“CARRYING THE TORCH”

A thematic analysis of

THE GOLD WATCH STORY
in Quentin Tarantino’s

PULP FICTION

by Rob Ager © 2009

 

Watch the video version or scroll down and read the text version.

PART ONE

PART TWO

 

About this aricle I’ll start off here by describing which aspects of Pulp Fiction this article will NOT explore. First, I won’t attempt to affect whatever opinion you have about Quentin Tarantino’s talent, ability and reputation as a director. I’ll also not be exploring the various other scenes outside of THE GOLD WATCH story. By GOLD WATCH STORY I’m basically referring to Bruce Willis’s character Butch Coolidge. Other characters will only be discussed in terms of their relevance or impact upon Butch’s story.

The Gold Watch story is generally attributed as originating from a Roger Avery script called “Pandemonium Reigns”. Although there has been considerable debate about whether enough credit was given to Avery, we will not be exploring this issue either. We also won’t be discussing whether Pulp Fiction would have been a better film if edited in its correct chronological order. Quite simply these topics have already been exhausted by other writers. So as we explore the depth and intelligence of The Gold Watch story, I trust that you’ll find this article much more fresh and rewarding than if I were to write about the aformentioned topics. So let’s commence with the topic at hand.

 

Butch is introduced to us in a scene which chronologically precedes every other event in the film. As a child he is told by a friend of his fathers about his family history relating to war. The Gold Watch, which has been passed on for four generations, is presented as being of the utmost importance – as if losing it would be a failure to carry on the famly bloodline. The watch symbolizes whatever virtues of character Butch’s forefathers would expect him to uphold. These virtues aren’t described outright, but the family history of fighting in battlefields brings to mind the virtues of strength, courage and honour. Historically, it was unfashionable for men to wear wristwatches prior to World War One. They were specifically adopted for use by soldiers because of their practicality in the battlefield. So when Koonz refers to the gold watch as “Your grandaddy’s war watch”, he isn’t just speaking metaphorically.

Captain Koons tells Butch “Hopefully, you’ll never have to experience this yourself” before going into detail about the POW camp in Nam. However, for Butch to carry on the family virtues symbolized by the watch, it’s essential that he does experience the battlefield hardships of his forefathers. And this is exactly the journey that unfolds for him in the remainder of the film. Although we don’t see him soldiering in the military sense, Butch’s battles with Marcellus Wallace (and Wallace’s henchmen) are chok full of subliminal details relating to the wars fought by his forefathers.

When the gold watch is held out to young Butch, he swiftly grabs the family heirloom and we cut to Butch preparing for a boxing match. His choice of a boxing career is undoubtedly a continuation of the fighting spirit of his forefathers. This is emphasized by the ring of a boxing bell that punctuates young Butch grabbing the watch from Captain Koons’ hand. It’s also re-emphasized in a later scene as Butch enters his apartment to retrieve the watch. We see a variety of boxing medals on display. He’s a proud fighter.

However, chronologically the scene that follows on from Butch as a child is the bribery scene, which is prior to the boxing fight. The significance of pride as a family bloodline virtue is a key element of the bribery scene, because it’s Butch’s pride that is under direct attack from Marcellus. After telling Butch that he’s too old to make it as a boxer, Marcellus adds insult to injury, “That’s pride fucking’ wit’ you. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts. It never helps. … You my nigger?” Butch maintains a deadpan expression, but subtly insults Marcellus back by virtually announcing that he’s going to betray him, “It certainly appears so”.

Pride resurfaces as the core issue between Butch and Marcellus as they fight in the store. Butch, punching Marcellus in face, “You see that. That’s pride fuckin’ wit’ you.”

But pride isn’t the only virtue at stake for Butch. After he falsely accepts the bribery offer, Vincent Vega insults him at the bar, “You aint my friend Palooka … I think you heard me just fine punchy.” Butch looks upon Vincent and Marcellus greeting each other with hugs, as he realizes that they look upon him as a brainless punchbag. So Butch goes out of his way to prove them wrong. He not only makes himself a pile of cash by both accepting the bribe and laying bets on himself to win the fight, but he also punishes Marcellus by letting the word out about the supposed fix. As well as Marcellus losing all his bets, it would become common knowledge on the boxing circuit that Butch had utterly outsmarted him in business. Even the risk of capture, brutal punishment and certain death by Marcellus’ henchmen isn’t enough to sway Butch from defending his pride as a fighter and a strategist.

