Disclaimer: This blogpost is nothing but free mindless rambling. Don’t mind it.
This blogpost also contains spoilers. Be warned.
I bet Tarantino gets all riled up when he reads history books. Why? I’m gonna tell you why.
Have you seen Inglourious Bastards, Django Unchained and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood or did you live under a rock for the past few years? Well, if you’ve seen those movies, you’d understand that Tarantino is not a big fan of how History actually played out and that he’s got a lot to say about it.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
I walked into the theater not knowing who Sharon Tate was and how she died. If I did, I would have been clinging at the edge of my seat like my father did next to me, dreading every scene where we see her living carefree and having a good time. Mindhunter, season 2, should have put me on the right track, though. Alarm bells would then have ringed in my head. Instead, I just witnessed Margot Robbie living the ultimate bourgeois life and I was like… ‘Uh, yeah. She’s rich! We get it! Can we go back to Leonardo now?’ I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Roman Polansky, Sharon Tate’s husband, was Rick Dalton’s neighbor—Rick Dalton being the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Let me brush out the story for you in case you didn’t see the movie.
Rick Dalton was a big time Western actor who’s now reaching the end of his rope. His best bud, personal chauffeur and stunt double, Cliff Booth, drives him everywhere. As Rick Dalton tries to make the most out of his roles as a ‘heavy’ despite strong addiction issues towards alcohol and tobacco that turns him into a living mess, Cliff Booth remembers the time he fought off Bruce Lee and lets young girls entice him into borderline hitchhiking drives. Meanwhile Sharon Tate goes to the movies and enjoys watching herself in The Wrecking Crew being a goof and a bad ass.
Cliff Booth eventually drives a teenage girl back at Spahn Ranch, where Rick Dalton used to shoot his prime-time TV show Bounty Law. Of course, Cliff Booth knows the place. He also knows the owner. That’s why he feels there’s something fishy when he witnesses lots of teenagers, mostly young girls, squatting the place and living an obviously shady lifestyle. It all ends up with Cliff Booth knocking someone’s teeth out and driving away.
Six months later, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth come back from Italy where Rick starred in spaghetti westerns, made some money and met his new wife, Francesca Capucci. They plan for one last night out together. Rick doesn’t have the money to support his friend anymore and he has to let him go. They go to the restaurant. They come back home. Cliff goes walking his dog, a gorgeous pit bull, and he smokes an LSD cigarette he bought six months ago to the hippie girl he drove to Spahn Ranch. On the other hand, Rick mixes himself some margarita. He’s far from over his alcoholism. That’s when four ‘hippies’ from Spahn Ranch drive up to his house in a noisy old car. They intend to get into the Polansky residence and kill everyone they find up there, but Rick gets on the porch and starts to yell at them. He orders them to drive away and smoke pot someplace else. We see that they have weapons but they do drive away. Rick then goes to relax on his swimming pool, listening to music with a head set on.
Cliff comes back from his walk and the LSD starts to work its magic on his brain. He gets into the living room and prepares food for his beautiful big dog. All of a sudden, three of the four hippies who’d driven up to Rick’s house barge into the living room. Cliff finds himself surrounded. He laughs it off as the LSD keeps messing up with his brain, then he summons his dog to kill two of the three hippies. It all turns into a very gory scene. One of the wannabe murderers ends up in the pool and scares Rick to death, who retrieves a flame thrower from his shed and crisps her to death.
It is all very enjoyable.
The Historical Significance of the Movie
Right after I was the movie, I walked my father back to the tramway station. That’s when he revealed to me that Sharon Tate had been actually killed by indoctrinated hippies led by the infamous Charlie Manson.
Charlie Manson! The serial killer at the head of the Manson Family that we see being interviewed by the FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench in Mindhunter? Wait. Wait-wait-wait!
Before I continue, can I address Rick’s awesome flamethrower for a minute?
Inglourious Bastards: Killing Nazis Is Always Fun!
At the beginning of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood we have a short summary of Rick Dalton’s cinematic career. Among other things he’s depicted handling a flamethrower in a movie where he kills Nazi officers from up a ledge. Who cannot be reminded, watching that scene, of the ending of Inglourious Basterds, when Brad Pitt (who plays Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and was Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds) rained bullets on Nazis from box seats in a burning movie theater? It all weaves together very well. It also starts to redeem Leonardo DiCaprio within Tarantino’s own cinematographic universe.
