Here’s what this movie trope actually means

Movies are full of tropes, those sometimes overused plot devices that we can see from a mile away. Sometimes it seems lazy, sometimes we are so misled that we may not expect it. Even if we do see a trope coming, many movie fans don’t seem to mind. We’ve seen so many movies where the cool hero takes his cool calm walk while something explodes behind him, but we love it because it looks cool. There’s also the trope of the “lone wolf,” the badass good in action movies. The horror genre is full of tropes, from the last girl to the killer who ends up never dead. We can predict any plot, but horror fans often love the comfort of the familiar.

COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAYScroll to continue with the content

Another motif is called “Chekhov’s weapon”. You’ve probably heard of it, even if you don’t know what it is. The name harks back to the late 19th-century Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. Although the definition of the term is not given in the name, once explained, it is very easy to understand. There are probably thousands of examples of “Chekhov’s weapon” used throughout the history of cinema, some of which you may not have even noticed when you saw them.

RELATED: The 15 best movies with the Enemies to Lovers trope

What is Chekhov’s weapon?

The shark with an oxygen tank in its mouth in Jaws
Image via Universal Pictures

Anton Chekhov has long been considered one of our literary greats. Even though he passed away 119 years ago, his legacy lives on. Some of it comes from the film adaptation of his works, such as gulldirected by Sydney LumetAnd Laurence Olivier‘S Three sisters. Chekhov is best remembered for his style, which is still studied by writers and actors today.

The most enduring part of Chekhov’s style is one that you may not even be aware of. It’s not overly complicated, as some of his work might be. In fact, Chekhov’s style can be found in everything from horror to Marvel films. You can even see it in professional wrestling. This style includes the metaphor of “Chekhov’s weapon”. That’s where the trope comes from Chekhov’s spelling rule: “If you hung a pistol on the wall in the first act, in the following act it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”

The meaning of Chekov’s gun is pretty simple. If you hint at something big in your text or in a film, you have to do something with the hint. You can’t show a gun just for it to disappear and never be seen again, otherwise what’s the point of showing it at all? When a movie features a gun, you know it’s going to be used at some point, usually in the second act to move the story along, or at the end when it’s needed most. Not doing so is a major disappointment that only leaves movie viewers confused.

Examples of Chekhov’s gun trope in films

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future 3
Image via Universal Pictures

Watch any of your favorite movies and chances are you’ll have a Chekhov’s Weapon moment in many of them. let’s take Steven Spielberg‘S Jaw For example. In the film’s climax (not the first act, as the rule is somewhat flexible) Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), fifth (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) are on The Orca, who wants to kill the murderous great white shark. Oxygen bottles clatter around on board. Hopper takes you to dive underwater. Spielberg shows us the tanks many times, but doesn’t dwell on them long enough to be obvious, just constantly reminding us that they’re there. What’s more, Brody later throws one of the shells into the shark’s mouth. The tank stays there and is not eaten or spat out. “Chekhov’s weapon” is not only shown to us, but Spielberg now waves it towards the camera. This tank isn’t just there because the author was bored and needed to fill the page. It’s for a reason. Everything that is recorded in writing on film must have a reason for being recorded. We now know how the shark will die. It’s no big surprise when a few minutes later Brody shoots at the tank and the shark explodes.

Another example can be found in Joe Dante‘S gremlins. At the beginning of the film, when we are shown the inside of the house of Peltzer, the family that adopts the Mogwai gizmo, we see swords hanging on the wall as a decoration next to the living room door. Whenever someone closes the door, the swords rattle and fall to the ground. It’s no exaggeration to treat the audience like idiots unable to figure it out. Instead, it only happens a few times, just enough to alert us to their existence. We know, consciously or unconsciously, that these swords are being used. It’s a triumphant moment when Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) later comes home and finds his mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), being attacked by a gremlin. Billy immediately grabs a sword and decapitates the creature.

The “Chekov’s Gun” trope has a long play Back to the Future Franchise. In Back to the Future Part IIMarty McFly (Michael J Fox) is in a 1985 alternate film in which he plays Biff (Thomas F Wilson) Watch after A handful of dollars. It’s the famous scene in which Clinton Eastwood is shot, only to find out he has a steel plate hidden on his chest, a kind of bulletproof vest. Nothing comes of it here, but in Back to the Future Part III, with Marty in 1885 and going by the name of Clint Eastwood, he duels with an evil man named Bufford Tannen (also played by Wilson). Tannen shoots Marty with a bullet in the body, but we know better. It comes as no shock as Marty stands up and reveals the steel plate protecting him.

You can continue endlessly with examples of the Chekhov’s Weapon trope. There’s the Little Green Men’s obsession with the claw machine toy story 3, only for them to save our heroes from certain death with a mechanical claw. The Winchester rifle is mentioned several times Shaun of the Dead, meaning it will be used later. There are Leonardo DiCaprio‘s flamethrower inside Once upon a time in Hollywood and the knives inside knife out as well as. Marvel uses it in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Paul Bettany). Throughout the film, no one can lift Thor’s hammer. We know someone will, so it’s not out of left field if it’s Vision able to lift the hammer. A very recent example is Evil Dead Rise. Right at the beginning we are shown a wood chipper that is unused in the parking garage of an apartment building. There’s no way anyone wouldn’t get involved with this thing. The list could be continued endlessly.

Why does Chekhov’s gun trope work?

Then why does a motif as predictable as Chekhov’s gun work when it can be so predictable? Don’t the best movies succeed by being original, shocking, and offering us something we’ve never seen before? Sure, but no matter what, certain parts of the drama always have to play out the same way. Showing a gun in a movie and then deciding not to use it isn’t shocking great art, it’s just lying to the audience. For example, look at professional wrestling. If you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it a hundred times where someone pulls out a table or chair from under the ring. They may not be able to use it immediately. Your opponent may just stop them and just leave the chair or table where they are. Minutes may pass but we know a table or chair will be used. It happens every time. A wrestling crowd would be furious if the gun was never seen again.

The “Chekhov’s gun” trope works because it means something. We don’t show a weapon just so a character can use it later without any consequences. It matters when this weapon is used. When Chekhov’s Weapon is used in Act II, it can spark a plot and take it in a new direction. As many of these examples show, “Chekhov’s Weapon” ends up being the hero who saves the day. It’s part of the protagonist, part of the happy ending, part of what makes it all work. It’s a cathartic release when the shark dies Jaw or when Woody and Co. are rescued toy story 3. Certainly some tropes can be over the top and tiresome, but not all. We need “Chekhov’s weapon”.

Dustin Huang

Dustin Huang is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Dustin Huang joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

Related Articles

Back to top button