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Our heroes have found a golden helmet, a powerful relic, or magic sword, something of great value, they take it to get appraised only to discover that its actually... junk.
A hapless man finds a briefcase, locked, in the back of his car. Perhaps it is full of money, secret documents or contraband. When he opens it he discovers... it's full of shredded paper.
An object of absolutely no significance that the protagonist mistakes, either through misunderstanding or excited imagining, as something of great importance, be it a magic sword or mysterious briefcase. Its importance to the overall plot is usually negligible, though an entire side plot can crop up because of it. All it turns out to be is completely worthless, and not plot-relevant like a real MacGuffin
Compare with It's All Junk
, Worthless Yellow Rocks
. Not to be confused with All That Glitters
or Its The Journey That Counts
, which are often materially worthless but at least impart a valuable lesson
. See A MacGuffin Full of Money
for a plot device that can end in this.
Its opposite is Grail In The Garbage
, where a seemingly worthless object is in fact worth a king's ransom.
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- One of the recurring gags in Knights Of The Dinner Table is the players mistaking some piece of random dungeon dressing for a powerful magical artifact. The longest running of these jokes was Dave's 'magical' cow Chelsie.
- And thanks to their Bag of Holding having a nigh unlimited capacity, they would clean out everything in a dungeon including toe nail clippings.
- One Calvin And Hobbes arc had Calvin trying to find dinosaur bones in his yard. He ended up digging up a bunch of random trash, but until his mother pointed it out, he had no idea that there was something fishy about the "Calvinosaur" having a bottle for a skull, tin cans for a spine, and forks for arms.
- X-Men Noir: Mark of Cain, reimagines the titular mutant superheroes as a gang of hired mercs looking for the fabled gem of Cytorrak. It eventually turns out to be a worthless fake made of glass. However, the Big Bad actually knew this. He was planning to use the fake gem to wrest control of the island of Madripoor from the natives so that he could use it as a prison for creating brainwashed agents to beat the Soviets. It Makes Sense in Context.
- In Lockout the sought after briefcase turns out to be empty and the actual information is hidden in the lighter that Snow had the entire time.
- A couple of these in The Big Lebowski — Walter's briefcase full of dirty undies, Lebowski's briefcase full of phonebooks — both attempts to swindle someone else out of A MacGuffin Full of Money they're expecting.
- Burn After Reading is a rare case of of a plot that does center around this: Brad Pitt's character mistakes a CD of a low-level CIA analyst's mundane and unclassified memoirs for something top-secret. The analyst is also convinced that it's a vitally important, but only because he's delusional enough to think it has the makings of a "Washington tell-all bestseller." In other words, a Mock Guffin becomes a MacGuffin through collective delusion.
- In Dartagnans Daughter, much of the plot is driven by characters misinterpreting a laundry list and a really bad love poem as secret coded messages, and acting upon what they think these 'messages' are telling them to do.
- The 'Holy Grail' in the Robin Williams film The Fisher King is most likely nothing, but his insanity has convinced him it's the true grail.
- How To Steal A Million is about a woman hiring an art thief (he isn't) to steal a statuette worth a million dollars (it isn't) from a Parisian gallery. She knows it's a fake, but wants to have it stolen so her art forger father won't be exposed, and the "thief" knows it's a fake because he's really an expert on art forgery investigating her father, but happens to have fallen in love with her.
- In Flushed Away, both Rita and Toad fight for possession of what they think is a priceless gem. Roddy recognizes it as a cheap glass bead and proves it by smashing it to bits, which doesn't sit well with Rita.
- The Maltese Falcon is something of a subversion, as the fake one in the movie was substituted by the legitimate owner to prevent theft of the real one. At least, that's what Gutman thinks, but really there's no evidence either way. Maybe the legitimate owner always had a fake. Maybe there never was a real one. (Apparently, no-one has ever tried to scratch off the black enamel to see if it's really gold underneath before.)
- In what's perhaps a subversion of the subversion a sequel "The Black Bird" has Sam Spade Jr. (George Segal) getting involved with a new group of motley villains looking for the statue that his father kept all these years. Turns out the "lead" was a coating over the real golden bird.
- In part of National Treasure, Ben Gates buys two copies of the Declaration of Independence at the gift shop(one of them is the real thing that the clerk believes to be a replica, the other a replica). They both become useful; when Ian and his cronies are trying to steal the real one from Gates, he throws them the fake to buy some time.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark first plays with this trope and then subverts it in the last scene. After performing the invocation ritual, Belloq opens the Ark and finds it to be just a box full of sand. Toht walks away laughing... and then God's fury comes out of it unleashed.
- In Duplicity, the formula for a baldness cure that Claire and Ray are trying to steal (ostensibly for their boss, but really for themselves) turns out to just be a formula for an ordinary skin cream...excuse me, lotion.
- The (former) Trope Namer is the Golden Helmet of Mambrino (actually a barber's basin) from Don Quixote. (It even gets a song dedicated to it in Man Of La Mancha.)
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the novel Millennium Falcon is an extended homage to The Maltese Falcon. Guess what the "Lost Treasure of the Old Republic" turns out to be. For that matter, a similar story was written thirty years ago, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy.
- Actually, in the case of Millennium Falcon, it's even more annoying than usual. This "lost treasure" was supposedly left in the dying days of the Republic as something that would critically undermine Palpatine. Once the treasure is revealed, it pretty clearly demonstrates how inept and impotent Palpatine's opposition must've been.
- The quest to locate the "lost treasure" ends up being an Its The Journey That Counts moment for Han, Leia, and their granddaughter, however.
