They try to carry the burden of characterization alone.

When Cimino finally gets to Vietnam, he travels with a rhetorical vengeance, reducing the war to a single, pictorially terrifying metaphor -- the game of Russian roulette, which is made to appear the Vietnamese national pastime.

It's never clear when the boys go to war, although the plot synopsis says 1968. Suddenly reunited in combat, they are conveniently captured by a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese contingent. Caged in submerged cells that expose them to drowning and water rats, the American prisoners are brought topside and forced to play games of Russian roulette to amuse their brutal captors.

These atrocity scenes, relentlessly depicted, prolonged and repeated, are undoubtedly the sensation of the show. Excruciating and inflammatory, they seem guaranteed to swell the ranks of deserting moviegoers.

Michael's iron nerves and lightning survival reflexes preserve the three friends through this ordeal. Engineering an escape, Michael also makes it possible for Nick and Steven to be rescued and joins a column of fleeing refugees himself. Then the continuity really collapses.

After going to extraordinary efforts to save his friends, Michael appears to ignore ordinary methods of reuniting with them. For some reason he fails to make contact with Nick before his dearest friend flips out and joins a suicide cult, a kind of Vietnamese National League of Russian Roulette Players.

Absurdities proliferate with dizzying fecundity. Missing connections with Nick back in wicked old Saigon, Michael returns to welcoming old Clairton and discovers to his inexplicable surprise that Steven lost his legs.

More than a little confused, Michael endeavors to affect a reconciliation between maimed Steven and his now catatonic wife while stubbornly resisting Linda's supplicating overtures. In what might have been a beautiful benedictory sequence in a sensible story, Michael even finds that deer-hunting has lost its charm. Accompanied by an invisible heavenly choir that seems to attend him in the high country and framed with his prey in a majestic composition Michael lets the deer in his sights go free.

If only that were that, Cimino's composition might have concluded on a stirring, reconciliatory chord. But there's still Nick the Stray to be rounded up. Following a preposterous lead, Michael returns to Saigon on the eve of its fall to rescue Nick again.

The historical time sequence clears up at last: if Saigon is falling, it must be 1975. But then could this story really have begun in 1968? But why worry about minor detail? After recreating the mob scene at the American Embassy with harrowing effectiveness, Cimino blithely ignores the tragedy of all those people clamoring for sanctuary by reminding us that the only important dramatic issue is whether Michael can repatriate Nick, who no longer cares whether he lives or dies.

In a manner of speaking Michael does succeed in bringing Nick back home, and we're meant to be touched to the quick by this superhuman gesture of fraternal love. But it seems sickeningly sentimental. That transcendent friendship may exist in Cimino's head, but it doesn't exist on the screen.

It's obvious that Cimino identifies with strong, silent Michael and wants to preserve the mythic integrity of his traditional heroism despite the supicion that neither Clairton nor Vietnam provide a setting for such innate nobility of character. Like the characters awkardly affirming their patriotism and sense of community at the conclusion by singing "God Bless America," Cimino wants to derive emotional reassurance from a disillusioning, confusing war.

His impulse seems perfectly sincere, but at the moment Cimino needs the storytelling talents of a Tolstoy to rationalize his epic pretensions.