Parallelism in BTTF, or: Doc and Marty, willing to lay down their lives for each other since 1885
Ooookay, so, pet theory time. I believe that the showdown between Marty and Buford in part 3 was a deliberate, intentional inversion of the scene(s) between Doc and the Libyans in part 1. YES, thematically and tonally they were very different scenes. But consider the parallels, which go far beyond the obvious bulletproof vest/stove door thing.
In part 1, Doc does a dumb and gets mixed up with Libyan terrorists, ie a bunch of killers. In part 3, Marty does just as much of a dumb and gets mixed up with Buford’s gang, a bunch of killers. In both cases it was to get something important to them - Plutonium for Doc, to see his dream of a time machine come true, and saving Doc’s life at the dance for Marty, to fulfill his dream of, well, not having to lose the person he cares most about in the world. Again.
But for both of them, when the consequences come around finally, when the killers in question finally track them down, it’s just this moment of dull shock–this is real, this is really happening.
In part 1, Doc tells Marty to run for it and shouts that he’ll ‘draw their fire’. Which he then proceeds to do, distracting the Libyans away from Marty to give him a chance to escape. The last thing on earth that he wants is for Marty to have to pay the price for his dumb decision. Meanwhile in part 3, Marty’s given an explicit choice that runs in the same vein: take responsibility for his own mistake and draw Buford’s attention and aggression away from Doc, or don’t. Of course he does, because just like Doc in part 1, he cannot even consider letting Doc pay for his mistakes.
In both cases, they are completely outgunned, and they know it. The terrorist has an AK-47 versus Doc’s jammed little revolver, and while Marty might have weaponry on par with Buford’s and is a good shot, he doesn’t stand a chance against a quickdraw expert with no hesitation to kill. So Doc throws his gun to the ground, hoping to invoke a civilized response–he’s surrendered and is unarmed, and anyone with honor wouldn’t shoot. Marty drops his gun to the ground as well, and explicitly invokes the above: that if they’re both men, both honorable, it doesn’t need to come to shooting.
And in both cases, they know there’s no possible chance of that happening. They know it’s hopeless. They’re going to be shot down, because their opponents are not honorable people. But it’s the only option either of them has that’s in any way true to character.
And the expected happens, of course. We see them shot and see them go down, in each case from the other’s perspective.
The reaction shots. I don’t think I need to say much here…aside from petting these poor babies on the head, ugh. But yeah, if Doc’s expression in part 3 wasn’t a deliberate recreation of Marty’s expression in part 1, I would be very, very surprised.
While the threat is still active, they both are forced to play dead for a certain length of time, which of course is hell on the one watching from the sidelines.
Now to be fair, this is where some of the details start to diverge - in part 1, the Libyans go on to threaten Marty, who escapes; in part 3, Buford already threatened Doc, before the scene began. Additionally, exactly how the threat is dispatched is very different in the two films. But I’m not looking for a shot for shot recreation here; that’s not what parallelism is about.
So! Moving on.
Of course it turns out that, despite bulletholes in their clothes, they’re both actually still alive, though visibly sort of stunned and shaken up.
…because bulletproof vest/stove door, which is the most obvious parallel and the one I’m sure everyone already knows, because, yeah, obvious callback. Also, in both cases, the locations of the bullet hits make it pretty darn clear that without the protection, they both would have been dead before they hit the ground. Which is pretty harrowing, esp since we know that the first time through in part 1, Doc didn’t have it.
And, of course, the warning from the future. Different kinds of warning, which they came upon in different ways, but there’s nothing like being told exactly how and when you’re going to die to make you do something about it.
So, in conclusion, these scenes bookend each other - we’re shown from the start that Doc is willing to throw his life on the line to save and protect Marty, and this isn’t much of a surprise even on the first viewing, because we’re all pretty familiar with the dynamic of the protective mentor figure sacrificing themselves for their beloved surrogate child. But then at the end, we learn that Marty is just as willing to sacrifice himself for Doc, which is NOT something we’re used to seeing. It shows how balanced and equal the relationship is, how full circle it has come, and casts doubt on the idea that Doc’s sacrifice in part 1 ever had anything to do with the sort of cliche protective mentor idea at all.
Perhaps it was always, ultimately, an act of accountability and of love–an act that Marty reciprocates in part 3, without hesitation, doubt, or regret.