Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Scaramouche

I continue to look at Kill Bill's influences to argue that Tarantino's allusions are not swipes, but interpretations.


[Big sword fight in a theatre. 18th century. They fight on a balcony railing at one point and out guy jumps off the balcony on a rope and comes back. At another point he falls off and fights from there and climbs back up. You can see it here:


[Thurman fights Johnny Mo on a railing of a balcony and jumps off and jumps on again using impossible wire fu stuff. You can see a lot of it in the trailer


Scaramouche is a 1952 adventure movie starring Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, and Janet Leigh, directed by George Sidney. It takes place just before the French Revolution. They wear wigs and stuff, though the way everything is shot and given the actors it all looks very American. A bunch of scenes are shot in Golden Gate Park and you keep expecting to see the bridge. In the movie the bad guy kills Steward Granger's best friend in a fencing duel. (The duel, the Internet Movie Database tells me, takes place in the same spot they landed the ship in Star Trek 4; given Tarantino's Star Trek love I bet he knew that). Granger is not good enough to get revenge so he runs away to train and get revenge later. He is being hunted by the bad guy's henchmen, so he hides in an acting troupe as Scaramouche. Scaramouche is a 17th century stock clown character (the name means "skirmish"). If you are anything like me you know Scaramouche primarily from the Invisibles (if I am remembering that correctly), and of course Bohemian Rapsody's "Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango."

Anyway. After being kept apart by the women in Granger's life, among other things, they finally get to do battle here at the theatre, and it is a whopper. The two minutes above come from this climatic scene. But in the end it turns out they are BROTHERS if you can believe it, and so they don't kill each other. As a plus this means he is not brothers with his enemy's fiancee, who he loves, and who he thought for the movie was his sister, so they get married. Eleanor Parker, who he ditches even though she is obviously better looking than the brittle Janet Leigh, hooks up with Napoleon in the final out-of-nowhere gag in the movie. It is pretty fun in a campy sort of way, mostly because you cannot believe how good looking Eleanor Parker is. It is John Kerry's favorite film (he named his boat after it), which says a lot about him, and why we do not call him President Kerry. IMDB is fun.

Similarities are there -- the fight on the balcony railing. The fight while trying to get up from the railing. The leap off the balcony railing and then back on. In Scaramouch he uses a rope but Thurman, drawing on Kung Fu powers, is simply lighter than air. As usual, Tarantino sort of says "My hero is better than your hero. She does not need a damn rope." Tarantino outdoes Scaramouche in part because he can draw on fighting genres George Sidney had no access to, including wire-fu. And of course as a modern person one cannot help feel that Scaramouche's huge fight scene is a little bloodless for such an epic sword battle. Tarantino is happy to oblige us here.

The big villain in Scaramouche is figured in Kill Bill as Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88s -- like the big bad in Scaramouche a man in charge of other men, but unlike the big bad in Scaramouche merely a mini-boss. Tarantino reduces the earlier film by having the climatic battle be only a small part of his bigger battle at the House of Blue Leaves.

The climatic fight scene in Scaramouche goes on for a full 7 minutes and is pretty impressive. It is said to be the longest fencing scene on film. The Kill Bill connection is strong but hardly a lock. For me the key piece of evidence is not so much that it is another revenge movie for Tarantino to allude to, so much as it is a famously long and multilevel fight scene involving the theater, the balcony, the lobby, the seats, backstage and then onstage. You will recall that The House of the Blue leaves involves a dance floor, stairs, a balcony an antechamber and a snow covered garden. Tarantino targeted this for use in his film because he is out to outdo, and this is standing in his way. The famous length and complexity of the fight explains why it caught his attention when his more usual allusions, especially in The House of the Blue Leaves, is to horror, westerns, kung-fu and samurai fare. By alluding to Scaramouche he reminding you of the earlier movie so you remember how long and complex that fight scene is -- and then realize that The House of Blue Leaves is much longer and more complex.

A small housekeeping note. I have added a new label to the Kill Bill posts: The House of the Blue Leaves. I am going to try to focus on this scene for a while, as I feel like it would make a good stand along chunk if I ever needed one of those.

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