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Chance, from "The Deerhunter," a movie with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep

Subthemes: Risks, Nerves of Steel, Act Against the Odds, Entertainment Component

Winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture, “The Deer Hunter”’s taut, searing minutes of prolonged Russian Roulette embody pure chance. Here is the scene of gambling lives on chance. What connotations of chance does this vignette of steely courage convey?

Risk: Both De Niro and Walken put their lives on the line as they pulled the trigger. They faced, brutally, the ultimate risk. Chance, and phrases such as “take a chance” or “let’s chance it” resonate with risk. Something anticipatable might go wrong, something you are aware of can backfire, some foreseeable trouble lies ahead on the chosen path but you can’t know for sure. Hikers knowingly clamber across slippery rocks next to a river and drivers speed at night after partying too much. Students turn in a plagiarized essay hoping that the professor’s software won’t finger it, joggers run on dark roads with no margins, and motorcyclists eschew helmets. To various degrees, the hikers, drivers, students, joggers and bikers are aware that what they are doing puts them at risk and may boomerang – dicing Time may cast a moan. Based on whatever decision-making calculus they run, they risk the chance.

Nerves of Steel: When a person knowingly takes big chances, we admire the daring person’s nerves that can hold up to the strain (or they are buttressed by an abiding belief in their God or their cause). They may be intensely worried, as President Kennedy must have been when he attended a public performance in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. They may be putting their life on the line, as the ambassador did when he protected the refugees from America’s embassy in Iran. They may be pulling off a complex scam, such as in the movie “The Sting.” The scene in “The Deer Hunter” pushes the strength of iron self-control to an excruciating extreme, because the winner takes it all or the loser blow their brains out. Under life or death pressure, while repeatedly being slapped, the two soldiers managed to hold it together.

Act Against the Odds: Most people associate “a chance” as a relatively low likelihood of an event occurring. If we remark that a particular scientist has a chance at winning the Nobel prize, we generally mean the trip to Stockholm is unlikely to happen but it is conceivable. The two prisoners in “The Deer Hunter” couldn’t be certain of the number of bullets in the gun or perhaps even the number of chambers. At best, they had a chance. An economist, Frank Knight, is commonly credited with distinguishing between decisions under “risk” (known chance) and decisions under “uncertainty” (unmeasurable probability). The scene captures both the risks as to the pistol and the uncertainty as to the shoot-out that followed.

Entertainment Component: Many forms of entertainment rely on chance to inject excitement and drama. For the captors in the movie, the cruel game they were playing with their prisoners delighted them and fueled their gambling. In less torturous forms of entertainment, uncertainty is baked into the fun. What number will come up when the roulette wheel stops spinning? Variable reinforcement gives chance the most kick. Will the poker player draw the fifth card to complete the flush? Can the backgammon player’s roll block the key point? Sure, strategy and skill show up in all games, but the pulse-raising pause to see what lady luck delivers enlivens many games and appeals to most people. What does a roll of the dice portend for Monopoly or Risk? To name one other, lotteries release dopamine. The fortuity of the goddess Fortuna enlivens many forms of entertainment.

Even more extremely, sports lurk chance in the background to inject the thrill even of harm and death. Skydiving, base jumping, bull fighting, free climbing, car racing, cliff diving, and ski jumping entrance fans and athletes, in part because they openly court mortal chance. The chicken run scene in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” captures the macho, heart-thumping allure when competitors deliberately flirt with disaster.


Both men took an enormous chance, the risk of blowing their brains out, in a desperate hope. They had to suppress raging fear as they gambled with bullets, all of which triggers a gripping cinematic thrill.

To consider subthemes that are not derived directly from the poem, rock song, painting, and movie covered individually in posts about Chance, enjoy these additional subthemes. Read this for more about Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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