“You should try lugging this thing around New York City.” - Del Griffith (John Candy), speaking of his trunk.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) is a Thanksgiving-set comedy where two men battle the elements and a series of unfortunate events. The goal is to get from New York City to Chicago. What results is anything but the simplicity of that sentence.
John Candy’s character is a big, boisterous man with a motorboat mouth, a goofy mustache that looks like something from a cheap magician’s prop store, and an enormous trunk that he lugs across the country. The trunk is an iconic prop piece from the film, and during the picture serves as the catalyst for a number of jokes. Before the characters of Neal (Steve Martin) and Del even meet, Neal trips over the trunk on the sidewalk while hailing a cab. It’s the first of many trunk-related blunders to come. In the spirit of a Thanksgiving film that doesn’t ignore its holiday associations, the trunk serves as a shared burden and a symbol of budding kindness between the men.
The trunk also becomes a point of mystery as the film moves forward. What exactly is in this thing? We see Del remove a hypoallergenic pillow and a photo of his wife, but what demands the rest of the space within such a large object is never seen. It serves as a nice symbol of a salesman’s life on the road -- in one scene Del says he “hasn’t been home in years.” He claims he’s speaking metaphorically, and the inference is that most of his worldly possessions are within the box he transports across the map.
Of course, when the end of the film reveals Del is actually homeless and a widower, the trunk’s importance becomes more understood. He really hasn't ben home in years. Neal opens up his home to Del for Thanksgiving, symbolizing the way Del has taught him tolerance and charity. He becomes appreciative and thankful for Del’s friendship, and the two are seen carrying the trunk through the street, as if holding hands with each other through the symbol of the large box.
What is physically inside Del’s trunk doesn’t matter. One can assume that beyond the pillow and photo are all the things that remind him of a life he used to have. Del may be homeless and alone now, but he is happy with himself. He has memories of a life well-lived and the trunk is the chest that contains treasures of that time. It allows us to wonder how he ended up this way. It allows us to wonder if he would change things if he could. His life on the road seems to be his way of coping with the loss of his wife and former life. Staying on the move keeps him stable. The trunk is Del’s entire foundation -- his home, his memories, and his storage.
More importantly, the trunk is symbolic of Del and Neal’s new association. It is filled with the crazy events of the film that brought them together, and contains the lessons learned by both characters along the way. Through all their blunders, the trunk was there. Del clearly had no reason to actually be going to Chicago, but he stuck with the adventure for Neal’s sake, helping him get where he needed to be. Del knows the importance of love and family. Without one of his own, he wanted to ensure his new friend had his. The trunk holds the film’s thematic weight and the history of Del’s character. No wonder it’s so big.