Hero & Villain Archetypes in Film: The Traitor

Hero & Villain Archetypes in Film: The Traitor

A Chapter by Keaton S. Ziem

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




“The day you wouldn’t take a promotion, let me know.” Colin Sullivan, The Departed


“Remember what you told me? You took me in your arms, do you remember? And you begged me, ‘Betray me, betray me, I have to be crucified...’” Judas Iscariot, The Last Temptation of Christ


The Traitor is an individual that knowingly and purposefully deifies another character, usually the hero. The Traitor traditionally does this by revealing information to the enemy that had been told to The Traitor in confidence or in giving the enemy something that will help them gain victory over the hero, though sometimes there is no outside enemy other than The Traitor themselves. Trust is a key element that’s involved in The Traitor’s story; the reason behind how and why The Traitor broke that trust. 


Traitors in Film:


Most times, The Traitor’s role is made significant between second and third acts; a plot device used to weaken the main character or to heighten the stakes, though sometimes The Traitor’s betrayal propels the main story as in Fargo where Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) betrays his wife, giving her up to kidnappers to procure ransom money from her rich father. An important element for The Traitor  is what they will receive as payment for betraying the hero; usually money, a pardon or an elevated social status is used to coerce The Traitor. Sometimes we are allowed to sympathize with The Traitor as in the case of Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) in The Godfather Part II, though mostly The Traitor is considered a cowardly individual who takes the easy way out; similar in some ways to The Deserter.


Examples of Traitors in Film:


Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) The Matrix (1999): Cypher is ‘The Operator’ who gets the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar in and out of The Matrix. Because of this, Cypher is the one who is approached by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and asked to give up his leader, Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne). In return, Cypher will receive an elevated status within The Matrix, someone rich and famous.


Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) The Departed (2006): Even though Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) are both rats on two different sides of the law, Colin in particular is the one who makes the biggest betrayals in the film. He betrays the trust of his girlfriend Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) and kills the mob boss who raised him (Jack Nicholson). The irony is that the only person in the film Colin held any allegiance to was his own doppleganger, Billy Costigan. After Billy is killed, Colin honors him by clearing Costigan’s name and nominates him for the Medal of Merit; the only person in the film Colin held any allegiance to was his own double.


Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): An interesting twist on The Traitor archetype; everyone familiar with the story of Jesus knows that he was betrayed by his own disciple, Judas Iscariot, for 30 pieces of silver. However, in The Last Temptation of Christ, Judas is asked to be The Traitor by Jesus himself because Judas is Jesus’ most trusted disciple. Judas, therefore, becomes The Traitor for the exact opposite reasons The Traitor is traditionally used in story structure. In this particular case, it’s used as a conceit to surprise the audience; playing against the preconceived notion that Judas betrayed Jesus for superficial, selfish reasons. It is made further ironic when later in the film, Jesus denies the cross and lives a married life; this resolution to denounce himself as the Messiah is in fact a betrayal of Judas’ work to “betray” Jesus; making the film an examination of what betrayal and salvation truly mean, rather than using betrayal only for the sake of furthering the plot.

© 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 traitor, character, archetypes, heroes, villains, cinema, movies, analysis, examples, traitors 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..