After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.
Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.
When I saw the movie, I remembered the broad details of the killing of Sharon Tate and four others on Saturday , by three of Manson’s “family” of devoted young women and men, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel. I also remembered that Manson’s motive for ordering them to murder was to start a race war between blacks and whites, and that he thought he was receiving directions on how to start this war through the songs of the Beatles, once of which was titled “Helter-Skelter”. I also remembered that the Manson family had killed others, but I had completely forgotten that they also carried out murders of a couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca , not too far away the following night.
I was also stunned to read about the extraordinary incompetence of the police investigating the two sets of murders. Despite the similarities of the victims being well-off Caucasians, multiple murders of extreme savagery involving many stabbings, ropes or cords around the necks of the victims, and similar slogans daubed on walls in blood, the police decided within 24 hours that there was no connection between them. At the Tate house, the murderers had daubed the word “PIG” in blood on a door. At the LaBianca house, they had written “DEATH TO PIGS” and “Rise” in blood on two walls, and the phrase “Healter Skelter” on the fridge door. The word “WAR” was carved into Leno’s belly.
What’s more there had been an earlier murder of Gary Hinman, a musician who had befriended the Manson family, by Susa Atkins, and two other Manson followers, Bobby Beausoleil and Mary Brunner. The words “POLITICAL PIGGY” were written on the wall in blood.
An officer involved in the Hinman investigation drew this to the attention of the team investigating the Tate murders, but they dismissed it as unconnected. Two separate teams of detectives were investigating the Tate and LaBianca murders. They each had a large desk in the same room at the LAPD Homicide Division, but did not share details of their investigation with each other, and proceeded completely independently.
There were many other forms of incompetence mentioned by Bugliosi. For example, a boy who found the gun used to kill several of the Tate victims picked it up by the very end of the barrel to avoid damaging fingerprints. The officer he gave it to handled it all over with his bare hands, and emptied the bullets out and touched them. Later, in November, Susan Atkins was in prison charged with the Hinman murder and confessed to two other prisoners that she had participated in the Tate murders and described them in considerable detail. Both prisoners decided to inform the authorities and made repeated attempts to tell them about the confessions, but were ignored and refused interviews with prison staff or police.
One of them later managed to get to phone while being taken to court for her own trial, and rang the Homicide detectives to inform them of what she had been told. They took her name and booking number, but never followed up. There were many other incidents like this, the book is well worth reading for an understanding of how different a typical police investigation can be from the incredibly smart TV detectives who always put the clues together to solve the case.
But eventually the detectives put their heads together, and also started to be told by a number of people associated with the Manson family that they had heard references by some of the Manson family to the Tate killings “We got five the other night”. Eventually in November, Manson and his followers became the chief suspects. When Vincent Bugliosi was appointed prosecutor in mid-November, he kicked the investigation into high gear and spurred detectives to follow up and investigate deeper. At that stage there was no known motive and he saw the importance of identifying one and in finding clear evidence of Manson’s hold over his followers. As otherwise, it would likely seem totally implausible that Manson could order a bunch of teenage women to go out and commit brutal murders involving extreme violence and torture.
Well worth reading the book. But in very brief, it turned out that Manson was a white supremacist who hated the hippies and wanted to start a race war. They wanted to instil fear in the establishment (the “piggies”) and commit atrocious murders that would be blamed on the blacks, resulting in a race war. Manson believed that this racial holocaust, which he called “Helter-Skelter” would wipe out the whites and leave the blacks in charge. Manson would lead his family into the desert, where they would multiply until they numbered 144,000, and they would take refuge in a large cave under Death Valley. But the blacks would be incapable of running the world, and Charlie and his followers would emerge from the “bottomless pit” and become masters of the world, with the blacks acting as their servants. Manson believed that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that he remember being crucified 2000 years ago. Although he would never admit this when directly questioned, he led his followers to believe that he was Jesus Christ.
Manson’s main influences were Scientology (where he learnt various techniques for mind control and breaking down any ability to think independently from him), the Bible (particularly the Book of Revelations), the Beatles, and Hitler. He believed that the Beatles were the four angels of the Apocalypse and that a fifth angel also mentioned in Revelations was himself. The songs on the Beatles’ White Album, including the song Helter Skelter, were interpreted by Manson as prophecy of the race war which was going to happen that summer in 1969. Manson wrote to the Beatles many times, and his followers attempted to ring them several times, to invite them to join the Manson family in the underground cave. When he saw no signs that the race war was going to break out that summer, he decided to start it himself by committing multiple murders that would be blamed on the blacks. In all, Bugliosi believes that the Manson family committed between 35 and 40 murders.
Tarantino’s film has been criticised for completely omitting that the Manson Family were overt white supremacists trying to start a race war. The film writer-director, Boots Riley, has taken issue wth the Tarantino script portraying the cult members as hipplies spouting “left” critiques of the media (boots-riley-calls-out-tarantino ). He is probably referring to the scene immediately before the Manson followers break into Rick Dalton’s home. Rick had earlier confronted them about making too much noise in the road, diverting them from proceeding to the Tate house. Instead, they recognise Rick as the actor who played Jake Cahill on the TV show “Bounty Law.” Susan Atkins explains to the others how their generation grew up on television shows obsessed with murder, and says “My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill.”
I was quite taken aback when I read Riley’s criticism, which is much more disturbing than the other main criticism I’ve seen, that the portrayal of Bruce Lee was disrespectful. But this actually completely changes the meaning of the story. These were not hippies violently rebelling against a murderous establishment, these were extreme racists who wanted a race war, which would ultimately end with them enslaving the blacks again.
Why did Tarantino do this? It’s a great movie, with an unexpected twist (at least to me) and brilliant performances, and some very moving and emotional scenes and themes. So why did he leave out the key motive of the killers, and in fact, perhaps more by inference than explicitly, let the audience think they were hippies rebelling against the establishment. Was it just that he thought the “white supremacist” theme would hijack the movie by linking it in the audience’s mind to Trump’s encouragement of racism and white supremacists? Or was it that he more explicitly wanted to make a very different allegory in which an old-time cowboy and his stunt double, a pretend tough guy and a real tough guy, take down crazed hippy killers in a cathartic and satisfying way?
Is it disturbing that Tarantino suggests (even satirically, if it is satirical) that “square-jawed macho cowboys were victims of the counterculture and would have been (along with their fists, guns, and flamethrowers) the answer to its excesses” (see this review). https://www.vulture.com/2019/07/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-review-quentin-tarantino.html
Or is it simply a wonderful fairy tale that bears some relationship to the real world, but changes some parts of it very substantially?