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From Achilles to Hector

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer



Tarantino's magnificent Kill Bill 

Did anyone notice that Quentin Tarantino made the best adaptation of The Iliad that’s not based on Homer?

With the two volumes of Kill Bill, Tarantino did everything he wanted. He paid homage to or outright stole from just about every great B-movie style or cinema he grew up loving, and although I’d eventually like to see both volumes cut into one movie – like those lucky fucks in China and Japan – I do enjoy the radical narrative and tonal shift between the two movies shown in the States.

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Volume One: Samurai splatter-porn. Anime and gouts of blood. Bold Technicolor palettes that brought us back to David Lean and Cinemascope and The Adventures of Robin Hood and David Lynch’s Lumberton.

Volume Two: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. From start to finish, this one was Sergio Leone, all the way, from its rustic, rainbow desert setting to its dependence on a leisurely pace to amplify tension. There’s even a brief nod to Romero’s Living Dead movies thrown in.

But to hold it all together, Tarantino, intentionally or not, uses a classical mode of storytelling, and he went back even further than Shakespeare to find his narrative platelets; he went to the Greeks, specifically Euripides and Homer. Tarantino invoked the dialog of Euripides and the violence of Homer to stylistically unite his movie, and it is in Homer’s two greatest heroes that Tarantino found the basis for his heroine’s character arc. The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo, starts volume one as a modern-day Achilles – mysterious, amoral and deadly – but by volume two she has morphed into a valiant Hector; just as deadly, but accessible, frightened and, most important, a human being who is related to and who relates to other human beings, most notably Bill and her missing daughter. She gains a daughter, unlike Hector, whose son is killed during the sack of Troy (and of course Hector himself is slain by Achilles).

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First, the dialog. For all the hoopla about Pulp Fiction’s violence, its violent scenes are well in the minority; they punctuate the movie, which is mostly excellent dialog. The dialog in Kill Bill, however, is a different matter entirely, and it is the classical flavor of the dialog that first links Tarantino’s fourth film to the Greeks, specifically Euripides.

Now, the structure of the previous two paragraphs might make you think I dislike the dialog in Kill Bill, or that I find it inferior to the fun banter in Pulp. Far from it. I absolutely adore the dialog in Kill Bill, because Tarantino channeled Euripides to write it, and I must stress that Tarantino channeled Euripides – not Sophocles or Aeschylus or any other Greek playwright.

If you’re feeling daring, go back and read some of the Greek plays. There’s a lot of great ones to choose from, but may I suggest the William Arrowsmith translation of Euripides’ Hecuba and the David Grene translation Sophocles’ Prometheus Bound. When you read Prometheus Bound, you’ll see a bunch of the typically bombastic dialog that was typical for the ancient Greek theater:

Now it is words no longer: now in very truth
 The earth is staggered: in its depths the thunder
 Bellows resoundingly, the fiery tendrils
 Of the lightning flash light up, and whirling clouds
 Carry the dust along (lines 1,080 – 1,092).

See what I’m getting at? Don’t get me wrong, this is vivid, kick-ass stuff, and it plays like a house on fire when performed. Seriously, Sophocles essentially wrote the ancient Greek drama equivalent of the righteous guitarmageddon Queen wrote for the climactic space battle in the 1980 Flash Gordon. But people just don’t talk like this.

Now let’s look at some of Agamemnon’s lines from Hecuba:

Why this delay of yours, Hecuba,
 In burying your daughter? I received your message
 From Talthybius that no one should touch her,
 And I gave strict orders to that effect.
 Hence I found your delay all the more surprising
 And came to fetch you myself. In any case,
 I can report that matters there are well in hand
 And proceeding nicely—if a word like “nicely”
 Has any meaning in this connection (lines 727 – 734).

