I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life—along with a man’s family—is to make some contribution to his country.
—John S. McCain III 2
Tarantino v. McCain’s Prisoner of War Presentation
A young boy is casually watching television when a man in an army uniform enters through the door. The child is sitting in front of the 1970s TV glued to a cartoon program on the screen.
This Vietnam War veteran, Captain Koons, is here to deliverer a very special gift to this young boy. He shares, “Butch, I’ve got something for ya. This watch I’ve got here…” 1
Quentin Tarantino, the director of Pulp Fiction, uses this flashback scene between the characters, Butch and Captain Koons, to show how devastating and impactful the POW accounts have on the captured military and their family members. The truth behind the devastating prisoner of war situation is only mentioned slightly by Tarantino, but it has an underlying importance throughout the film in order to grow Butch’s character. Quentin Tarantino creatively applies many techniques of cinematography throughout Pulp Fiction in order to highlight how the POW history affects Butch and sculpts him to who he is throughout the film.
Tarantino employs shock value to explain to the viewers how the heirloom watch relates to Vietnam and Butch. While Tarantino doesn’t give a factual account of the POW situation, the viewer can look to the heroic veteran John S. McCain III and his personal POW account in Vietnam. There are some similarities between Captain Koons and John S. McCain III’s stories. Captain Koons’ report can be compared with many of the POW memories John McCain shares in his personal story involving experiences throughout the war.
Captain Koons begins talking to Butch about his and Butch’s father’s friendship during the war. Koons continues to share the detailed history of the men in Butch’s family who have served in previous wars. Not only did Butch’s father serve in a war, but his grandfather and great-grandfather also served in wars for their country. Butch and McCain’s war history is quite similar: “John S. McCain III, 37, is a 1958 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy and a trained Navy pilot. His father, Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., was commander in chief of all U. S. forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam war. His grandfather also was a four-star admiral, his great-uncle an Army general during World War I.” 2 Both of these men come from ancestors who believe in serving their countries. Captain Koons shares that he and Butch’s father became friends while “We were in that Hanoi pit of hell over five years together.” 1 John McCain was also a POW for five and a half years in North Vietnam. McCain and Butch’s family history and the amount of time the POWs spent in Vietnam mirror one another.
The golden watch given to Butch has been passed down through the family for generations even with many difficulties in delivering the watch from one member to the other. Captain Koons looks intently as he shares the story of this watch in Vietnam: “This watch was on your Daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured and put in a Vietnamese prison camp. Now he knew if the gooks ever saw the watch it [would be] confiscated.” 1 The story Captain Koons reveals seems to sound like a normal story until Tarantino adds his usual major shock factor. Koons’ next words are troublesome and shocking but almost comical: “So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide somethin’. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch.” 1 For someone to suffer with something inside him for five years, it must be something important. Captain Koons knew this and says, “The way your Daddy looked at it, that watch was your birthright.” 1 Since Butch’s father died in the POW camp, the job to deliver the watch fell into Captain Koons’ hands. He tells Butch, “I hid that uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years… And now, little man, I give the watch to you.” 1
The camera angles during Butch’s childhood perfectly depict Tarantino’s goal to show the importance of the watch to Butch and his forefathers. Almost the entire scene is filmed from Butch’s perspective as a child. This point-of-view-shot shows how Butch is taking in this information and processing it fully into his memory. Only for a couple seconds during this speech do viewers see Butch’s expression as a noddy shot. He appears to be listening intently. Tarantino perfectly portrays why this object seems to mean the world to Butch throughout Pulp Fiction.
John McCain’s POW story shares many more details of how horrible the situation in Vietnam was for these men. Tarantino’s purpose of sharing about the war isn’t to talk about the dreadfulness of the war, but at the same time Tarantino does not provide any real information to support how difficult it would be to keep a watch from the gooks. The appalling conditions for the soldiers include small quarters, little or no food, extreme dysentery, weight loss, and lack of medical services when desperately needed. All of these conditions exist in McCain’s story and help to provide knowledge about the frightful reality of the POW situation in Vietnam.
