“Your badge and your gun”
We were working on the script for the first Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law. The director, Andy Davis, said, “We need a scene where Steve is ordered to turn in his badge and his gun.”
I remember thinking, “Really? Hasn’t that same moment been in every detective movie since silent pictures?”
I was wrong.
We wrote it and it worked. Last night I was watching the British series, The Bodyguard (which is really good) on Netflix. Sure enough, they had a “Turn in your badge and your gun” scene. It worked too. The Silence of the Lambs, same thing, this time with Jodie Foster. In The French Connection, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is pulled off the case. This same scene gets included by top-shelf writers and filmmakers over and over. Why?
I began thinking about this metaphorically. What does “your badge and your gun” really mean?
It means our hero has been stripped of his or her societal authority. In the Navy, they tear off your petty officer’s stripes. In the Special Forces, they take your tab. At Harvard, they revoke your tenure.
This moment, it seems, is a mandatory station-stop on the hero’s journey. It’s a convention of many, many genres.
What this beat means for the hero is that he or she must decide, “Will I continue my quest (to solve the crime, to save the damsel, to redeem myself) even though society has revoked my official authority and I am now totally on my own?”
In fact, the hero’s jeopardy is even worse because now she or he has been forbidden under penalty of law/expulsion/sanction from pursuing that (honorable) course.
With this moment and the choice that has been thrust upon the hero, the story’s stakes have gone way up. The price the hero must pay has been elevated dramatically.
In the audience, we love it because we get to see what the hero is made of. If he or she were to back off at this moment, we would hurl tomatoes at the screen. We want our protagonist to be all-in, hell or high water, do or die.
In other words, some version of the “Turn in your badge and your gun” moment is a necessary beat across multiple genres. It’s in Westerns, it’s in love stories, it’s in apocalyptic thrillers.
Whatever story I’m working on, I must ask myself, “Do I have a Badge and Gun scene of some kind … and if not, why not?”
There’s no doubt in my mind that some version of this scene must be in there.
The trick is to write it in some new way, with some innovative twist.