Written by Gus Torrey
If you have ever had the pleasure of lending your afternoon to any sort of conversation encircling legendary director Quentin Tarantino’s nine films, it has been, without a doubt, dominated by a singular concept: violence. Whether it be Uma Thurman’s quick katana work in 2003’s Kill Bill or the unfortunate fate of Officer Marvin Nash’s ear in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, a gruesome spectacle will always beg the attention of the room. Many will deem it senseless, unnecessary, or even diabolical. On one occasion, I was asked, “Was there any realistic scenario in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood character possesses a legitimate flamethrower?” Certainly, there is not. However, its inclusion in the film constitutes a very real purpose of Mr. Tarantino’s. To fully appreciate and grasp Quentin Tarantino’s artistry, I invite you down the rabbit hole for an examination of what I deem the “Fire Trilogy” of 2012’s Django Unchained, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Each of these films, while not existing in the same cinematic universe, are spiritually intertwined through a unifying theme: the eradication of evil by means of fiery inferno. Django Unchained introduces us to the story of runaway slave-turned bounty hunter Django, German dentist-turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, and their quest to rescue the former’s wife from the shackles of slavery on the fictional Candyland plantation in the 1800’s. While Dr. King Schultz makes the ultimate sacrifice, Django is successful in taking Candyland and freeing his bride. Before they leave, however, Django destroys the main house in a fiery display of dynamite. The credits roll over the smoldering ashes through the lens of a fixed camera for an extensive duration. This artistic choice, from my point of view, reflects Tarantino’s cathartic method of internally projecting rage onto the institution of slavery and symbolically burning it away. The Candyland fire is the final shot. It is permanent and enduring, and the only thing stopping the blaze is the end of the film reel.
Inglourious Basterds treats us to the colliding fictional tales of Lieutenant Aldo Raine’s team of Jewish soldiers, Jewish refugee-turned French cinema owner Shoshanna Dreyfuss, and Operation Kino, a World War II alternate history plot to eradicate the Nazi High Command. While the interconnected plan is nearly botched and exposed by the end of the film, Shoshanna Dreyfuss exacts her revenge on the men who killed her family years ago. Her locked cinema traps the Nazi High Command inside as she lights her film reels and burns the building to the ground, effectively ending the war in this alternate timeline. Alternate histories, thematically, satisfy for the filmmaker either a personal wish for events to transpire differently or an examination of how substituting events affects the world on a wide scale. In my opinion, Tarantino attempted to achieve both in this film. The prolonged, graphic spectacle in Le Gamaar Cinema is filled with focused violence and vengeful faces. Quite literally, Shoshanna’s face is projected onto the screen just after she is killed by the film’s star. Her posthumous short film sabotages the rolling Nazi propaganda and features a chilling revelation that nobody would be escaping, and thousands of lives would be avenged. Through the medium of film, Tarantino fulfills spiritual revenge for the crimes against Holocaust victims, amplified by a fiery message from the grave.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows the fictional story of western actor Rick Dalton and stunt double Cliff Booth as they navigate the waning popularity of their genre throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film begins with a tongue-in-cheek reference to Inglourious Basterds, with Dalton playing the role of a rogue American soldier in World War II combatting Nazi troops with – you guessed it – a flamethrower. However, the camera pans to Dalton and Booth reminiscing on their couch, longing for the days when their westerns dominated the silver screen. The film ends with a last hurrah at Dalton’s home on Cielo Drive. If this street sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the tragic murder of Sharon Tate by the Mansons. Sure enough, the Mansons arrive to attack Tate and Dalton, but once again history is altered. Dalton saves the day with his signature flamethrower, earning Tarantino some needed closure on the story of his favorite actress. Tarantino has stated before that this film was his “love letter” to Hollywood and Sharon Tate. By symbolically burning away the horrors of the Manson murders, Tarantino transcends his sorrow for the actress and the city and finds personal clearance.
Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reflect revenge on national, global, and personal scales, respectively. By charring away the evil forces plaguing each film of the “Fire Trilogy,” Quentin Tarantino delivers profoundly harsh judgments on history’s agents of pain and suffering through his medium of choice: the silver screen.