After Butch wins the fight by killing the boxer he was supposed to lose to, he has a conversation with someone called “Scotty” in a telephone booth. He tells Scotty, “It’ll take me and Fabienne a couple of days to get down to Knoxville.”  This hideout destination is of paramount importance because, as Captain Koons explained to young Butch, the all-important gold watch was bought in a general store by his great grandfather in, of all places, Knoxville, Tennessee. Butch even verbally links the concept of watches to the Knoxville hideout, “Next time I see you it’ll be on Tennessee time.” Apparently Tarantino was also born in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Another subliminal connection between Butch’s battle and the battles of his forefathers can be found in the two scenes from which he awakens from nightmares. The first, as already mentioned, was a cut in straight from young Butch grabbing the gold watch from the captain – implying that he was dreaming about his father’s ordeal as a POW. In the second instance of Butch waking from a nightmare, a noisy war film called Nam’s Angels is playing on the TV set. Again we have an aesthetic association between Butch’s nightmares and the Vietnam ordeals of his father. Butch asks what the movie is. His girlfriend, Fabienne, replies, “I’m not sure the name.” Butch asks, “Are you watching it?” She replies “In a way” as she stands reflected in the TV screen, as if she’s actually in the war film.

A few minutes later Butch discovers that the gold watch is missing from their luggage and he responds by flipping out and throwing the TV set. This could be a further symbolic connection to the war film content.

Butch then parks his car and proceeds on foot to reacquire the watch. Pay close attention to this scene. It is infused with details relating to the infiltration of a POW camp. In a long steadicam shot, we follow Butch as he sneaks through an alley … then a hole in a wire fence … and as he climbs over another fence. Listen also to some of the background noises dubbed over the scene. Faintly, we can hear a helicopter and barking dogs. In case you think these war-themed sound effects are incidental, listen to the radio that plays through a window in the alley. It’s an advert for Jack Rabbit Slims, where Vincent Vega took Mia for dinner in one of the film’s other stories. The sound effects in this scene have been specifically chosen for thematic effect.

Once in the apartment, Butch guns down Vincent with a machine gun – yet another war reference. And after leaving the premises we hear more war related sound effects - airplanes and then motorbikes as Butch gets back in the Honda. Motorbikes were very prominent in the war film that his girlfriend was watching.

By taking such a great risk to retrieve the watch, Butch is displaying the same courage as his forefathers. He had an incredible stroke of luck by finding the machine gun while Vincent was in the lavatory, but this is paralleled by two pieces of unbelievable bad luck.

The first is his accidental encounter with Marcellus. After running him over, war in the streets commences as Butch is chased on foot. This reaches it’s zenith in the general store, where Butch’s second stroke of bad luck occurs. He and Marcellus are captured by a couple of psychotic rapists. The general store is another link to Butch’s family history and the gold watch. Remember that the gold watch was purchased in a general store by Butch’s great grandfather. The symbolic connection is confirmed in several set details, which are most prominent after Butch knocks out the gimp. As he stands near the shop entrance, debating with himself whether to go back and save Marcellus, a couple of license plates are displayed on the wall behind him. The one nearest to Butch is a Tennessee license plate. Then as Butch begins searching for a weapon look at the wall farthest from the camera. On it is a big yellow clock with the word “DAD” written in the centre - a direct reference to his father's gold watch. In fact there are at least six clocks on display in the store.

The importance of time was also subtly established as Captain Koonz explained the watch. At different points he either holds the watch up for us to see, or we are shown close ups of the watch in his fingers. Look at the times displayed on the watch in these shots. The whole scene, from our perspective, only lasts for a few minutes, but the changing times on the watch suggest that the Captain’s speech went on for a much longer period of time. The passing of time is also hinted at by the Captain going into a brief trance during his speech.

Returning to the encounter with the hillbillies in the general store, yet another parallel can be found with Butch’s family history of war atrocities. Captain Koonz described the POW camp, where Butch’s father died, as a “Hanoi pit of hell.” The hillbilly dungeon of rape and murder is Butch’s “pit of hell”, and he must overcome its hardship so that he can pass on the gold watch to the next generation.