This whole passage sounds a lot more contemporary, but the last two lines are just remarkable. Agamemnon has always been power-hungry, but he’s unsure of himself and sometimes bumbling, too. Homer himself shows us this side of Agamemnon in his Iliad – a side not seen in Wolfgang Petersen’s surprisingly good Troy – but Euripides uses a self-conscious, backpedaling, lame-ass attempt at levity to show us the weaker, more human side of this great king … and he wrote this in ancient Greece! In ancient Greece, Eurpides wrote goofy, funny, gallows humor in an astonishingly contemporary voice that would make Joss Whedon proud.

That said, let’s compare passages from Hecuba to some dialog from Kill Bill. In volume one, the Bride kills Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in front of Green’s daughter. The bride says to Green’s daughter:

"It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that I am sorry. But you can take my word for it – your mother had it coming. When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it … I’ll be waiting."

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Test footage from Kill Bill, vol. 3

Here are some direct comparisons:

Tarantino: “It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that I am sorry.”

Euripides: “I pity you deeply, Hecuba, for the tragic death of this poor boy (lines 849 – 850).”

Tarantino: “Gogo, I know you feel you must protect your mistress, but I beg you … walk away.”

Euripides: “You love your son, but what do your affections matter to the Greeks? Put yourself in my position (lines 859 – 861).” (Another wonderfully nebbishy and modern line from Agamemnon’s mouth.)

Now, a few concessions: Obviously, most of the dialog in Kill Bill doesn’t have this classical flavor – but most of the classical-sounding lines belong to the Bride, and it’s the right call. Revenge is this movie’s story engine, and she, like many Greek heroines (Medea and Clytemnestra spring to mind) is a revenge machine. Furthermore, Tarantino also occasionally tempers the Bride’s lines with homespun phrases like, “she had it coming” or “if you still feel raw about it.” These rootin’-tootin’ turns of phrase are harbingers of the sweeping western that awaits us in volume two, where Beatrix will reveal herself to be a Hector, not an Achilles.

But let’s deal with the Achilles side of her personality first. The legends of old stuck Homer with an odd protagonist for his masterwork. As the story goes, those crazy Greek gods had decided well in advance of the Trojan war that Achilles would slay Hector, leaving Homer with the unenviable task of keeping us interested in not only the story, but also its protagonist: the cold, distant and vaguely sociopathic Achilles.

Achilles’ sociopathy isn’t entirely his fault; he is, after all, half-immortal (the sea nymph Thetis is his mother), and Achilles shares with his immortal brethren not only superpowers, but also their removal from humanity. Achilles and all the Greek gods simply do not understand how humans think and feel. This makes Achilles a great killer on the battlefield, but not the most interesting character.

(Goofily enough, Brad Pitt tapped into this energy quite well in Troy. There’s a larger article to be written about this ambitious movie, but Pitt’s essential weirdness as a performer – flat delivery and a general intensity – combined with his preternatural beauty allowed him to exude a pseudo-immortal superiority, even if his handling of Homer’s language was often clumsy.)

Homer sidesteps this problem by keeping Achilles in his tent sulking for much of the first part of the story and also by focusing on Achilles’ Trojan counterpart, Hector, who is a husband, father and full-blood human.

OK, what am I driving at here? Yes, in volume one, we know that Bill and his henchbabes (plus Michael Madsen’s Budd) gunned down Beatrix Kiddo’s fiancée and his family. We’re also led to believe Beatrix lost her child – a sly misdirection and revelation that Tarantino saves for volume one’s final frames. These are all perfectly understandable motivations for the Bride to go on a revenge-a-thon-kill-spree around the world.

But dammit – we just don’t know her! We don’t even get to hear her real name. Her dialog sounds like a good translation of Euripides. Again, it’s great dialog, and perfectly consistent with the story’s classical tone, but even though I like the sound and feel of her dialog, the content of her lines remains focused entirely on the task at hand. We spend most of the first volume watching her kill the living fuck out of everything that moves.

Finally, we’re getting to the fantastic violence in volume one – fantastic in the supreme amount of ass it kicks, and fantastic in its impossibility. Tarantino whets our palettes for grotesque gouts of blood during an Anime-style flashback, and then he hits us with the Bride’s apocalyptic assault on O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and her underlings, Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) and the Crazy 88s (Gordon Liu and company).

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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