The film is filled with tropes, sometimes overused plot devices that we can see coming from a mile away. Sometimes it comes across as lazy, other times we are misguided in such a way that we might not expect it. Even when we see the trope coming, many movie fans don’t seem to mind. We’ve seen so many movies with the cool hero doing his cool quiet walk while something explodes behind him, but we love it because, well, it looks cool. There’s also the badass wolf good guy in the action movie trope. The horror genre is full of tropes, from the last girl to the killer who never dies at the end. We can predict every action, but horror fans often like the comfort of the known.
Another trope is called “Chekhov’s gun”. Chances are you’ve heard of it, even if you don’t know what it is. It gets its name from the late 19th century Russian short story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov. Although the definition of a trope isn’t given in a name, once it’s explained, it’s very easy to understand. There are probably thousands of examples of “Chekhov’s Gun” that have been used throughout the history of cinema, some of which you may not even have known while watching it play.
What Are Chekhov’s Guns?
Anton Chekhov has long been considered one of our greatest writers. Even though he died 119 years ago, his legacy still lives on. Some of them are from his works that have been adapted into films, such as Sea Gulldirected by Sydney LumetAnd Laurence Oliver‘S Three sisters. Much of what Chekhov is remembered for is his style, which writers and actors are still studying today.
The most enduring part of Chekhov’s style is one you may not even be aware of. It’s not overly complicated like some of his works. In fact, you can find Chekhov’s style in everything from horror to Marvel movies. Heck, you can even see it in professional wrestling. The style involves the “Chekhov’s gun” allegory. The allusion comes from this writing rule from Chekhov: “If in the first act, you have hung your gun on the wall, then in the next act it must be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it in there.”
The meaning of Chekov’s weapon is quite straightforward. If you’re hinting at something big in your writing, or in a film, you have to do something with that hint. You can’t show a weapon, only to then disappear and never be seen again, or what’s the point of showing it? If a gun is seen in a movie, you know at some point, usually in the second half as a plot-forced move, or at the end when it’s needed most, it’s going to be used. Not doing so is a huge disappointment that only confuses moviegoers.
Example of Chekhov’s Gun Trope in Film
Watch one of your favorite movies, and chances are, across many of them, you’ll get a moment of the “Chekhov’s Gun” trope. Let’s take it Steven Spielberg‘S Mouth For example. At the film’s climax (not the first act, as the rules are somewhat flexible), Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Quin (Robert Shaw), and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) active orcas, looking to kill the killer great white shark. There are oxygen tanks clanging on board. Hopper takes one for an underwater dive. Spielberg shows us the tanks time and time again, not lingering there for as long as they are in plain sight, but reminding us over and over that they are there. What’s more, Brody then throws one of the tanks into the shark’s mouth. The tank stays there, not being eaten or spit out. We’re not just showing us “Chekhov’s Pistol,” Spielberg is now waving it at the camera. The tank isn’t there simply because the writer is bored and needs to fill in the page. It has a reason. Everything that is written, in the film, must have a reason for being included. We now know how the shark will die. Not the biggest surprise when, minutes later, Brody shoots at the tank, and the shark explodes.
Other examples can be found at Joe Dante‘S gremlins. At the beginning of the film, when we are shown the inside of the house of the Peltzers, the family who adopted Mogwai Gizmo, we see a sword displayed on the wall as a decoration beside the living room door. Every time someone closed the door, swords crackled and fell to the floor. It wasn’t overdone, treating the audience like idiots who wouldn’t be able to figure it out. Instead, it only happened a few times, enough to make us aware of their existence. Consciously or unconsciously, we know the swords will be used. It makes for a triumphant moment when Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) then goes home to find his mother, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), attacked by gremlins. Billy immediately took a sword and decapitated the creature.
Trope “Chekov’s Gun” has a long game on Back to the future franchise. In the Back to the Future Part IIMarty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an alternative to 1985, where she sees Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) watch Fistful of Dollars. It’s a famous scene where Clint Eastwood shot, only to reveal that he had plate armor hidden on his chest, some sort of bulletproof vest. Nothing came of him here, but entered Back to the Future Part III, with Marty in 1885 and calling himself Clint Eastwood, he duels a bad guy named Bufford Tannen (also played by Wilson). Tannen shoots Marty dead with a bullet in his body, but we know better. It came as no surprise when Marty stood up and revealed the armor plate he was protecting.
You can continue with the figurative example “Chekhov’s weapon”. There’s the Little Green Man’s obsession with claw machines Toy Story 3, only for them to save our heroes from death with mechanical claws. The Winchester rifle was mentioned several times Shaun the Dead, which means it is used later. There is Leonardo DiCaprioflamethrower enters Once upon a time in Hollywood and knife in Knife Out as well. Marvel uses it in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Paul Bettany). Throughout the film, no one is able to lift Thor’s hammer. We knew someone would, so it wouldn’t be wrong for Vision to be the one able to lift the hammer. A very recent example is Rise of the Evil Death. Very early on we are shown a wood chipper sitting unused in the parking garage of an apartment building. There’s no way someone wouldn’t do that. The list could go on and on.
Why Does Chekhov’s Arms Tropes Work?
Why does a predictable trope like “Chekhov’s Gun” work when it is predictable? Don’t the best films thrive on being original and surprising, giving us something we’ve never seen before? Sure, but either way, certain parts of a play must always be played the same way. Showing a gun in a film and deciding not to use it doesn’t make for surprising and great art, it just lies with the viewer. Look at professional wrestling for example. If you’ve watched it, you’ve seen it hundreds of times where someone pulled a table or chair from under the ring. They may not be able to use it right away. Their opponents may stop them at this point, leaving the chair or table just sitting there. A few minutes may go by but we know the table or chair is being used. It happens all the time. The wrestling crowd will be outraged if the weapon is never seen again.
The allegory “Chekhov’s Gun” works because it has meaning. We have no weapons shown, only for characters to use them later without consequence. It matters when the weapon is used. If used in the second act, the “Chekhov Pistol” can trigger the plot, sending it in a new direction. When used at the end, as these many examples show, “Chekhov’s Pistol” is the hero who saves the day. It’s part of the protagonist, part of the happy ending, part of what makes the whole thing work. It’s a cathartic discharge when the shark dies Mouth or when Woody and his friends were rescued Toy Story 3. Some tropes can certainly be overwhelming and tiring, but not all of them. We need “Chekhov’s gun”.