toast Nick.

    "CAVATINA" by Stanley Myers is played (on guitar by John Williams) as the credits roll.

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