Back in 1978, director Michael Cimino gave the world one of the early cinematic examinations of the traumatic experience of the Vietnam War. A film that was vastly ahead of its time, The Deer Hunter took a stark look at how soldiers returning from the war dealt with what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder.
The film was a hit with critics and audiences, earning nine Oscar nominations with five wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. However, The Deer Hunter was not without its controversy. Not only was the final scene in which the veterans sing “God Bless America” criticized and analyzed, the film was notorious for depicting the torture of American POWs by the Vietcong by forcing them to play Russian roulette.
While powerful and effective in the picture, there was no evidence that Russian roulette was forced on prisoners of war in Vietnam, leading to a raging debate at the time of Cimino’s artistic license. Still, no one can deny the effectiveness of these scenes.
This got us thinking. Just in case we found ourselves in an artistically-licensed Vietcong jail, how long could we survive playing Russian roulette?
The Answer: Theoretically forever (but we don’t suggest trying it)
In The Deer Hunter, the rules for Russian roulette are simple. A single bullet is loaded into a six-shooter revolver. The cylinder is spun and randomly slapped closed. The first contestant puts the muzzle to his head and pulls the trigger. If the chamber is empty and the player is left alive, the process is repeated for the next player. This continues until someone happens upon a chamber with the live bullet in it, and the one who is left alive wins.
The odds of randomly happening upon the chamber with the bullet in it is question of simple math: a one in six chance, which is approximately a 17% chance of dying on each turn. Of course, that translates into about an 83% chance you’ll survive. Sure, these aren’t the best odds, but if the mortality is taken out of the equation, they aren’t terrible either.
The way probability works is that it is ultimately uncertain, and while it can be predictable in the grand sense, it’s not an exact science. In fact, with an 83% chance of survival in a game of Russian roulette, theoretically you could play indefinitely, though this is extremely unlikely. Probability tells us that playing one round of Russian roulette gives you better-than-even odds of surviving. However, looking at multiple rounds of the game, probability also tells us that you’ll eventually shoot yourself in the head.
You can test this yourself with a six-sided die (one that doesn’t send a high-speed projectile at your head). Throw it once, and it’ll be unlikely you’ll roll a six. Roll it twice, and a six becomes a little more likely. Roll it a hundred times, and you will end up rolling some sixes. It could happen 15 times or 20, but the overall number of sixes rolled will be around 17.
So the longer someone plays a deadly game like Russian roulette, the less and less the odds will be in his or her favor.
But don’t they play it with three bullets in the gun?
As the characters of Mike (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Walken) reach a breaking point in the Vietcong prison, they devise an escape plan. Mike challenges the guards to put three bullets in the cylinder, and when it is his turn, he uses those bullets to kill the guards.
Just as putting one bullet in the cylinder gives the player a one-in-six chance of survival, putting more bullets in greatly increases those odds of dying. With three bullets in a six-chambered cylinder, the odds of survival are dead even, 50–50. Their chances of rolling a die has been reduced to that of flipping a coin.
What’s amazing about this scene is that Mike is the one who must play first, and instead of shooting bullets wildly at the guards, he actually plays a round. Luck was on his side because he survives, but when the gun is given to Nick, the overall odds were quite grim, and he too plays a round to survive. Even though the cylinder was spun before the guard hands it over to Nick (which happens off-screen, but can clearly be heard on the soundtrack), the overall odds of playing two rounds suggests that the first chamber would have a bullet in it at least one of those two times. That pays off for Mike’s plan when he ends up getting the gun back and uses it against the guards, but it was still a dangerous gamble.
So, roulette anyone?
While a roulette wheel doesn’t have the worst odds on the casino floor, it is still one of the worst bets you can place. However, at least it won’t kill you to have the ball land on a zero. Russian roulette has even worse odds, with a 17% probability of losing versus the 5.26% advantage of a roulette wheel in a casino. So unless you’re taking Wesley Snipes’ advice in Passenger 57, it’s best to avoid any sort of roulette, especially the Russian kind.