By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 29, 2009)
Care to repeat that anti-Semitic remark?
World War II movies can generally be divided into four categories. There’s the no-nonsense, historically accurate docudrama (The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, Tora! Tora! Tora!). There’s the character-driven, grunt’s-eye-view yarn that is either “based on a true story” or endeavors to retain historical feasibility (Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, Hell is for Heroes). There’s the Alistair MacLean-style action-adventure fantasy; not so believable but maybe keeping at least one toe grounded in reality (Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Eagle Has Landed). And finally, there’s the “alternate reality” version (Castle Keep, The Mysterious Doctor, and The Keep). Quentin Tarantino’s new war epic, Inglourious Basterds, vacillates between action-adventure fantasy and alternate reality.
Sharing scant more than a title with the more correctly spelled 1978 original (which was itself a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen) Inglourious Basterds is ultimately less concerned with WW2 than it is with giving the audience a Chuck Workman on acid montage of 20th century cinema, “101”. It’s not like we haven’t come to expect the cinematic mash-up/movie geek parlor game shtick in Tarantino’s films, but he may have outdone himself here, referencing everything from the Arnold Fanck/Leni Riefenstahl mountain movies to Tony Montana making his final stand in Brian DePalma’s Scarface.
Tarantino wastes no time reminding us of his obsession with Sergio Leone right out of the starting gate, with a prelude cut straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West and pasted into “Nazi-occupied France”. Remember Henry Fonda’s memorably execrable villain in that film? He has a soul mate in SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a disarmingly erudite sociopath who has been assigned the task of methodically combing France to round up and eliminate any Jews hiding out in the countryside. Landa is very good at his “job”, which has earned him the nickname of “The Jew Hunter” (charming, no?).
After setting you up with an antagonist that you are going to love to hate (especially after his introductory scene) Tarantino serves up heroes that you are going to hate to love (I’m starting to think that boy makes a special effort to make his audiences squirm).
A scenery-chewing Brad Pitt stars as Lieutenant Aldo Raine (whose name, I am assuming, is homage to the late actor Aldo Ray, who was a staple player for many years in war films like Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, Men in War and The Green Berets). Lt. Raine has been charged with assembling a Geneva Convention-challenged terror squad comprised of a hand-picked group of Jewish-American G.I.s.
Their special assignment: Kill Nazis. Oh, I know what you might be thinking-“Wasn’t that the goal of the Allied forces in Europe?” Yes (if I may retort), but as I recall, the mission orders normally didn’t include a directive to take scalps (literally). And forget about taking prisoners; although they usually purposely leave a lone survivor (not before they etch out a Charlie Manson-style souvenir in his forehead).
At any rate, the self-anointed “Basterds” have managed to “carve out” quite a name for themselves, and have become the bane of evil Nazis (or as Raine refers to them in his Huckleberry Hound drawl, “gnat-sees”) everywhere (these are some bad-ass Jews). Even the Fuhrer (Martin Wuttke) fears them; he is particularly chagrined whenever the name of the dreaded “Bear Jew” (Eli Roth) is mentioned.
This particular team member (known to fellow Basterds as Sgt. Donny Donowitz) has earned his nickname from his swarthy, hulking appearance and a preference for dispatching Nazis utilizing a baseball bat (move over, Sandy Koufax). These happy Jews, this band of bubelehs have even enlisted a Nazi-hating German defector (Til Schweiger) who fits right in (i.e., he’s a complete psychopath).
This outing is not strictly a Braunschweiger fest. No Tarantino film (from Jackie Brown onward) would be complete without an ass-kicking heroine. Shosanna Dreyfus (played with smoldering intensity by Melanie Laurent) is a French Jew with a score to settle with one of the main characters (recalling “The Bride” in Kill Bill).
