It’s been 40 years since the iconic film The Deer Hunter was released, a movie that reeled in five Oscars and completely changed the way Americans viewed veterans returning from the war. But one actor from the cast, John Savage, 69, is revealing just how dangerous filming the movie truly was — so much so that he and his co-stars Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro almost lost their lives.

John, who played Steven in the film, recalls how the lives of the cast were put on the line simply to get the movie’s anti-war message to the big screen and to audiences. “There is no way any studio today would allow their stars or crew to face the risks we did making The Deer Hunter,” John tells the UK’s Mirror. “The film is about life on the edge. The shoot was very much like that. None of us realized how much danger we were in — it felt like we were going to war just to make this movie.”

John Savage and Robert DeNiro
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John Savage alongside Robert DeNiro.

“Bobby was our leader, he and the director [Michael Cimino] made sure this film would become special,” John continues. But John knows the cast was lucky to finish the movie unscathed. “Bob, Chris, and I are lucky to be alive. We almost got killed,” John says, adding, “Back then that country [Thailand] was far from stable, and armed refugees and military groups were running wild. Many of them saw us as a way of making a quick buck.” While Michael hired armed guards for the cast, it was actually a scene where John, Robert, and Christopher find themselves dangling from a bridge that was the real danger when their metal safety cables were accidentally sliced by a helicopter.

John says: “We knew we were in trouble when the cables got cut. Amazingly, Chris, who is an athlete and a dancer, pulled himself up and into the helicopter, which flew up leaving Bobby and I hanging from the sliced cable in an absolute panic knowing this could be the end of our lives.”

Robert DeNiro
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“Bob was right next to me and it’s like, ‘S–t’, and he’s screaming in my face and I’m looking down, ‘What do we do? Should we drop — there’s rocks and s–t down there,'” John recalls. “I was calling Bobby by his character name, yelling ‘Michael, Michael, I’m not sure we should drop in the water there.’ Bobby yells at me: ‘Jesus Christ, John. Don’t call me by my character name. We’re f–king going to die here.’”

“I started laughing and just said, ‘I’m going,’ and we looked at one another and both dropped. God knows how, but we missed the rocks and the water took us to the side of the production boat below. We both stared at one another on deck. Then we looked up to see that the helicopter was wavering as it was stuck to the cable on the bridge, but luckily somebody crawled out and pushed it off,” he says.

“Had that not happened, the ’copter could have crashed down on us too,” John explains. Eventually, the rest of the logs began barreling towards the men, burying them. “The panicked camera team rammed the boat into the logs to stop us getting crushed or drowned,” John says. “The impact dislodged the camera and it fell in — the footage lost forever. Bobby somehow got out of the water, on to the log and used the boat to push our log away from the danger area.”

Too bad the footage is lost forever. Would have made one heck of a DVD bonus scene. People still watch DVDs, right?