Hero & Villain Archetypes in Film: The Deserter

Hero & Villain Archetypes in Film: The Deserter

A Chapter by Keaton S. Ziem

Analysis of specific character archetypes in film, citing examples. In this case; we examine The Deserter.




“Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f****n’ program.” Capt. Willard, Apocalypse Now


“I don’t think about that much with one shot anymore, Mike.” Nick, The Deer Hunter


The Deserter is a man or woman who either abandons others, their own past and/or their responsibilities. The Deserter is often associated with cowardice or self-preservation, though sometimes desertion comes from the individual’s application of flawed or faulty logic. By deserting their past or their responsibilities, The Deserter also leaves behind their dedicated friends and loved ones. Desertion is usually an emotional ‘one-way-ticket’ for the individual; the decision to abandon their situation makes it difficult for them to return afterwards, even if they want to; though sometimes the desertion stems from wanting to depart permanently from all former attachments.


Deserters in Film:


Deserters in film are usually characters who didn’t have the capabilities to cope or deal with the situation that they are confronted with, and retreat the only way they know how, though sometimes The Deserter departs from their previous life if they come to the conclusion that it was a lie or somehow contrary to their true natures. Though The Deserter can easily be labeled as weak or cowardly, in some cases it could be considered an act of confidence and bravery to abandon everyone and everything you had previously been. Occasionally, in addition to deserting, the character is also actively betraying another character or group, though not always; sometimes desertion is just a refusal to cooperate or stick to the previously issued plan of action.


Examples of Deserters in Film:


Nick (Christopher Walken) The Deer Hunter (1978): Nick and Michael (Robert De Niro) were best friends while growing up in their factory town of Pennsylvania before enlisting into the army and fight in Vietnam, which changes their relationship considerably as war often can for anyone. The two become prisoners of the Vietcong and are forced to play Russian roulette for their captors to gamble on. These horrors forever traumatize Nick and Michael, though Nick considerably more so. Once they escape the prison camp, Nick and Michael are separated. Nick abandons his life, instead deciding to live a short life as a professional Russian roulette champion, thus committing to deserting his past.


Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) Apocalypse Now (1979): After quickly rising in the ranks and the esteem of the United States Military, Kurtz begins his work in Vietnam and quickly sees the arrogance, hypocrisy and corruption with which the war was being fought. Determined to demonstrate how the war could be quickly and swiftly won, Kurtz abandons the U.S. Military to fight the war his own way. In yet another appalling call for hypocrisy, the Military orders Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) to “assassinate the assassin”. 


Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948): Dobbs, together with partners Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard (Walter Huston) venture off into the Seirra Madre desert to find gold. Though finding it proves to be only one third of the battle; journeying back out of the desert and battling suspicions about each other plague the men’s minds until Dobbs convinces himself to abandon their plan by murdering them and taking the gold for himself, thus making him a deserter in the cause that had previously supported the three men’s allegiance to one another.

© 2011 Keaton S. Ziem

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Added on October 2, 2011
Last Updated on October 2, 2011
Tags: film, filmmaking, scripts, screenwriting, screenplays, the deserter, character, archetypes, heroes, villains, cinema, movies, analysis, examples, deserters in film


Keaton S. Ziem
Keaton S. Ziem

Los Angeles, CA

I was raised in a cabin in one of the largest Ponderosa Pine forests in the continental United States. I had nothing to do with the amount of trees that grew there. I am an only child with two brot.. more..