Literary Character Interpretation of The Deer Hunter


This essay will examine the characters of the movie The Deer Hunter (1978, EMI Films, story by Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn, directed by Michael Cimino) through techniques usually associated with analysing classical literary novels. The characters studied will include major and minor characters (complex, simple and flat) plus an assortment of background characters.


I recently purchased Mary Elwood’s book, Characters Make Your Novel (first published in 1942). I have purchased many self-help writing books, but this one enlightened me about the complex character formula and helped me better understand characters in novels, specifically classical literature. Nonetheless, instead of using her literary techniques to analyse books of fiction, I thought I would first use them to analyse characters in the movie The Deer Hunter. It is indeed a multi-layered formula, and each element has to fit perfectly for the characters to resonate. I will do my best to explain each component and how they fit.


Major characters are usually complex, which means they have more than one dominant character trait, plus other secondary traits that support the dominant traits, but they can also be simple. Minor characters (such as Axel and the Frenchman) can be simple or flat. With simple characters, they have only one dominant trait and other secondary traits; whereas flat characters have just the one dominant trait. Flat characters are really just extended background characters.

Background characters have no traits at all. They really only serve to progress the story, like a taxi driver taking the protagonist from A to B. However, they can help to highlight the traits of other characters by interacting with them (such as Stan’s girl[JL1] , who, by flirting with another man, unleashes Stan’s anger). Further, background characters can be wonderfully brought to life[JL2] —by [JL3] individuality—[JL4] as this essay will show.


Character traits are things such as Michael’s leadership and heroism, and Stan’s inferiority complex and womanizing. The dominant traits are the backbone of the story; or, as Mary Elwood would have said, they are the story itself. The plot is merely a vehicle for such character traits to emerge. Secondary traits can help to either reinforce the dominant traits or give the characters more depth.

Individuality is something most, if not all, characters must have, even background characters. Every character, no matter how important or small, must seem ‘real’, and it is often their uniqueness that sets each character apart. This can range from a deeply held secret, like Angela’s infidelity, to something simpler, like a piece of clothing or a possession, such as the Saigon referee’s glasses with its one shaded lens.

Another element each character must have is a purpose or direction, which might be a conflict to overcome. Purpose is a single goal (usually in films with only one or two major characters, such as in Taxi Driver), and direction is multiple goals, or goals that change, usually in epics with numerous major characters (such as The Deer Hunter). Unlike individuality, this purpose/direction does not have to be explicit for every character, but the storyteller should be aware of it because it makes a character’s actions seem plausible. For example, Michael, Steve and Nick’s purposes are, at first, to serve their country proudly and, later, to survive torture; while, on a smaller scale, the purpose of Nick’s prostitute is to feed her baby in the crib.

This leads to motivation, essential in every major character. If you can think of a character as a car, purpose or direction is where the car is going and motivation is the fuel that drives the car. The more fuel the better, right? There are five types of motivation:
• Life, such as happiness, health, and survival
• Love or sex
• Social, such as friendship, conforming and work
• Power, such as money and success
• Worship (or ideology) which is a strong belief in an idea, for instance, patriotism, religion, or political ideals.

Next is viewer emotion. Each character elicits some kind of emotion from the viewer, and the filmmaker ought to be aware of this so it can be highlighted to strengthen the viewer’s participation.

In addition, change is what every major character in a literature novel has to go through until they find a resolution by the end of the book, and The Deer Hunter is no different.

Finally, contrast is a more general concept that runs through the movie and it cannot be underrated. It helps to highlight character traits. There can be a contrast between the different character traits of people, or a contrast within a single person. For example, Michael’s ‘one shot’ philosophy when hunting deer illustrates his trait of wisdom, but this is in contrast to the gung-ho ‘shoot at everything in sight’ antics of Axel and John, which unfortunately highlights their stupidity. But there can be contrast within a single person as well, such as the Frenchman who displays traits of greed and selfishness when we first see him, but later gives money to Michael to help rescue Nick.