When McCain’s Skyhawk dive bomber crashed, he broke one leg and both of his arms. The medical treatment he received was less than satisfactory if he received any at all. McCain tells readers, “I tell the story to make this point: There were hardly any amputees among the prisoners who came back because the North Vietnamese just would not give medical treatment to someone who was badly injured—they weren’t going to waste their time… In fact, my treatment in the hospital almost killed me.” 2 He continues to share, “I was worried whether I could stay alive or not, because I was in rather bad condition. I had been hit with a severe case of dysentery, which kept on for about a year and a half. I was losing weight again.” 2 The conditions he was forced to live in, the few nutrients inside his food, and the constant beatings by the gooks made it continuously like “a bad merry-go-round to be on.” 2
A major part of McCain’s personal account involves his life in solitary confinement throughout the five years. He could not talk or see any other prisoners at the camp. He shares, “As far as this business of solitary confinement goes—the most important thing for survival is communication with someone, even if it’s only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up. It makes all the difference.” 2 Communicating in the camps helped to keep the prisoners positive and sane in a place where they could easily let their minds go in other directions. McCain explains his actions even when they lead to poor treatment: “But I was never going to stop. Communication with your fellow prisoners was of the utmost value—the difference between being able to resist and not being able to resist. You may get some argument from other prisoners on that. A lot depends on the individual. Some men are much more self-sufficient than others.” 2 It is obvious for McCain his key to survival was communication with the other prisoners around him.
As McCain shares there can be other ways to find a reason to survive during these five long years. Tarantino’s focus on the watch makes it seem the watch could be what helped Butch’s father and Captain Koons have a desire to stay alive in these POW camps. Many of the soldiers were obviously suffering from dysentery, but imagining someone having a gold watch up inside them while having dysentery seems much worse. The watch had to be something worth suffering for to go through that extra pain, especially since Captain Koons was willing to put it up his own butt to help deliver the watch to his friend’s son. Even with the discomfort and toll taken on both of these men’s health, the goal of delivering the watch to Butch helped the men survive as long as they both did.
McCain did not have a watch he wanted to deliver; he had a passion for his wife, kids, and country to provide his will to survive. Another way McCain made it through the camps was through prayer: “I was finding that prayer helped. It wasn’t a question of asking for superhuman strength or for God to strike the North Vietnamese dead. It was asking for moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing. I asked for comfort when I was in pain, and sometimes I received relief. I was sustained in many times of trial.” 2 McCain stayed at the POW camps for a total of five and a half years, but he was offered the chance to return home many times during these years. He did not believe he should be released before men that were at the camp before himself according to the Military Code of Conduct. McCain is a brave soldier who suffers through the POW camp until all the prisoners were freed.
McCain spent a lot of his time thinking while he was being held captive. He shares, “I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life—along with a man’s family—is to make some contribution to his country.” 2 McCain did exactly that while serving in the Vietnam War and even when he returned home to America. McCain followed in the footsteps of his family and chose to serve and contribute to America.
When first observing Butch’s life in Pulp Fiction, viewers wonder why he hasn’t chosen to serve his country. Often serving one’s country seems to be a legacy that runs in one’s family, which is why it begs the question: why is Butch not serving? It seems to be a case of atavism, and this trait has mysteriously skipped a generation. Throughout Pulp Fiction, Butch looks out only for himself until he returns back into danger to save his enemy, Marcellus Wallace. Tarantino places an American flag behind Butch when he is thinking of leaving without helping Marcellus. The flag is specifically placed to show how Butch is finally becoming like his forefathers. It is almost as if he has become an American soldier.
Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and McCain’s personal account both present details about the Vietnam War. Obviously Tarantino’s main focus of his movie is not details about the war, but he adds enough information to help develop his character of Butch. Learning information about McCain’s experiences supplements the importance of the watch to Butch. Also, Butch’s action to return and save a man despite the danger is one way for him to contribute to America just like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him.
1. Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. A Band Apart, Jersey Films, and Miramax Films, 1994. Film.
2. McCain, John. “John McCain, Prisoner of War: A First-Person Account.” U.S. News. U.S. News & World Report, 28 Jan 2008. Web. 20 Mar 2013. <http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/01/28/john-mccain-prisoner-of-war-a-first-person-account>.