Thursday, May 05, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Death Rides a Horse

Tarantino sure has seen a bunch of movies. And those movies often show up in his movies. They do so not because he does not have good ideas of his own. He does! It is just that, like John Milton in Paradise Lost, many of his good ideas area ABOUT the bunch of movies he saw. And so his film doubles as a commentary on the history of movies.

A note on the Death Rides a Horse clips -- the DVD was crazy low grade, like VHS taped off of formatted to fit your screen TV then transferred to DVD by monkeys. Sorry about that.

A group of masked guys kills a family while the youngest boy watches. One has a small skull necklace. They burn the place down and leave the kid alive. You can actually watch it all legally on Youtube: Here is the movie:

The family murder is in the opening minutes.

Lucy Liu's animated origin. A group of guys kills her family while she watches. One has a skull ring. They burn the place down and leave her alive.

John Law goes after Lee Van Cleef. Awesome music plays. They talk about the revenge Law wants and Cleef tells him Revenge is a dish best served cold. This scene is at 27 minutes in.

The same music plays as Thurman hacks off Sophie Fatale's arm.

John Law confronts a gambler. The screen gets shaded red and through the red filter you see the guy murdering his family. This is at 47:00

Thurman confronts Liu at the House of the Blue Leaves. The screen goes red and in the red filter we see her attacking Thurman in the chapel and looking down on her.

Death Rides a Horse is about a guy whose family was murdered in front of his eyes by a masked gang of bandits when he was a kid. So he grows up to get revenge. His name, no kidding, is John Law, not to put too fine a point on it. Meanwhile Lee Van Cleef gets out of jail and he also wants some payback -- from those same guys. Our hero and Van Cleef become mismatched buddies hunting down these dudes but it turns out that Van Cleef was actually part of the gang. Our hero decides not to kill him because he was so helpful and they part after everyone else is dead.

Death Rides a Horse is a major Kill Bill connection -- maybe, next to Lady Snowblood, the major connection. People talk about how Kill Bill is all about the Spaghetti Western, but Death Rides a Horse is the emblem of that genre for Tarantino. He will draw on Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good the Bad and the Ugly -- but it is Death Rides a Horse, a second string Spaghetti Western, that is the major representative of the genre, and a major structuring source for Kill Bill. As in his allusion to The Lodger rather than Psycho, he goes after smaller movies when he wants to suggest something big, a film that is more easily taken down.

The Death Rides a Horse allusions distinguish themselves in they way they combine with other allusions. Each allusion is an allusion to some other genre VIA Death Rides a Horse.

The first Death Rides a Horse scene above is the murder of the family at the opening. It is a dead ringer in a number of ways for Lucy Liu's origin. The family murdered while the child watches and survives to get revenge, one of the murderers wears skull jewelry and burns the house down. The scenes have the same running time. And a link is suggested between the Japanese school girl sword violence and the violence of the Western.

I grabbed, maybe stupidly, a moment where Thurman looks at a sword and thinks she can grab it in time, which happens in the same sequence of Death Rides a Horse above.

Thurman in Bill's house at the end goes for a sword on the TV. She eyes it before she goes for it, as in Death Rides a Horse.

That is probably too common to call an allusion, but again -- Samurai sword in place of the shotgun.

In the second scene from Death Rides a Horse our hero is chasing after Van Cleef to get info on the guys he is after -- guys they are both after. Van Cleef ditches him but not before giving him the same sage advice that appears in the epigraph to Kill Bill, the old Klingon proverb in Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan. Since Death Rides a Horse is a vital Kill Bill link, I can say with confidence that the epigraph filters Spaghetti Westerns through Science Fiction. This is one of Tarantino's big projects -- to link genres you would never link, to find connections between genres, to suggest a larger kind of history Kill Bill is a part of. Kill Bill thinks bigger than other movies. This is what makes it a "smart" movie. Very few movies think beyond their own genres.

But this is not even the only Kill Bill allusion in the scene -- nor the only allusion in the scene that asks us to link genres we would never normally link. The music that plays as our hero goes after Cleef in Death Rides a Horse is the same music that plays as Thurman calls out Lucy Liu and hacks off Sophie Fatale's arm. You will recall in an earlier post that I linked this moment to the Italian horror movie Tenebre. The Spaghetti Western is, of course, a cowboy movie filmed in Italy with Italian actors pretending to be Spanish, and Native America and whatnot. This moment in Kill Bill links up Italian Horror with the Italian Western. Kill Bill thinks about genres broadly, here connecting the violence in both genres to each other to justify his inclusion of both genres in Kill Bill.

And there is one more big Death Rides a Horse connection here. In the next clip I have above from Death Rides a Horse you see that when John Law confronting the first of the men who killed is family. The screen goes red and he has a flashback, in red, to the moment of the murder. He does this every time he first sees each those men again. The screen goes red and shows a flashback in red every time Thurman confronts someone on her Death List Five. Yet again another genre is suggested by the siren that goes off when the screen goes red -- the theme from Ironside that also appears in a Kung Fu movie.

So we get Star Trek, Tenebre, and Ironside (and the Ironside theme is coming via Five Fingers of Death) via Death Rides a Horse.

Tarantino is an especial fan of trailers -- in fact there is a Kill Bill allusion to Black Sunday that comes not from the movie but from a scene used only in the trailer. the trailer for Death Rides a Horse (which was not on the really low end disk I had), had a line like "The bandits who killed five defenseless people that night made one big mistake. They should have killed six."

The trailer is here:

Here the matching line from Kill Bill.

In the cartoon version of the chapel attack you see at the end of Lucy Liu's origin Thurman says they Kill 9 people that day, but they made one mistake: they should have killed ten.