What are the techniques that the filmmaker can use to highlight the features mentioned? Many of these techniques, such as action and dialogue, are the same as those used to dissect literary works. Static techniques include physical appearance, clothing, posture, and possessions; dynamic or active techniques include factual expressions, hand gestures, and walk (or gait). Dialogue is not only about words that are spoken (word choice), but also speed (tempo), volume, and tone. For example, Angela has a slow tempo, which might highlight her frailty, whereas Stan sometimes talks fast with a high pitch, which could highlight his excitability or quick temper. It is important to note that all parts of film-making, including location, imagery, close ups, wide shots, editing and so on, reflect in some part the characters of the film. For example, the location of the hometown includes a blue mosque constantly shown in the background (in one scene by use of a camera tilt), and this tells us about the ethical and cultural background of the characters, as does, of course, the Eastern Slavic wedding scene.

So, with all this in mind, let us begin:


Dominant character traits: leadership, helper, mental toughness, heroic

Secondary traits: assertive, courageous, wise, courteous

Individuality: quirkiness (‘this is this’ and other dialogue like that)

Decision/purpose: find love, escape from the POW camp, and bring Nick home

Motivation: ideology: serve his country; life: survival: come back from Vietnam; social: become a group leader; love: for Linda

Viewer emotion: respect, admiration

Change: he values his role in the community, but struggles to conform by the end of the film and is unable to relate to people, even Linda, whom he had tried to court previously

Michael’s role as the helper is clear when he helps calm Steve down in the prison camp, and later pulls him out of the river and carries him back to safety. He is heroic in the way he saves his friends from the VC prison camp and goes back to Saigon to try to rescue Nick. Imagery highlights Michael as the hero. The Vietnamese village on fire can be nothing short of an image of hell, and in it, Michael displays his toughness and heroic qualities needed to survive.
The way he holds his rifle and stalks deer shows his assertiveness, as does the way he holds the bullet firmly in his hand and says, ‘This is this.’
His (god-like) wisdom comes through when he talks about the omen of the Sun Dogs in the sky, and ‘one shot’. His intelligence and leadership come to the fore when he outwits the VC in a game of Russian roulette.
His courteous trait is evident in dialogue from other people. For example, Nick says, ‘Are you trying to be a prince?’ and Michael says, ‘What do you mean ‘trying’?’ Also, when Linda says, ‘You’re such a gentleman.’

His quirkiness is apparent in others’ dialogue, like Stan’s: ‘I don’t know how many times I must have fixed him up with girls and nothing ever happens’; Linda: ‘You’re so weird.’ In addition, there is contrast, which highlights his quirkiness: in one scene, he sleeps with his clothes on, while Linda is obviously nude (under the bed sheets).
There is further contrast in his relationship with Linda that highlights the drastic change in Michael when he returns from Vietnam. In the first half of the film, it was Michael who tried to seduce Linda; but in the second half it is Linda who tries to seduce him, but is unable to because he is ‘distant’.


Dominant traits: intelligent, romantic

Secondary traits: vulnerable, unstable, detached

Individuality: gangly walk (it is Christopher Walken, right?)

Decision / purpose: survive the war and return home to marry Linda

Motivation: life: survival; love: for Linda

Viewer emotion: likeable, sympathetic

Change: from a young man with his life ahead of him to a man totally wrecked by war

The dialogue shows how Nick’s intelligence contrasts with the other characters’ stupidity. Michael says to Nick, ‘You’re the only guy I can go hunting with [unlike the others] they’re all a bunch of assholes.’ Nick is a romantic person, as we see in his dialogue about trees: ‘I like the trees, you know, I like the way the trees are on the mountain.’
Nick’s vulnerability comes through in his dialogue with Mike prior to leaving for Vietnam: ‘If anything happens, Mike, don’t leave me over there [in Vietnam]’. In addition, we see Nick’s vulnerability during the torture scene when Mike has to direct him into pulling the trigger, and in the hospital afterwards when Nick breaks down into tears during rehabilitation. Further, the Frenchman seizes on Nick’s vulnerability by inducing him into playing Russian roulette.
Nick has become detached from the world. This is first highlighted when he rings up Linda, but does not talk to her. Then he resorts to barhopping and prostitutes.
Then we see Nick’s instability. This is clear when Nick first enters the arena: he grabs the gun, goes crazy with it, pushes a man against the wall, and then throws all his money away. The depths of Nick’s downfall are in the film’s climax: through physical appearance (he is sickly and pale), needle marks on his wrists (drug addiction), action (he spits in Michael’s face), and so on.


