You might have seen in the news lately that Tarantino is being sued for copyright issues over Django Unchained. A father and son writing duo are claiming that the director stole several key narrative elements from a script that they wrote back in 2004. But this can surely come as no surprise; Tarantino is a director famous for borrowing and pinching ideas and themes from the films of his youth, films that he most likely watched during his time working at a video shop in Manhattan Beach. So it’s understandable that somewhere along the line, some pissed-off screenwriter is going to find something awfully familiar about one of his films.
Does this make Tarantino an unoriginal thief? Well, he has stated in the past that he steals “from every single movie ever made”, so let’s take a look at some of the films he has quite clearly borrowed from:
Starting with Reservoir Dogs, his debut film that burst onto our screens all the way back in 1992. It’s a film bursting with creativity and innovation, but there are some elements that might seem familiar to a few. For example, the entire plot of a botched jewellery heist is rather similar to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 noir crime caper, The Killing, where a robbery at the races goes equally awry. The idea to assign each of the criminals a colour codename is also pinched from the 1974 crime thriller The Taking of Pelham One, Two Three (not to be confused with the below-par Tony Scott remake). In Joseph Sargent’s original, Robert Shaw plays Mr. Blue, Martin Balsam plays Mr. Green and Hector Elizondo plays Mr. Grey. Of course the infamous Mexican standoff scene that concludes Reservoir Dogs is rather Leone-esque in style, but it actually owes more debt to the 1987 Hong Kong action film, City on Fire.
Figure 1: The Mexican standoff finale in Reservoir Dogs
Figure 2: The Mexican stand off finale in City on Fire
Both films involve a police officer infiltrating a gang of jewel thieves and in both climaxing scenes, there is the undercover cop (Tim Roth/ Chow Yun Fat) being found out by the remaining gang members.
The two volumes of Kill Bill are also laced with references and nods to older films. The yellow jumpsuit that Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo dons is basically a pimped out replica of an outfit Bruce Lee wore in Game of Death (1978). However, Kill Bill more closely resembles Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 samurai film, Lady Snowblood. Fujita’s film follows a female warrior who is out to avenge the people who put her mother in prison, and is comparable to Tarantino’s film in terms of image and style.
Figure 3: The Bride and O-Ren Ishii squaring off in Kill Bill: Vol.1
Figure 4: Meiko Kaji in action as Yuki Kashima in Lady Snowblood
In Japan, white is the colour of death, and red the colour of life, and the fact that The Bride’s final showdown with Lucy Liu’s O-Ren should take place on a snowy night in Tokyo is a clear nod to Lady Snowblood.
Tarantino’s homage to the Spaghetti Western, Django Unchained is perhaps the film that is the most obvious in its references and nods to older works. The title itself is clearly a reference to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western, Django, and the similarities don’t just end with the title. Both their opening sequences are unbelievably similar in their uses of desolate landscapes, the big bold, red letters that are the central focus, and the overlay of the exact same song, that being Luis Bacalov’s ‘Django’.
Figure 5: The opening credits of Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012)
Figure 6: The opening credits in Corbucci’s Django
Even the director’s new film, The Hateful Eight is similarly overt about its influences. Despite being a Western, the three-hour masterpiece bears uncanny resemblances to John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 horror, The Thing. Both films star Kurt Russell, both are underpinned by a rather haunting Ennio Morricone score, both involve a group of men penned in by a blizzard, and both end with a black man and a white man being left to almost certain death.
All filmmakers are open about their influences, but there’s no one who is as explicit and on the nose about them as Tarantino is, because as you can see, he is clearly a filmmaker who blatantly pinches and borrows ideas from older works. But this surely means that he lacks originality, how can a man who steals, “from every movie ever made”, be a genius?
It’s the way that Tarantino reworks these influences and references and turns them into something totally unique, something totally original, and something totally ‘Tarantino’. The way in which he tackled the gravely serious topic of slavery (Django Unchained) and placed it somewhere between Blaxploitation and the Spaghetti Western is extraordinary, and what is even more extraordinary is the fact that he got away with it (despite any reservations from Spike Lee).
For cinema to traditionally work, the audience must become passive, in order to become fully immersed into the world of the film. However, in Tarantino’s cinema, the audience becomes active, almost ‘filmspotting’ throughout, looking out for the next reference or nod. In his early work, the films were, in a way, written from within the audience, the characters in Reservoir Dogs, or Pulp Fiction are audience members themselves; they talk about the same Madonna songs and the same burger restaurants that the audience does. For Tarantino to turn this traditional and set-in-stone aspect of cinema on its head is another unique facet of the director’s oeuvre.
In the same way that you would label a film a Comedy, a Horror, or even ‘Lynchian’, you could call a film ‘Tarantinian’. He is a director who is so unique and original that he has created his own genre, and despite any negative critics, or any copyright issues with his work, Tarantino is undoubtedly one of the select few geniuses still working in contemporary cinema.