She’s a clandestine resistance fighter (a la Melville’s Army of Shadows) who has covered up her Jewish heritage by changing her name and “hiding in plain sight” as proprietress of a movie house (which of course conveniently affords Tarantino the opportunity to pile on the homage). Her story eventually converges with the Basterds (and her quarry), culminating in an audacious, Grand Guignol finale.
Love him or hate him, Tarantino proves once again to possess a golden ear and an eagle eye for two things: crackling dialogue, and spot-on casting. As usual, every actor seems to have been born to play his or her respective part , especially Waltz (is there a more appropriate name for an Austrian actor?). Repellent as his character is, Waltz keeps a twinkle of the pure joy of performing simmering just beneath the grease paint that is exhilarating to watch.
Pitt, who actually doesn’t get as much screen time as trailers may infer, seems to be having the time of his life. Diane Kruger is good as a German movie star who is feeding intelligence to the Allies. A heavily made-up Mike Myers can be seen as a British general; playing he type of supporting character “back at HQ” that you could picture Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins or Trevor Howard playing back in the day.
As you might expect, there are cameos a-plenty, including Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill) and Bo Svenson (a veteran from the original film). Don’t strain your eyes trying to spot cameos by QT stalwarts Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson; they are heard, but not seen. Tarantino appears as a dead German soldier getting scalped, which undoubtedly fulfills the fantasies of some of his detractors.
One aspect that makes this film an anomaly in the oeuvre is that much of the dialogue is spoken in-language by the French and German actors. It’s quite a testament to the director’s formidable writing skills that after the first few scenes, you don’t really notice that some characters will frequently switch idioms (especially the amazing Waltz, who proves equal fluency in German, French, Italian and English). Even when subtitled, the words veritably sing and dance with Tarantino’s unmistakably idiosyncratic pentameter.
In the context of purely visual storytelling, I think that Inglourious Basterds signals the director’s most assured, mature and resplendent work to date (beautifully lensed throughout by Robert Richardson, who was the DP on both Kill Bill films and previously a veteran of 11 Oliver Stone collaborations). This is particularly evident in the film’s opening scene, which immediately draws you in with an eye-filling, gorgeously expansive exterior shot of the French countryside.
The prelude to the film’s finale is the visual highlight of any QT film to date. In a possible homage to Joan Crawford’s Vienna (whose name is derived from the French word for “life”) donning her rose red blouse for the final showdown with her black-clad nemesis in Nicholas Ray’s deliriously lurid revenge western Johnny Guitar, Shosanna (whose name derives from the Hebrew word for “rose”) dons her vividly Technicolor red dress as she prepares for the showdown with her black-clad nemesis, scored with David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire” (originally the theme for Paul Schrader’s 1982 version of Cat People).
It’s a ballsy move by Tarantino, but not unlike his similarly brash gamble lifting of the theme song from Across 110th Street for Jackie Brown’s credits, I’ll be damned if it ain’t the perfect choice (maybe he figured it would have been pushing his luck to also “borrow” the “harmonica man” theme from Once Upon a Time in the West?).
Finally, I wanted to share a thought or two about the violence, which is de rigueur for any Tarantino film, and which invariably provides the catalyst for discord in any conversation between QT disciples and QT detractors. Yes, scalping is an abhorrent, gruesome thing to watch. There are stabbings, shootings, and deaths by strangulation and bludgeoning. This is not Pinocchio.
Yet, if you were to add up all of this simulated mayhem in screen time, I’m guesstimating that it wouldn’t be more than 10 minutes (out of a 153 minute total running time). With the possible exception of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (an over-the-top affair in the bloodletting department by anyone’s standards) I think that the knee-jerk tendency is to perceive a higher ratio of violence in Tarantino’s films than actually exists.
In fact, do you know which scene has the most white-knuckled, edge-of-your seat, heart-pounding suspense in this film? People playing a game of Celebrity Heads. I won’t spoil it for you; just know that wherever Alfred Hitchcock is, he’s probably looking down on QT with a nod and a wink…from one inglourious basterd to another.