The Reading Room
On Revisions and Revenge: The Films of Quentin Tarantino
Tales of bloody vengeance are among the oldest of all stories. Look no further than Orestes, Hamlet, or any number of Norse Sagas. Laws against vengeance and blood feuds exist as far back as the earliest recorded law, the Code of Hammurabi. The thirst for revenge is a very old trait, ingrained into human nature from a bygone time. And we just can’t seem to get enough of it, or to tell enough stories about it. American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with it.
Many of Tarantino’s films feature a revenge plot, such as his seminal Kill Bill Vol 1 and Vol 2, or Django Unchained. However, several of his more recent films have taken this to a whole new level through the revision of history. Inglourious Basterds, for instance, features the death of Adolf Hitler in a burning French movie theater, a far more satisfying end than his bunker-suicide. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood prevents the tragedy of the Tate murders, flipping the tables on the would-be murderers and glorifying their gruesome deaths at the hands of the film’s fictional protagonists. These historical revisions in themselves are a kind of revenge tale, a revenge on history with Tarantino as the hero. He takes these historical events and places them within literary reality, transforming them into alterable stories and amendable myths. He modifies them to provide a more satisfying ending, a more fitting conclusion to what could otherwise make for a great story, if it weren’t bogged down by the detritus of reality.
However, this transformation is not like those who attempt to alter reality to better suit some political agenda or to support their ideological narrative as the only truth. Tarantino is doing something completely different.
In a touching scene in Django Unchained, two men sit around a campfire in the middle of the desert and discuss a myth. The name of protagonist Django’s abducted beloved is Brunhilde. Django's German mentor and companion immediately latches on to this name because of its sameness with the heroine from the most popular legend of his homeland, the Nibelungenlied. He briefly relates this story to his young friend. Brunhilde, the daughter of the mightiest god Wotan, was locked away in a high mountain chamber, surrounded by hell-fire, and guarded by a dragon. However, Siegfried bravely scales the perilous mountain, slays the dragon, and walks through hellfire to rescue her “because Brunhilde is worth it.” Django’s abducted wife, the German declares, is Django’s Brunhilde. He must be her Siegfried.
This powerful scene reveals much of Tarantino’s underlying perspective on story. For Tarantino, myth overlaps with history, defines it, and shapes it. It provides answers where there were none before and presents heroes and villains where mere men once stood. If adopted by the characters within the story, it becomes a powerful tool, granting them a meaningful role and hopeful future where before they only saw defeat. Django, in seeing himself as Siegfried, gains a hope of success for his quest he had not held before. His German friend, in seeing Django as Siegfried, becomes his devoted ally, obligated to see the success of this young hero and witness a legend so close to his heart brought to life before his eyes.
So it is with Tarantino’s other films. The Tate murders were a ghastly end to the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” an unfitting conclusion for the industry that created so many beloved stories. Thus, Tarantino decided to take revenge upon it, to turn one of the dark myths of Hollywood into a real myth with a proper end for the villains and a timely rescue of the princess. He does not pretend that his film is historically accurate or that he has altered reality. He makes no claims to Godhood. Rather, he offers to his audience something that only stories can provide: a true happy ending. He takes the ugly events of history and gives them a name, a role, a face with the stereotypical villainous mustache. Then he proceeds to brutally, gleefully rip and tear them to shreds. As in ages past when effigies of popes and kings and traitors were mauled and burned, so now, through his films, Tarantino takes his revenge, beheading, mauling, dynamiting, smashing all the old dragons of the world, and finally saving the poor Brunhildes who had been left to rot in their towers.