Dominant traits: fearful, submissive

Secondary traits: kind, gentle, unlucky, weak

Individuality: secret: Angela’s infidelity

Decision/purpose: survive the torture; come back home from the war

Motivation: life: survival; ideology: serve one’s country proudly; love: for Angela

Viewer emotion: a great deal of sympathy

Change: from the centre of activity in his community when he’s getting married to ‘I don’t fit in anymore’ at the end, as a disabled vet

Steve is submissive, or dominated by others, as when his mother drags him away from the bar. Earlier, Stan takes Steve’s beer away from him in the same bar scene because Steve cannot handle his beer prior to his wedding. This is also a sign of weakness.
Steve is the ultimate Falling Tower of tarot cards. He is on a downward spiral. Bad luck follows him everywhere. First, he spills wine during the wedding ceremony (a sign of bad luck). By the end, he is a casualty of war. He hits the rocks when he falls from the helicopter and has to have his legs amputated. Steve is also portrayed as fearful. He is fearful of marriage as in ‘What am I gonna do?’ (about Angela’s pregnancy); and he is fearful of coming home after being disabled (‘I don’t fit’). Of course, the depths of Steve’s fear is evident during the torture scene: he cries on Mike’s shoulder, appears to need Mike’s help to relieve himself, and makes a poor attempt at shooting himself in the head so he ends up in the pit where he is fed to the rats (more bad luck). Action and other characters also show him as frail and weak; for example, Michael carries him out of the jungle.


Dominant traits: caring, motherly, sad, lonely

Secondary traits: simple natured, obedient, honest

Individuality: secret: abusive father (this is evident from one of the earliest scenes in the movie, and the subsequent bruise she carries on her face afterwards)

Decision/purpose: to marry Nick

Motivation: Life: survival (find happiness); love: for Nick, then Michael

Viewer emotion: sympathetic

Change: she changes from a happy woman who expects to be married soon to one who is resigned to the fate of a lonely, sad existence.

First, we can see Linda is caring when the first thing she says to Michael when he comes back from the war is, ‘Let me take your coat.’ She shows her motherly side by saying, ‘I made Nick that sweater’ and ‘I’ll made you a nice sit-down dinner.’ We see she is sad with her life when Michael finds her crying in the supermarket storeroom. She is lonely and in need of affection when she asks Michael to go to bed, but he refuses and she says: ‘Can’t we just comfort each other?’ Contrast is apparent in the relationship between Linda and Michael. At first, he is the one trying to court her, but in the second half of the film, these roles are reversed. The hotel scene is another example of contrast. Linda lies naked and vulnerable in bed, needing company, while Michael is wearing his clothes and really wants to be alone.


Dominant traits: cowardice, childlike, incompetent, inferiority complex, weak, a womanizer

Secondary traits: quick temper, consideration of his friends, vanity

Individuality: possession: his ‘stupid little gun’; his attempt to grow a moustache

Decision/purpose: to shoot a deer; to set his friends up with women, or at least buy them a beer

Motivation: social: to win approval of his friends; power: to be tough like a ‘real’ steel-worker or a ‘real man’; sexual: to overcome his inferred homosexuality

Viewer emotion: dislike

Change: his nature might have gone through a complete turnaround by the film’s end because after his crisis—where Michael teaches him a lesson during the final deer hunt by giving him a taste of Russian roulette—he seems very subdued. Alternatively, he could be in the transcendent stage by the movie’s end and has not quite reached his personal resolution.

In my view, the most complex character in The Deer Hunter is Stan. His speech, especially the tempo and repetition, highlights his excitability. Also, his coarse speech highlights his womanizing; for example, when he says, ‘I get more ass than a toilet seat’; and he says to Steve, ‘If you need any help [with your new wife] call on me.’ Action, such as flirting with the bridesmaid and setting Michael up for a date with the redhead, also highlight his womanizing. Action, such as forgetting his boots on the deer hunt, shows his incompetence. He examines himself in a car window reflection and says, ‘beautiful’, but the window is cracked. This highlights dysfunction and vanity. His stupid little gun reinforces his cowardice; it is like a toy gun, which is a sign of his childlike behaviour. His secret could be homosexuality (this is inferred, and not mentioned in the film), which leads to other traits such as a quick temper and the need to talk dirty and please his buddies.


Dominant traits: jovial

Secondary traits: joker, friendly, fun-loving, laid back, strong, tough, stupid

Individuality: word choice: ‘Fucking A!’

