The Way It Should Have Been

I need to talk about the greatest moviegoing catharsis of my life. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while and now that I’m between books, I need to capture it even though I figure it’ll bore some.

Oh, shameless plug: Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, published by GoodKnight Books, drops Tuesday, September 28. Lots more coming about this soon but for now, back to our story.

When I was growing up, Charles Manson managed to claim a place in the environment, like those steel plants in the Mon Valley that belched smoke into the air I breathed every day. Just like that, Manson polluted the earth by corrupting souls on the one hand and snuffing out lives on the other. We lived with Manson and his followers for decades and decades as they rotted in jail. Every so often one of them would come up for parole and state the case why they should be set free, and all of us on the outside went, No.

Just, No.

And all the while, in that expanse of time, ever widening, Sharon Tate remained dead, and the child she was carrying, and those who died with her—Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, along with Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, murdered the next night. And there were other murders before and after. All these people should have been living all those years and none of them were because of Charles Manson.

When Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood came along in 2019, I was skeptical and didn’t know what to expect. How would the Manson experience be presented? Would he be glorified? Even if he wasn’t, how could any of us live through the nightmare all over again? Then upon release I started hearing raves from my friends. “A crackerjack show!” wrote one. “A triumph! You’ll love it!” said another. Wait, what? A movie about Charles Manson and Sharon Tate??

But I just sat through that ending and experienced the pure magic all over again for maybe the, I don’t know, seventh time?


If you haven’t seen the picture and intend to, stop reading. I’ll place a photo below—Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, and director Quentin Tarantino—to create some space so you can avert your gaze and click away from my page.

In the movie, self-doubting TV star Rick Dalton lives just down the hill from Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. On the horrible night, when Manson disciples Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel drive up Cielo toward the Tate house, Dalton belligerently orders them off his private street. He has no idea who they are or their intentions; he just wants them gone. As a result of the confrontation, they decide they must kill Dalton before proceeding on to kill everyone in the house at the end of Cielo Drive.

What follows inside Dalton’s house after the killers break in should be horrifying, and it is. This is one of the most violent, cringeworthy five minutes in the history of a major motion picture. But I for one and I suspect many or most of my generation find it to be beautiful and poetic.

As Rick Dalton floats in his backyard pool wearing headphones and listening to music, best friend and stunt man Cliff Booth and sidekick Brandy, a pit bull, take on Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel in the living room. Each of the murderers dies a more horrible death than the last at the hands of our heroes—Rick is jolted from his in-pool reverie in time to deliver the coup de grâce to Susan Atkins, who was arguably the worst of the lot.

A friend of mine born after the 1969 Manson murders watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and said she wasn’t impressed; she didn’t get it. And of course you’d be lost throughout because this is an ode to that era with dozen upon dozen pop culture references designed to make baby boomers smile. But you really wouldn’t get the ending unless you lived through the butchering of innocent people and then Manson’s self-aggrandizing attempts to make a mockery of the justice system.

Finally, on the 50th anniversary of those summer 1969 murders, justice was served if only in Tarantino’s alternate reality. From the turnabout killings of the would-be killers to the fade out where Sharon, Jay and the others live happily ever after to Maurice Jarre’s haunting main credits soundtrack theme lifted from the 1972 western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, I take temporary satisfaction that every so often, for a little while, something wrong has been put to right.

I remember seeing Judge Roy Bean on first run in 1972 and not liking it very much; it was written by John Milius, who has been a big influence on Tarantino’s writing style. This fictionalized western about a real-life good-bad guy in West Texas began with a title screen that read, “… Maybe this isn’t the way it was … it’s the way it should have been.” And that is the brilliance of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s the way it should have been in the summer of 1969, and my friends and I appreciate the intention and the feelings it leaves behind.


  1. Robert, I agree with you entirely. Only those of us who lived through the actual drama of this time could actually enjoy the turn of this movie. Although revenge is considered an undesirable trait, this movie gives us the ability to live vicariously through the ending of this movie.

    1. Julie, I almost didn’t post this column because I wondered if people would be offended by my guilty pleasure at the vengence depicted onscreen. It’s quite a relief to find out I’m not alone because of the comments posted here and reactions in email. Thanks!

  2. Exactly, I too sat through this haunting movie, with surges of nausea and darkness pervading my spirit at all the signs embedded in the early parts. I knew I needed to NOT return to hell. Yet, Tempting Tarantino, with all his brilliant and redeeming renditions of other historical moments, held me fast. I stayed the course, because it was “a Tarantino.”

    I too, replayed that ending, that glorious horribly violent oxymoronic (great violence) ending, over and over and over. Justice at last. The movie didn’t actually change history but it certainly exorcised some of those demons which damaged our eternal souls. For those few moments, in Tarantino’s best storytelling movie yet, life had balance; life was good. I had an overwhelming desire to hug that genius. Tarantino is my hero.

    As a Dark Shadows fan, I especially loved those nods to the 1966 tv gothic soap opera, the bus stop bench and Barnabas’ wolf head cane.

    Cliff, Brandy and Rick, restored my faith in humankind. Bravo!

    1. I agree that it’s haunting, Terry, and we’re bombarded with so many bits of trivia that I’m still finding them on the repeat viewings.

      1. The ultimate horror though, belongs to Debra Tate, who is forced to relive the nightmare and come face to face with the Butchers every time there is a parole board.

  3. I wasn’t around when all of this happened, and I never looked into all the details but I knew the general story and I was dreading the ending of this movie. It was nice to see this alternative version of history where they really got what they deserved, but I wondered how many people watching the movie would even understand or know what actually happened. Would they have even known it was based on real people?

    1. Yes, Kendal, as the killers walked up Cielo Drive I wanted to cover my eyes and look through my spread fingers, and then what happened happened, I went, “Oh. Oh! Excellent!”

  4. I’ve seen “Once…..” twice and loved it. It’s brilliant on so many levels. To truly appreciate it though, I really feel you need to understand the horror of the murders and what was going on in 1969 at that time. Otherwise, the moviegoer can’t really see the wonder of Tarantino’s ending. The characters in the film are perfect for that time and place. Thus is my favorite Tarantino film.

  5. I’ve just finished reading “Mission” and really enjoyed the book. It was a great work and I appreciate the chance to read about James Stewart and the men who flew with him. I noted however, a mistake on page 356 concerning Colonel Terrill. While there was a Colonel Robert Terrill who ended his life as you described at Arlington National Cemetery, the “rest of the story” information was not about Stewart’s commanding officer. Stewart’s commander retired as Lieutenant General Robert Haynes Terrill. He died in 1982 and was buried in the US Air Force Academy Cemetery. In 2000, his wife Bettie died at 90 years old and was buried beside her husband. Information on his career can be found in the West Point Directory and on the Find A Grave website. I just thought you would want to know the tragic fate of one officer in 2014 was not the same person we learned to appreciate in your fine book. Regards, Steve

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Steven. Regarding Robert Terrill, after the hardcover was released in 2016, I learned of the error regarding Terrill and it was corrected in subsequent editions, such as the trade paperback. It’s always a problem when a book goes to press: any error lives on, and that’s why I try my best not to make any. Above all, I want to thank you for your service to our country. It’s an honor that you read and enjoyed Mission.

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