They’re a key part of almost every film you watch – we look into the history of the MacGuffin and the various forms they can take.
Light spoilers for Apocalypse Now, assorted Indiana Jones films, North By Northwest, Saving Private Ryan, The Hangover, The Terminator, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, The 39 Steps
No history of film would be complete without a treatise on the MacGuffin and its importance to narrative cinema.
First coined as a term in the 1930s by Angus McPhail, it became part of common parlance following its popularisation by Alfred Hitchcock when discussing it as a plot device and using it in his film The 39 Steps. Characterising it as “an object around which the plot revolves but about which the audience does not care”, Hitchcock used it to engineer agency between his protagonists, and keep the story moving.
George Lucas, on the other hand, has repeatedly used MacGuffins as narrative devices in both Star Wars and Indiana Jones and looks at them differently. In his opinion “the audience should care about (the MacGuffin) almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen”.
Regardless of who’s right, MacGuffins have been used to great effect in all types of movies since their introduction and have come in all shapes and sizes – from people, to plans, to everyday objects and those of a more ethereal nature.
The classic MacGuffin in human form is undoubtedly the character of George Kaplan in Hitchcock’s masterpiece thriller North by Northwest, as he doesn’t actually exist, but still manages to act as the driving force behind the spies chasing him.
In most other cases, human versions of a MacGuffin are actual characters, and turn up in the final act of the film to complete the narrative arc.
Tom Hanks and his platoon complete their mission to find Private Ryan for instance, whilst Martin Sheen makes it all the way up the jungle (and wonders why he bothered) in his search for Colonel Kurtz.
Doug is found alive and well and ready to take part in his nuptials for the finale of The Hangover, but in The Terminator, thankfully the future leader of the resistance John Connor escapes from the titular machine sent to kill him.
Using an everyday object as a MacGuffin helps to reduce the audience’s interest in why it is important, allowing a filmmaker to spend more time on the rest of the story.
A prime example of this is the briefcase in Pulp Fiction; due to the temporal shenanigans of the film it’s easy to forget that retrieving it drives Vincent and Jules’s story, and crucially that no-one knows what’s in it (batteries and a light according to John Travolta). In that respect, the briefcase is ultimately as useful as the CD that Chad and Linda are trying to sell in Burn After Reading, but I’m sure The Dude would come after you (if he could be bothered), if you said that his rug was worthless. It really tied the room together, you know.
Finally in this section, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention the humble sled. After reporter Jerry Thompson is tasked with finding the meaning behind Charles Foster Kane’s last word, the film uses the mystery to show us the life of Citizen Kane and ends without the characters finding the answer.
If you think that everyday objects make great MacGuffins, then wait till you hear about those of an otherworldly nature. These are the stuff of legends.
George Lucas sent the indomitable Indiana Jones on globe-trotting quests to find MacGuffins in the form of The Ark of the Covenant, Sankara Stones and the Crystal Skulls. Likewise the Holy Grail, but he wasn’t the only one to use that – it’s also been co-opted by Monty Python and in a slightly different form, chased down by Robert Langdon in the Dan Brown adaptations.
In more recent times, we also had the Infinity Stones to find – not one, not two MacGuffins, but a whole glove’s worth – and a ‘bobby bonus’ in the form of a Tesseract as well. Those adventures took us across galaxies and through time.
And the stones are not the only object d’art to span multiple films. The One Ring, carried by Frodo Baggins from the shires of Hobbiton to the peaks of Mount Doom, provided a reason for the journey to take place, and the focus of the villains of the piece to track them down over the course of three movies (although if we add the Extended Cuts together, we might be closer to five films).
Back to earth, or rather water, the Pirates of the Caribbean went on a quest to find Davy Jones’ Locker and a Dead Man’s Chest or something. To be honest, I switched off after the first one and the fact that it makes no difference to the outcome in either case, then these are perfect examples of MacGuffins. I genuinely can’t remember the films, and do not want to, so if you know, please comment below.
One item that does interest me though is The Maltese Falcon, the eponymous target of Sam Spade, which ultimately turns out to be a symbol of self-destructive greed. The quest for this statuette ruins those that desire it and leaves them with the opposite of what they want. Still, it’s a great film.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men tend to go awry”, said Robert Burns (okay, I admit I’m paraphrasing). But ne’er a truer word has been said when it comes to this type of MacGuffin. They are always going awry.
In Star Wars, the plans to the Death Star were stored in R2-D2, and it was their mission to deliver these to the Rebellion that drove the plot forward, regardless of what happened to Luke Skywalker. Yes, I know Luke is important at the end, but if it wasn’t for everyone’s favourite trash can, then there would be no battle at the end to win.
Perhaps there were plans in the briefcase in Ronin as well. It’s been suggested that there were, although like Pulp Fiction, we’ll never know. And, of course, it doesn’t matter. The point is that it got from A to B.
In The 39 Steps however, the plans weren’t written down and so it made it harder to find them. Instead, they were in the head of Mr Memory, who was able to remember and recite the design for a silent aircraft engine, albeit as he died, at which point it was hard to tell if he had finished or not.
War was also a theme during Casablanca, where the Letters of Transit were the focus of brave Resistance fighters Ilsa and Victor. These documents were the key to the story, rather than the romance between Rick and Ilsa, as they would allow them to both escape to the United States, and from hearing Sam play ‘As Time Goes By’ again.
Perhaps the most interesting MacGuffin in plan form though is the Declaration of Independence that Nicolas Cage is trying to steal in National Treasure. On one side is the plan to become an independent country and on the other is a map to treasure concealed by Freemasons during the War of Independence. If only a third side had held a plan to help Nic Cage pay his tax bill to the IRC.
Finally, we wouldn’t be able to complete this article without a look at the crazier types of MacGuffins. You know, the ones that are so out there, that you have no idea what they are or what they mean.
Let’s start with Mission Impossible, and the Rabbit’s Foot in the third instalment of the franchise. In older times, a rabbit’s foot might be carried on a person as an amulet to bring good luck. I think that moment has now passed in polite society, and just saying ‘rabbit, rabbit’ on the first day of the month instead is considered a better option.
But in MI:3, it’s a biological hazard of immense power, which seems a bit of a flip on the whole good luck thing. Still, at least it wasn’t a biological hazard made from an actual rabbit’s foot.
Talking of biological hazards, it’s probably fair to say the Genesis device in Star Trek II also falls into this category. Designed to terraform planets to make them habitable and useful, it had the unfortunate, and significant, downside of also being a doomsday device if it already found life. But it does provide the drive for the narrative of one of the better Trek big-screen adventures and as a MacGuffin it is perfectly serviceable.
Which leads us finally to Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the ‘Matrix of Leadership’, a magical energy source that provides the ability to re-awaken Transformers back to life. In other words, it’s a battery. But with additional special powers or something.
Which of course meets the perfect definition of a MacGuffin, being an object that is of no intrinsic importance. Much like the entire Transformers series, eh?
And that, for me, is a perfect place to end.
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