Viewer emotion: extremely likeable; the kind of friend a lot of us wish we had

His stupidity is evident when he cannot open the boot of the car and John says, ‘Now I know why you’re still not kicking for the Steelers.’ This speech, alluding to his former NFL career, also suggests his toughness. His stupidity is also seen is his clumsy attempts at deer hunting, and when he is stuck in the bowling-pin machine. In addition, his toughness is evident when he stands up to Stan when Stan points a gun in his face.


Dominant trait: jovial

Secondary traits: hard working, loveable, stupid

Individuality: his choir singing and piano playing; his unique laugh

Viewer emotion: very likeable, everyone’s favourite barman

He has a strong work ethic because he is a barman, and makes eggs and coffee and sets the table for everyone at the movie’s resolution, and he likes hanging out in the kitchen (location). Incidentally, it is his singing in the kitchen (individuality) that kicks off the American national anthem. His joviality, laughing in almost every scene, is sharpened by the contrast of him crying at the end. His stupidity is evident when the car is repeatedly driven away when he is about to get in.


Dominant character trait: frailty

Secondary traits: fearful, unlucky

Individuality: her infidelity; her slow, soft speech (in fact, she has one scene where she is totally mute)

Viewer emotion: some sympathy (somewhat lowered because of her infidelity)

Her frailty and infidelity are both evident near the beginning of the film when physical appearance, speech and facial expression combine in the scene where she checks out her swollen belly in the mirror and says, ‘Oh my God.’ Her bad luck is seen in actions, such as when she gets her veil caught in the doorframe when running out of her house, and when the wine is spilt on her wedding dress (a traditional East European sign of bad luck). During the film’s climax, her nervous hand gestures, playing with a cup in her hand, also show her frailty.


Dominant traits: evil, selfish, slimy, greedy

Secondary traits: persuasive; business-like

Individuality: his love of champagne

Viewer emotion: loathing

Possession and speech combine to show his love of champagne when he pours a glass and says to Nick, ‘When you say no to champagne, you say no to life.’ His greed is highlighted by contrast; that is, he tells Nick he can make him a rich man, but Nick throws all his money away. In the same way, near the end of the film, the Frenchman ‘buys’ Michael into the Russian roulette game and acting completely out of character. Action highlights his persuasiveness: he keeps his hand on Nick’s shoulder as he leads him into the arena; he wears a white business suit; drives a ‘Flash Harry’ car; and his speech about paying Nick different currencies highlights his business-like persona.


Dominant trait: domineering (evident in the scene where she drags Steve out of the bar)

Individuality: possession: the umbrella she carries around like a police officer’s baton


Here is a list of some background characters from the movie, along with their individuality that makes them appear as ‘real’ people.

The wedding man: possessions: his love of cigars (you might see him slip one in Michael’s pocket); his womanizing (he gropes the backside of Stan’s girl)
VC referee: gesture, speech (volume): his constant shouting and slapping in the face
Saigon referee: possession: his glasses with only one shaded lens
The Vietnam vet at the bar: his aloofness (evident by his posture, stern facial expression and word choice: ‘Fuck it!’)
The red head: facial expression and possession: the way she stares at (or examines?) her glass
Nick’s prostitute: possession: her baby in the crib
Linda’s abusive father: his ill health (evident from his coughing, medicine bottles on top of his chest-o-drawers, and potbelly); metaphorical speech (‘an ocean of flat tires’)
Stan’s girl: promiscuity (this is seen by action: tussling with Axel in the boot of the car, laughing at the girl whose dress slips off while she is running along the road, and the hand groping her during the wedding scene)


This essay has examined the characters in the movie The Deer Hunter using techniques associated with studying works of literature. I think I have proven beyond question this movie shares many qualities of classical literature, such as character traits, imagery, contrast and so on. In my view, it holds its own as a great work of art. That is why The Deer Hunter, like Mary Elwood’s book, continues to burn brightly and becomes a more rewarding and deeper experience each time you view it.

About The Author

Patrick Martin Andrews was born in Milton, New Zealand, and educated at the University of Otago, Dunedin, and Murdoch University, Perth. He has worked as a deep-sea diver, journalist and English teacher.

Books available by the writer


Killer Sea

Kaliyuga: Age of Darkness

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