When a Villain is Not the Villain
Remember Django Unchained? Leonardo played the despicable Calvin Candie in that movie, a true villain at heart.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood shows strong meta-cinematographic language. In the opening scenes Al Pacino, who’s cast as a movie producer, tells Rick/Leonardo that when people see him on screen, they don’t see the role he plays, but they still remember him as the hero of Bounty Law.
It’s a bit like when we say ‘Hey! That’s Frodo!’ when watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Anyway, that dialogue is basically Tarantino telling us, the spectators, that since we see Leonardo DiCaprio on screen in one of his movies, we could think that he plays a villain again. But, no! This time around, he’s not a villain. As Rick/Leonardo tells it to Al Pacino, he was asked to play the ‘heavy’, the bad guy, but he’s a good guy himself and we quickly pick up on this despite his high-functioning alcoholism.
It is all ‘justified’ when we see Rick on set for his next Western movie whilst Cliff drives his hippie hitchhiker back to Spahn Ranch. Rick portrays a villain and he plays it very, very well! Ian McShane would be very proud of DiCaprio’s Swearagen look-alike. At least I got some closure from the open ending of Deadwood and I hope Timothy Oliphant did too.
I got sidetracked there for a second, but yes, people, Leonardo is a good guy in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and even if he was a most convincing villain in Django Unchained, he was only so convincing because he’s a damn fine actor! Do you get it? Leonardo/Rick is a good guy now, and so is Brad/Cliff, but you knew that already. You love him since Inglourious Basterds.
The same thing kind of happened to Christoph Waltz. He was a villain in Inglourious Basterds. He became a hero in Django Unchained. However, the meta-text around that villain-hero shift was maybe not as sophisticated as what we witness in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. By the way, did you know that Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to play the villain in Inglourious Basterds? Yeah, so there are some good reasons for Tarantino to pause the story and tell us that DiCaprio is only a ‘pretense’ villain.
I hope I haven’t lost you there. Anyway, let’s proceed.
The Chekhov’s Gun of Justice
Rick had a role where he killed Nazis with a flamethrower. It reminds us of Inglourious Basterds. It is also some strong foreshadowing! It means that divine justice, again, is going to be served, and it is indeed when Rick flames down one of the Manson Family members who broke into his house to kill him instead of attacking the Polansky residence. Also, by the time we see him pull out the flame thrower from his shed, we’ve totally forgotten about it and that, people, is a great take on Chekhov’s gun. It was especially effective on me as an unaware spectator. I didn’t know Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family. I didn’t know why she was in that movie as Rick’s neighbor. I was just enjoying DiCaprio play his role like a motherf*cking wizard. I believed every single scene he played, every single one of his spits.
The Typical American Hero
We’ve now dealt with the superficial layer of meta-cinematographic language within Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: forget about Calvin Candie, Rick/Leonardo is not an actual villain. Now, let’s dig deeper and see why and how he’s an actual American hero in its purest form.
Rick biggest acting job ‘back in the old days’ was to star in Bounty Law as a bounty hunter. Welcome to the Tarantino Cinematic Universe, who else was a bounty hunter? Django! So, not only is Tarantino telling us that Rick/Leonardo shouldn’t be mistaken for his role in Django Unchained as Calvin Candie, he also tells us that Rick is Django.
Now, who was Django do you ask? He was a slave-owner killer, pretty much like Cliff/Brad/Aldo was a Nazi killer in Inglourious Basterds—in case I should I remind you that Nazi enslaved millions of people to boost their military industry when they didn’t send them straight to death camps (you really must watch La Vita È Bella in addition to the Schindler’s List in case you didn’t know).
Also, have you seen The Longest Day? That’s kind of a big deal here. Let’s forget for a minute that John ‘The Duke’ Wayne had poor political views, as Trumbo reminds us, and let’s track back to his Western movie roles as John Ford’s favorite lead actor.
