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'Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood' Is A Fairy Tale America Doesn't Need Right Now

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino's “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." (Courtesy Sony Pictures)
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino's “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." (Courtesy Sony Pictures)
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They called World War I the war to end all wars. It was, of course, hardly that. War has only grown more prevalent, more tribal, more devastating since then.

I recently read “All Quiet on the Western Front,” written by the German Erich Maria Remarque and I was, you should pardon the expression, blown away. I had seen the 1930 movie and had never thought of reading the book until recently when I was listening to Bob Dylan single it out during his Nobel lecture.

For good reason. It should have been the book to end all wars. No one who has read it should ever have put young people on a battlefield again. Remarque does not flinch from any of the horrors (and drudgery) of war, but he is also remarkably prescient about PTSD, the problems of returning to civilian life and he lays the blame for war squarely at the feet of political and economic forces, particularly the chicken hawks who start wars without ever dreaming of fighting in them.

"Then what exactly is the war for?" asks one of his characters. Remarque concludes in so many words: War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.

And yet not only war, but violence, has proliferated. I was reading the book shortly after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” and reading about the recent mass shootings. It’s hard not to think that we — at least we males of the species — love violence. It has been that way since Biblical times. Not that it’s just a male thing. When women of the species assume power — Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher — they are hardly Lysistrata-like champions of peace.

It is somewhat encouraging to read that even Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are talking about background checks and assault weapons after El Paso and Dayton. Frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it, or when voters start voting people out of office for caving in to the NRA. Las Vegas, if not earlier massacres, should have been the mass shooting to end all mass shootings if Americans really wanted to end this madness, instead of it being the latest ratings' grabber on cable news stations.

Not that I’m any better. While I admire people like author Steve Almond for turning away from football I would no sooner give up pro football than summers in the Berkshires. When I think about the Patriots’ amazing 25-point come-from-behind Super Bowl victory against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, I think of the many great offensive plays of Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and James White. But first and foremost I think, with a certain amount of glee, about Dont'a Hightower’s “tremendous hit” on Matt Ryan that was crucial to the comeback.

Does it matter that it was the kind of tackle that drives athletes toward degenerative brain diseases? Yes, there’s a part of me that acknowledges that awful brutality. Maybe there was a part of the Roman spectator who felt badly for the gladiators as they went after each other but watched with glee anyway. A year later the Patriots defense seemed to have lost that “killer instinct” against the Eagles but I was overjoyed two years later when the Patriots defense “drove Rams runners into the ground.”

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." (Courtesy Sony Pictures)
Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." (Courtesy Sony Pictures)

Which brings us to “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” and the by-now ubiquitous spoiler alert that if you intend to see the movie read no further until you do.

Three members of the Manson family, en route to Sharon Tate’s house, decide instead to kill her next-door neighbor, faded cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and whoever else might be in his house. Fortunately, Dalton’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) was there and his pit bull took care of one of them, Cliff beat another’s head into the wall and Rick took care of the third with a flame thrower he kept from one of his movies.

I loved the fairy tale Hollywood ending, I loved Tarantino’s talents as writer and filmmaker, I loved that the violence was turned onto the Manson family. You could say that Tarantino was satirizing Hollywood endings, you could say that Tarantino was saying something about the randomness of life — and death.

But that’s not what I’m going to say. I think that the ending plays like a Clint Eastwood celebration of violence, not like an “All Quiet on the Western Front” condemnation of it. It’s as if Tarantino is saying, “If only the folks at the Tate residence had a macho man present,” like Trump saying that if schools had armed guards or if teachers were weaponized they could prevent mass shootings.

And there’s a part of me that indulges in the same revenge fantasies as old Quentin. But I also think that those fantasies are what make Tarantino’s films admirable but adolescent. Those fantasies are what make him an artful entertainer rather than an entertaining artist.

But I can think of a way for Tarantino to change all that. How about a remake of “All Quiet … on the Western Front.” It probably won’t be the movie to end all war, let alone all violence. But at least it wouldn’t be the kind of fairy tale that America doesn’t need right now.


Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.