5. The Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
In a way, Indiana Jones was a callback to the old days of macguffins. Spielberg (I just realized I entered back to back Spielberg films) and George Lucas have said that the film was inspired by the old adventure serials from the 30s, and those films always had explicit plot devices that could be identifies as valuable or dangerous by the viewer, and a motivation for the heroes and villains. Lucas sought to imitate this. Phillip Kauffman was the one who came up with the Ark.
The Ark of the Covenant is a great example of a macguffin that is both sought by the heroes and villains (Even though the hero is trying to stop the villains from getting it), and a classic adventure film plot device.
Professor of Archeology Henry Walton goes on adventures as Indiana Jones, the fearless hero. After a brief stint in Peru, Indiana learns that the Nazis are looking for his old mentor so he can lead them to the Ark of the Covenant, and the whole film is set in motion.
The idea of the Ark, a mythical and powerful item, was perhaps one of the reasons Indiana Jones had great success, and brought back the great adventure film.
4. The Letters of Transit (Casablanca)
The letters of transit in Casablanca are perhaps notable because in spite of being the main plot device in the film, they often are put on second plane after the epic romance.
Casablanca is the only way to escape Europe from the mainland, and renowned resistance leader Victor Laszlo has arrived to the town, which is unoccupied French territory, looking to get letters of transit to escape. At the same time, a group of high ranking nazi officials have arrived at Casablanca after two German men that possessed letters of transit have been killed. The letters are nowhere to be found, and anyone possessing them could go the America, no questions asked.
And so everything is set in Rick’s Café Americain, owned by Rick Blaine, and American who “sticks his neck out for nobody”. And then, after Rick receives the letters from a small time crook who asks him to hide them for a while, Laszlo en the Nazis arrive, but the one that catches everyone’s eye is Laszlo’s partner: Ilsa Lund, the love of Rick’s life, who left him in Paris after they had an affair.
Even though the film revolves around Rick and Ilsa, the letters of transit are always the underlying reason for the plot, and Rick must decide what to do.
3. R2-D2 (Star Wars)
“Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope” This words that are first uttered by the hologram of Princess Leia through R2-D2 became iconic. It could be argued that the real macguffin is the death star plans that Leia stored in the droid, but “these are not the droid you are looking for”.
Now, R2-D2 isn’t a person, but he is a character macguffin, and is perhaps more iconic than most of the other plot devices listed here. On surface he is simply a robot delivering a message, but one of Lucas’ greatest achievement is that he gives personalities to the droids, and we come to care for them.
R2-D2 at the beginning of the film represent the rebels’ only hope for survival against the empire, and he sets off the adventure of Luke Skywalker. That’s one of the characterisitcs of the great macguffins, apart from serving the story as plot devices and motivation, the great macguffins symbolize and are involved in more than one way in the film, either actively or inactively.
2. The Maltese Falcon (The Maltese Falcon)
The Maltese Falcon may very well be the archetypal movie macguffin. It comes from a thriller, a mystery film, just like Hitchcock’s macguffins. It is something of insurmountable value that is persued by practically everyone in the film, as they trick, double-cross and try to steal it from each other.
It has a simple description, that is explained in a title preceding the movie: “In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels, but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.”
The spectators know what the Falcon is and to an extent why it is so valuable, but most of the characters have no idea. All they know is that it might be worth a lot for the right client. And so the whole movie slowly sets up the players, in a mystery that begins far away from the falcon, with a missing sister and a murdered partner. And then all starts to orbit towards the “black figure of a bird” slowly but surely. Movie macguffins at their finest.
1. Rosebud (Citizen Kane)
Citizen Kane was plagued with controversy, most of it having to do with William Randolph Hearst, the main inspiration for the main character, Charles Foster Kane.
The film is told from several points of view, by characters who knew Kane that are being interviewed by a journalist who is trying to find out the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”.
The film could have worked with the journalist just trying to write an article on Kane’s life, but the plot device that sets everything in motion is instead his last word, whose meaning I won’t divulge here for the uninitiated.
Author Bio: Hector Gonzalez was born in Monterrey (with two ‘r’s), México, and one fateful afternoon he went to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King to the theaters when he was 8 years old. He fell in love with cinema, and even though he usually gets films a few weeks late to be completely bias free (especially Oscar front runners) and his local cinemas don’t show that much arthouse, he still thinks that going to the theater and seeing a good movie is the most magical experience there is.