Well, it’s all to do with films, and here are two films that have MacGuffins in them.
In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent during the Vietnam War on a secret mission up the Nang river through war-torn jungle to assassinate the renegade and insane Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set up camp in a remote abandoned Cambodian temple. And yet in the film, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kurtz does not appear until two and a half hours have passed, and then is on-screen for only 18 minutes, mainly delivering a rambling monologue.
The opening scenes of the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron, concerns a treasure hunter Brock Lovett searching the wreck of RMS Titanic for a necklace with a rare blue diamond, the Heart of the Ocean. Lovett’s team recover a safe from the wreck which contains a drawing of a young woman wearing only the necklace. The women in the drawing, Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Kate Winslet when young and Gloria Stuart when old), had survived the sinking and is located and brought aboard the survey ship. She then tells her story of the voyage. The diamond seems at first to play a crucial part in the plot, but the film is actually about a romance between two people, Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) from different social classes set against the sinking of an ‘unsinkable’ ship.
What both these films have in common is that a character, Kurtz, and an object, the diamond, seem to be of critical importance to the film’s plot, but the main action of the film doesn’t depend on them. Coppola envisioned Apocalypse Now as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. Kurtz could just as well have been an enemy commander. In Titanic, the diamond could have been a diary or a photograph. Kurtz and the diamond are just catalysts, plot devices to drive the action forward, to get the characters moving, and they are called MacGuffins.
It’s mostly irrelevant what the MacGuffin actually is. It may be an object, a place, or a person. Or it may take more abstract forms such as money, survival, power, love, or some unexplained force. The MacGuffin device is especially common in thrillers. It is usually the focus of the film at the beginning, and thereafter declines in importance.
The term MacGuffin was originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and his first recorded usage was in a lecture that he gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939.
We have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.
For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is the engine that sets the story in motion; it serves as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.
In The 39 Steps (1935), the MacGuffin is the coveted design for a silent aircraft engine stored in the mind of a vaudeville performer named ‘Mr Memory’ but for the cinema audience the real action is in the hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), being chased up and down the country by police and villains alike. In Psycho (1960), it is the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane from an estate agent, though the plot actually centres on the unnerving behaviour of Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. Crane becomes a MacGuffin herself as she is killed less than halfway through the film. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), it is a coded message contained in a tune performed by a folk singer overheard by a guest, Miss Froy, whilst staying at a remote eastern European inn. It is one of the most abstract of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. The audience however are more interested in the quest of a young English tourist, Iris Henderson, in trying to find Miss Froy, who has mysteriously disappeared on the train that is taking them both back to England.
Hitchcock may have got the idea of the MacGuffin from a brief story told by his friend screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who delighted in wordplay and puzzles, and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder who was a popular comedian at the time.
Two men were travelling on a train from London to Scotland. An odd shaped package sat on the luggage rack above their seat.
‘What have you there?’ asked one of the men.
‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ replied his companion.
‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’
‘But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!’
‘Well, then, I guess that’s no MacGuffin!’
Earlier versions place the action in the Adirondack Mountains in the USA, rather than Scotland, which is obviously a better location given the choice of name.
In an interview with director François Truffaut in 1967, Hitchcock explained the idea in more detail.
The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.
Hitchcock wasn’t the first however to identify the purpose of the MacGuffin. Silent-film actress Pearl White starred in cliff-hanger serials, most famously The Perils of Pauline, in which the heroes and villains spent most of their screen time chasing each other for possession of a rare coin, a roll of film, a diamond necklace and so on. The device occurred so often in Pearl White’s films that she routinely referred to the coveted object as a ‘weenie’, using the term as precisely as Hitchcock would later use MacGuffin.
Where MacGuffin originally comes from is unknown. Is it linked to ‘gubbins’, a British colloquial term for miscellaneous items or paraphernalia, or more likely to ‘guff’ another everday British word for nonsense, or foolish talk or ideas? It made an isolated appearance in the US journal The Writer in 1926, in which Robert Schauffler says ‘I forget who was the creator of McGuffin, but a McGuffin is a gift that is not to be opened until Christmas,’ but that sounds like a red herring.
Whilst Hitchcock didn’t invent the MacGuffin, he made it his own, employing it time and again throughout his career. And other film directors have made good use of the device as well.
In The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston, private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) becomes embroiled in an increasingly intricate plot revolving around a priceless jewel-encrusted black statuette. Everyone is after the statuette but it turns out to be a fake. Though the statuette has played its part as the MacGuffin, the film ends not with the villains who continue their quest for the genuine falcon in Istanbul, but with Spade confronting Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) the killer of Miles Archer, his business partner, and then turning her over to the police despite his feelings for her.
Citizen Kane (1941) directed by Orson Wells starts with the dying words of wealthy newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. The word is simply ‘rosebud’ and a newsreel reporter is sent on a mission to find out who or what Rosebud. This however quickly fades to the background as the men and women who knew Kane share their personal stories of how he loved, worked with, and ultimately hurt and betrayed the people closest to him. In the end, the secret of rosebud remains unknown to the reporter, although in the very last scene the audience sees that it was the name of his childhood sled. Rosebud is a classic MacGuffin. Intriguing, mysterious, and ultimately meaningless.
The MacGuffin at the heart of The Third Man (1949) directed by Carol Reed is the search by Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) for a third man who may have helped the friends of Harry Lime (Orson Wells) to carry Lime’s body off the street after he was struck by a truck. The possibility that there was a third man however only briefly features in the plot.
The Indiana Jones films directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, all involve an obsession or a quest for a MacGuffin, whether it’s the Ark of the Covenant in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Sankara stones in The Temple of Doom (1984), or the eerie glowing glass skull in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). In the case of the ark, the goal is to see who finds it first, but then right at the end when it is opened it ceases to be just a MacGuffin, it takes on a life of its own, destroying all the evil people bent on revealing its secrets.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) have been sent to retrieve a mysterious suitcase that has been stolen from their employer, mob boss Marsellus Wallace. Much later in the film when Vincent opens the suitcase to check inside, an orange glow emanates from it, suggesting something either very valuable or very dangerous, but the audience doesn’t find out what is inside.
The idea that the briefcase contains Marsellus’ soul gained popular currency in the years after the film’s release, but according to Tarantino the suitcase was simply a plot device, a MacGuffin. There is a strong similarity here with the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly which features a glowing briefcase housing an atomic explosive.
In Lord of the Rings trilogy of films directed by Peter Jackson, sub-titled The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003), the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and others embark on a quest to destroy the One Ring. The ring was created by Sauron the Dark Lord as part of his design to win domination over Middle-earth, and though it is an apparently insignificant object, it is the thing that everyone wants, and that makes it a MacGuffin.
Incidentally there is a McGuffin Film Society, but its connection with MacGuffins is a bit distant. The society was formed in 2002 to save the EMD cinema in Hoe Street in Walthamstow, London. The cinema was originally the Victoria Hall and it was host to one of the first showings of silent films in London in 1896. It is believed to have been a haunt of the young Alfred Hitchcock who lived in nearby Leytonstone, hence the name of the society. The full history of the fight to save the cinema can be read here.