The McGuffin in “A Man at Arms”
We’ve talked in earlier posts about “the McGuffin,” i.e. the item or person that the villain wants. Let’s examine this today in terms of the genesis of A Man at Arms.
First, some examples to refresh your memory.
The McGuffin in Casablanca is the letters of transit.
The McGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark is the Ark of the Covenant.
In Pulp Fiction, it’s the mysterious briefcase.
Okay … back to A Man at Arms.
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the story breakthrough for me of conceiving of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth (first century C.E.) as a dire political and psychological threat to the Roman Empire. I thought, This letter, when widely disseminated, could incite insurrection and worse. The Romans could not let this happen. They would move heaven and earth to intercept the letter and destroy it.
In other words, Paul’s letter is the McGuffin in A Man at Arms.
You may scoff at such formula-ish thinking. But trust me, nothing helps a writer more than to identify a specific story element like this McG and understand its import for the narrative.
Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term McGuffin, famously declared that a McGuffin can be “anything at all.” It doesn’t have to have meaning for the story in any narrative sense. All it must be is SOMETHING that the villain is after.
But how much better is it when our McGuffin does mean something? How much more powerful when it’s on-theme, when it reinforces the story’s meaning, and, even better, when it comes to the fore in the climax?
Consider Casablanca and the letters of transit—possibly the greatest McGuffin ever.
First, the movie’s tension revolves around getting out of the city of Casablanca, escaping from the Nazis and reaching safety in Lisbon. Letters of transit? Check.
Second, the theme of the movie is selfish desires versus acting for the good of the greater community. Our hero, Bogey, controlling the letters of transit? Check.
Third, the climax. The central element is the letters of transit. Will Bogey use them for himself and Ingrid Bergman, for his own selfish ends? In the audience we believe so. Bogey has said as much straight out in an earlier scene..
But wait! In the crucial instant, our hero hands the letters to Ingrid to help her escape with her husband while he, Bogey, stays behind to fight the Nazis.
Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
When I considered my own letter—the one from the Apostle Paul to the community at Corinth—I thought, This is almost as perfect.
First, the epistle is world famous. Its text is the book in the New Testament that we know as 1 Corinthians.
Second, its content is spot-on to the story’s theme.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up; doth not behave itself unseemly …
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
And now abideth faith, hope, and charity; these three. But the greatest of these is charity.
Third and last, I knew I could use the letter in the climax. It would work like the letters of transit in Casablanca, only better because the actual poetic content would be the engine of completing the story. It was just a matter of figuring out how.