In The Wizard of Oz, it was the broomstick. In Groundhog Day, it was the alarm clock. In a Wes Anderson movie, it’s, well, everything. Behind every great Hollywood film–and even the crummy ones, too–there’s at least one iconic prop propelling the whole story forward.
This week, IMDb released an exclusive video interviewing a legendary figure who has engineered many of the props behind the biggest and best films in recent history. Russell Bobbitt, an award-winning properties master with over 30 years/60 film credits to his name, currently serves as Head of Props at Marvel. This is the guy who designed Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer–respect.
A fair amount of Bobbitt’s prop work involves constructing cool gadgets from scratch: the Infinity Gauntlet in Thor, the blaster in the Star Trek reboot, the arc reactor in Iron Man. (He even taught Robert Downey, Jr. how to solder so the character of Tony Stark could build the reactor on-screen.) But sometimes Bobbitt’s expertise is all about fine-tuning a familiar object to achieve iconic status. Such is the case with the Zippo windproof lighter, which Bobbitt has deployed in a huge range of feature films.
Already an icon in and of itself, the Zippo lighter has featured in over 2000 movie plots over the past century, often serving as a fulcrum of the action. In Ocean’s 11, a Zippo triggered the die that took down the casino. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Zippo with the four-leaf clover on it served as Indy’s “lucky charm,” saving him and dad Sean Connery from a near-death predicament. And in From Here to Eternity, Donna Reed sparked her doomed romance with Montgomery Clift with the help of a Zippo.
Even the unmistakable click! of the Zippo lighter featured in the theme song for Lethal Weapon III. We have none other than Eric Clapton to thank for that–while chain-smoking through the recording session, Clapton took a shine to the rhythm his lighter made. The Zippo click serves as the percussive backbone of the song–you can even see it happening in the music video.
And no matter how many times we’ve seen it, chills still run down our spines every time we watch a hero (or antihero) toss a lighter over their shoulder as they walk away from an inferno without a backward glance.
Bobbitt says that the right prop can define a character. And you have to admit that something about the Zippo communicates style, rebelliousness, and a classic American pedigree, all at the same time. You’d never see a Bond villain light up with a Zippo, for instance. No matter how the character has been built throughout the course of the movie, once you see him or her execute the coveted flick-open technique, you know that this is the one you’re supposed to root for.
We were lucky enough to score a conversation with Russell Bobbitt about other iconic uses of the Zippo in film, and the crucial difference the right prop makes in taking films from good to legendary.
You almost never see a movie’s “bad guy” using a Zippo. What is it about the Zippo lighter that suggests heroism?
When it comes to choosing a lighter for a character, a Zippo lighter fits the bill. It immediately tells the audience that the character is cool, self-reliant, and maybe even a bit of a rebel.
Besides the movies mentioned in Walk of Flame, what are some of the most unusual appearances/uses of the Zippo lighter that you’ve seen in films?
As Zippo lighters aren’t just background objects, oftentimes the windproof lighter serves as a pivotal prop, like in Reasonable Doubt, where the unmistakeable Zippo click leads detectives to the killer, or in Four Rooms, where a man’s hand remaining intact depends on the reliability of his Zippo lighter. In Buried, a Zippo lighter spends the majority of the film illuminating suspense as the coffin fills with sand and runs out of oxygen.
Why is a prop so crucial for defining a character or pushing a plot forward?
Props can really help to further define a character, time or place, and create depth. Ultimately, props are a narrative device and can support the story and the look of the film, whether that is big or small. Hocus Pocus is one of my personal favorite “Zippo moments” because the lighter was used as an extension of Omri Katz’s character, Max. It was important to the director that the actor felt comfortable with the lighter, so I taught him the iconic Zippo “flick open.” He practiced all day and night to master the technique.
Any ideas for familiar/everyday objects that you can imagine repurposing as important plot devices, that you haven’t seen done yet?
Props play roles in all genres of film differently. Sometimes a simple piece of paper, the color of a flower, a feather, or a book tells the narrative and can drive a story. When choosing a prop, nothing is accidental–every item placed on set should enhance the audience’s understanding of the story.
To commemorate Zippo’s role in film, the brand has launched a range of movie tribute lighters, inspired by some of the most famous designs that have featured on the silver screen. The six new designs are available to order now. Zippo also makes more than lighters, they make one hell of a firestarter, too.