Directed by Michael Cimino, “Journey to the End of Hell” was a very difficult shoot for the director and his actors. A look back at two mythical scenes where Robert De Niro lends himself to the sordid game of Russian roulette before doing the same thing to John Cazale.
Journey to the End of Hell, the huge film by Michel Cimino
Journey to the End of Hell is one of the greatest American films about the Vietnam War. Directed by Michael Cimino, the film won five Oscars in 1979, including Best Picture and Best Director for Michael Cimino. A consecration for the filmmaker who was only at the beginning of his career – Journey to the End of Hell is his second feature film. Unfortunately, if he quickly reached the heights, his reputation crumbled from his next film, The Gate of Paradise (1980). Indeed, it was one of the biggest commercial failures and almost buried Cimino’s career.
Regarding Journey to the End of Hell, the film features a group of friends, workers in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania. After spending an hour in their daily life punctuated by a wedding, the feature film takes us on board, two years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War. There they will be captured and tortured. It is then that we witness one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinema: the sequence of russian roulette. A passage which first sees John Savage submit to this psychological torture and narrowly escape death, before Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken do not clash. One after another they have to hold a gun to their head and fire, praying the bullet doesn’t get into the cylinder chamber.
A mind-blowing shoot
The shooting of the film, and more particularly of this sequence, was particularly difficult for the actors. Michael Cimino has indeed done everything to push realism to its climax. First, De Niro and Christopher Walken received real slaps by the extras responsible for impersonating the guards. Shots which, at first, surprised them since the filmmaker was careful not to give all the details before shooting. In addition, one of the extras had a particular aversion to Americans and therefore did not need to be asked. What reinforce even more the intensity of the sequence and the game of the two actors.
While the duo is ready for this macabre game, John Savage is in the water in a bamboo cage. At one point he yells that there are rats. A dialogue that was not planned. Because it was actually Michael Cimino he was talking to, terrified of the actual presence of rodents. This did not disturb Cimino who continued to shoot and kept the scene in the final cut.
The madness of Robert De Niro
Finally, the craziest part of this shoot comes a little later in the film. Back from Vietnam, Mike, the character played by Robert De Niro, finds Stan, played by John Cazale. The two meet up with friends in a cabin. There, Mike loses his temper and replicates what he experienced on Stan. He grabs a revolver, leaves a single bullet in the cylinder and places the gun on his friend’s forehead.
For this sequence, Robert De Niro proposed to Michael Cimino to place a real bullet in the revolver, in order to accentuate even more realism. A mind-blowing idea, but which the director accepted, just like John Cazale! The latter still wanted to check the weapon before each shot. To make sure the bullet wasn’t in the next chamber. But despite his checks, one can imagine the fear he might have had.
Such a working method would be unimaginable today. Filming must be extremely secure and with the use of blank bullets. Sadly, several tragic events have taken place in the past with firearms. There was the death of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow in 1993. More recently, it is the filming of Rust with Alec Baldwin which was marred by tragedy with the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and the injury of director Joel Souza.
To deepen on Journey to the End of Hell and its director, we advise you to discover the documentary Michael Cimino, an American mirage by Jean-Baptiste Thoret at the cinema on January 19, 2022. Also find our interview here.