- In the Expanded Universe Enemy Lines duology, the New Republic forces make use of a Mock Guffin to lure the Yuuzhan Vong into a trap, by creating a quartet of flyable, but otherwise nonfunctional ships, and faking a test firing so that they appear to be a new superweapon.
- After a life-threatening quest to recover Slytherin's locket, one of Voldemort's horcruxes, Harry Potter is devastated to realise it's a fake. Also inverted: the real locket had previously been mistaken for worthless junk lying around Grimmauld Place, and thrown away.
- In the Vorkosigan Saga story The Vor Game, Miles finds a body wedged in a drain pipe, who had drowned when the pipe filled up during a storm. Investigating why the man was in the pipe in the first place, he figures out that the dead man had intended to retrieve a package he had stored in a different pipe, only he had entered the wrong pipe, got stuck, and drowned. Miles finds the package and opens it, revealing... some home-baked cookies that the dead soldier had been hiding from his barracks-mates.
- The Mouse That Roared is the story of a tiny nation that accidentally acquires the prototype "Q-Bomb," a weapon with planet destroying capabilities. They use it to hold the world hostage. At the end, the weapon's designer realizes that it was a dud.
Live Action TV
- Gilligan's Island once had a plot where the castaways find a suitcase which, at a glance, appears to contain top-secret spy documents, leaving them in danger of being chased by enemy spies. One Dream Sequence later, the documents fall out and they turn out to be spy documents from the second World War, which had ended twenty years prior and nobody was after.
- While Antiques Roadshow mostly shows the inverse, occasionally a guest has something he believes to be a priceless artifact that turns out to be a cheap knockoff or common as dirt.
- Similarly, many Mock Guffins come through Rick's door on Pawn Stars.
- They're found in the occasional storage locker on Storage Wars.
- In the fifth season episode of Angel entitled "Destiny," Angel and Spike beat the living crud out of each other in their race to drink from the Cup of Eternal Torment. If my memory serves, the cup turned out to have a "Made in China" sticker on the bottom and was filled with Mountain Dew.
- On Buffy the Vampire Slayer Spike and Harmony are searching for the Gem of Amara, a relic that makes vampires invulnerable. They find it in a tomb full of jewelry and other artifacts. Spike thinks it's a huge gaudy necklace and puts it on. Moments later he tries to kill Harmony in a fit of rage only to discover when he fails that the real Gem was a relatively nondescript ring that Harmony had put on.
- In Sea Quest DSV, Krieg discovers a cache of glowing gems on the ocean floor and hoards as many as he can aboard ship...only to discover that they're bioluminescent fish poop, which trades its glow for an unbearable smell as it melts.
- An episode of Bones has the eponymous scientist thinking she's stumbled across this. A prop sword is treated as much more valuable than its component parts simply because the movie it appeared in is so popular. As with much of anything, Bones does not understand why it is so. Probably because people seem willing to kill for the damned thing.
- The movie was not so much popular as known to be the first Arthurian film ever made (or one of the first). This made the sword valuable as a part of film history.
- Similar to the "Al Capone's Vault" case (described below), Kenan & Kel once found a map to a secret safe (albeit Kel insisted it read "sofa"). Following the map's instructions, they eventually found and opened the safe, and found a sofa. Kenan was understandbly disappointed but Kel actually liked the sofa (and the fact he was right).
- In "I Am God", a second season episode of Veronica Mars, Veronica is haunted by dreams of the bus crash (the season-long mystery she's trying to solve), and in particular of a drawing of a scythe hanging over nine tombstones, with the words "I Am God" written underneath. She thinks it's a key to how the bus crashed, but it turns out to just be an album cover for an indie rock band.
- 8-Bit Theater had the armoire of invincibility, which is just regular old heavy furniture.
- Technically, the armoire itself is invincible, in that it cannot be destroyed. However, the invincibility does not extend beyond the armoire, so it's pretty worthless.
- Also, the bottom is made of cheap cardboard.
- And it's not the artifact Fighter was looking for in the first place. Matoya had the Armoire and Armor of Invincibility, and gave Fighter the wrong one.
- In The KA Mics Gertrude & Brunhilda thought they had found something valuable, then were told otherwise.
- American Dad had an episode where Steve and Roger are tasked with finding an old man's inheritance to his son. It's just a burlap bag that light's up when opened.
- In an episode of Futurama that parodies the film Titanic, Bender's love interest gets sucked into a black hole, leaving him with only her bracelet (a parody of "The Heart of the Sea") to console the saddened robot (with its monetary value). Upon request, Hermes promptly inspects it and informs Bender that "[i]t's fake, mon," sending him into even greater despair(about its monetary value).
- A few episodes of The Simpsons have involved a Golden Helmet at one point or another.
- Stroker and Hoop plays it straight, and then subverts it in an episode. A two-piece, ancient, mystical Chinese sword, wanted by ninjas, when put together, turns out to just light up like a flashlight, which Stroker notes was probably mind-blowing in ancient China. Then, it ends up resurrecting someone from the dead while nobody else is paying attention.
- One Episode Wonder Korgoth Of Barbaria features this in its main plot. Korgoth is caught in a Poison And Cure Gambit and sent to retrieve the "golden goblin" a relic of a bygone age, from the tower of powerful wizard after the wizard seemingly disappears. After a dangerous trip that includes massive geographic obstacles, being attacked by living trees, dealing with 50 foot tall pigeons, and finding that the wizard is very much alive and not happy about the intrusion, the legendary golden goblin turns out to be a cheap, kitschy figurine that plays tinny music and dances when a button is pushed.