The anal rape scene could even be a parallel of Butch’s father having to hide the gold watch “up his ass” for five long years, and it’s also very relevant to Marcellus Wallace. After all it’s he who gets raped. In an earlier scene Marcellus is seen interrogating a man as to his possible involvement in Butch reversing the fight result. He’s asked about what to do with Butch’s trainer. His reply, “Take him to the kennels. Set the dogs on his ass. We’ll find out for damn sure what he knows.” Then when asked about Butch, “If he goes to Indochina I want a nigger in a bowl of rice ready to pop a cap in his ass.” And while attempting to bribe Butch he says “In the fifth your ass goes down.” It seems that Marcellus’ preoccupation with punishing his enemies “in the ass” comes back to haunt him. These could be incidental pieces of dialogue, but the reference to Indochina is no doubt another aesthetic link to Vietnam.

Butch’s choice of a samurai sword to slay the first hillbilly is also fitting in that it suggests another of his family virtues – honour, a trait strongly associated with samurai. But more prominent as a symbol of honour is the fact that Butch went back in to save Marcellus. This is important because it relates to Captain Koonz’ description of friendship in the POW camp, “When two men are in a situation like me and your Dad were, you take on certain responsibilities of the other.” Butch and Marcellus are symbolic POWs. The friendship of Captain Koonz and Butch’s father is paralleled by the dispute resolution between Butch and Marcellus. Their relationship is amusingly commented upon by specific song lyrics. In the bribery scene, the Al Green song “Let’s Stay Together” pretty much sums up what I’ll loosely call Butch and Marcellus’ friendship, “Why do people break up … then turn around and make up.” The lyric parallel gets even more specific when Marcellus walks across a street, only to turn and see Butch sat in a car. The radio happily spouts “It’s good to see you. I must go. I know I look a fright.”

Possibly the most important factor in Butch's decision to save Marcellus is his ongoing nightmares about his father's captivity in a POW camp. Perhaps as a child Butch had fantasized regularly about wanting to rescue his father from his hell hole in Vietnam. After all the pain he'd felt about what his own father's abuse, how could Butch possibly leave Marcellus to suffer years of torment as the next gimp. So by rescuing Marcellus, he's subjectively rescuing his own father. Again the samurai sword comes into play as a symbolic connection to Eastern culture. It's the type of weapon a prisoner might find while escaping a POW camp in Vietnam.

After the hillbilly dungeon horror is over, Butch makes his escape in yet another parallel with the war film that Fabienne was watching. He escapes on a motorbike, which he twice tells Fabienne is called “a chopper”. This motorbike is more than likely a reference to the motorbikes seen in the Nam's Angels war movie. And so Butch's story ends with he and Fabienne escaping from their LA warzone on "a chopper".

 

Additonal points of interest.

Butch is referred to twice by Captain Koonz as “little man” and Marcellus is referred to as “the big man”.

The film’s use of racial inferences is itself a complex subject. Relating to Butch’s story Marcellus asked him when offering the bribe “You my nigger?” but a minute later Vincent and Jules are waiting to see Marcellus and the barman says, “You see white boy leave, go on over.”

In the long shot, from the bar, we see that Butch is sat facing Marcellus and directly behind Marcellus is a huge mirror. Whether this bares any thematic relevance I’m unsure.

Vincent called Butch “Palooka” in the bar scene. Palooka was an old cartoon strip about a boxer. Wikipedia’s page on Palooka shows an issue of the strip, which shows the character punching Nazis out of a submarine. Perhaps by pure coincidence, Palooka was adapted into a one-act play by Tennessee Williams.

A very odd visual touch is that a black and white background is shown behind Butch as he rides in a cab after the fight, even though we’re watching a colour film.

The cartoon that young Butch watches is called Clutch Cargo. The specific episode shown features dialogue about Totem poles. The shot of Butch driving away from the genral store on Zed’s chopper reveals a large carving of a Native American stood near the window.

Butch wipes his finger prints from the machine gun after killing Vincent, even though it’s his own apartment where the murder took place.

When Butch and Marcellus fight in the store, Butch grabs a bottle of liquid from the counter before attacking Marcellus. What was the bottle and why did he grab it?

 

In summation here I’d like to add that the many critics who claimed the hillbilly rape dungeon scenes of Pulp Fiction to be sick exploitation were way off the mark. The Gold Watch story is an intelligent and symbolically rich piece of film making. If I were to take a shot at summarizing its message in a single sentence I would describe it as “the story of one man’s effort to not only carry on the virtues of his forefathers, but to also remember the sacrifices that his forefathers made.”

As usual, feedback and additional info related to this article is welcome. Thanks for reading.

 

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