John Wayne was cast in The Longest Day as Lt. Col. Benjamin H. Vandervoort, CO, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. As such he had the duty to pep talk and prep the troops for D-Day. Ha! That good old D-Day… Did you know that The Longest Day, the movie, was actually drafted from a book of the same name, written by the non-historian-Irish-journalist-married-to-an-American-novelist Cornelius Ryan? When he wrote The Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan built the D-Day into a three-act storyline which cast the American soldiers as trueborn freedom fighters. This take on the D-Day was basically written out to become an all-star movie and John Wayne just had to star in it. He’d been the typical cowboy American hero for years at that point and he couldn’t miss out on the morphing of the typical American hero from cowboy, to private. The cowboy had conquered and tamed the Wild West and brought civilization to a savage land. The private was to pursue the cowboy’s work by taking the Frontier a tad further and ensuring that all the people on Earth were enjoying the bliss of democracy, law and freedom. The cowboy faced the barren lands and built a perfect country from the ground up. The private now faced the wicked who threatened what the cowboy built. John Wayne, who’d been the cowboy, was now the officer telling the private how to carry on a long legacy of heroism.
Despite the fact that he has to play the ‘heavy’, Rick/Leonardo ticks all the boxes of the typical American hero. From within the Tarantino Cinematic Universe (since we’ve stated that it was actually a thing), Rick/Leonardo is a bounty hunter and that equates him to Django, the ultimate Tarantino freedom fighter. However, Tarantino is also weaving threads that link his movie to the overall history of cinema. Rick/Leonardo is portrayed as a Golden Age Western actor, pretty much like John Wayne, even though he delves into starring into Spaghetti Westerns (and hates it). Therefore Rick/Leonardo is both the American hero who brings civilization and who safeguards freedom. He is a pioneer (therefore that is no coincidence that he actually settled in Hollywood) and a gatekeeper (which is why his house is next to the Polansky’s residence gate).
The Gates of Heaven
It brings me to my next point. In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Sharon Tate played by the delightful Margot Robbie stands as the allegory of freedom. Her house on the top of the Hollywood hills is basically the biblical ‘City on a Hill’. Everywhere she goes, she’s carefree. She does whatever she wants. She doesn’t even pay to enter the theater. It actually means that even money has no grasp on her. Her lifestyle embodies the idea of freedom. When they kill the member of the Manson Family, Rick and Cliff don’t only symbolically avenge Sharon Tate on screen, they also avenge the very idea of freedom.
What do we do to Nazis and slave owners? We kill them. And we make it fun!
In case you didn’t notice, freedom is kind of a big deal to Tarantino. Also, he’s the one who ties it to the Middle Ages in Django Unchained. So, let’s talk about that too.
Django Unchained: Freedom is a Medieval Dream
The Middle Ages saw the birth of an amazing literature that influenced Western culture, I would argue, to a far bigger extent than mythological stories inherited from the Romans and the Greeks. I will try not to go full geek on you, because I could just as easily pitch in the Lord of the Rings in this blog post with the literature masterpiece I’m about to mention, but among the great works of literature that the Middle Ages gave us, there is the Nibelungenlied. It includes a magic ring that makes you invisible. Do you catch my drift? It is also the story that Dr. King Schultz narrates to Django around their campfire when he learns that Django’s wife is called Broomhilda.
Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods.
Anyway, her father is really mad at her. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere.
And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain … unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
As a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried. He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire … because Broomhilda’s worth it.
Tarantino takes quite a few liberties from the original story. It is not totally innocent also that the Niebelungenlied became a famous Wagner opera but I’ve already piled up enough Godwin points in this blogpost that I don’t need to stray on that. All that really matters is that Tarantino directly sets up Django Freeman as a modern Siegfried through the parallel of their respective love interests.
Tarantino likes it R-rated.
He likes heroes that battle against true-life villains (Nazis, slave owners, Manson family members) and right wrongs by providing an alternative ending to upsetting historical events.
Tarantino also somehow traces the quest for freedom back to medieval legends.
Why, then, wouldn’t he go medieval on our eyes for his last movie?
He could, I don’t know, avenge Joan of Arc and have La Hire and Poton de Xaintrailles free her from her prison, killing everyone on their path, evil English and treacherous French alike.
I mean, if he needs a historical consultant, he can always call me!
It’d be better than any Star Trek movie, that’s for sure…