An audacious and inventive amalgamation of spaghetti westerns and WWII exploitation films, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a real pleasure to watch.
Tarantino is a contentious director whose inspiration from other movies is often debated, and while I don’t think Basterds will win him any converts, his love of film really shines through here, whether it’s references to German cinema icons G.W. Pabst and Leni Riefenstahl (and Emil Jannings, who actually features in the proceedings) or a direct homage to Sergio Leone.
Like in the first scene, which takes its cue from the opening of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and makes wonderful use of music by Ennio Morricone. Instead of Henry Fonda, it’s Col. Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), who shows up at a French farmhouse in 1941 looking for Jews in hiding. He finds them, and massacres them, though one escapes: Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who we’ll get back to later in the film. Nevertheless, we haven’t seen scenes like this since Leone departed, but here is an immaculate reproduction, faithfully and lovingly recreated.
And who are the Inglourious Basterds? They’re a squad of Jewish-American Nazi hunters operating under the command of Lt. Aldo ‘The Apache’ Raine (Brad Pitt) – a nod to Aldo Ray? – who explains their mission in his opening monologue: to find and kill and strike fear in the hearts of Nazis. They’ll do so, in part, by scalping their victims.
The moral ambiguity in the film is beautiful: during one scene, Aldo and his men have captured a Nazi sergeant. Aldo asks him to point out the location of a nearby regiment, to which to sergeant “respectfully declines”. Donny ‘The Bear Jew’ Donowitz (Eli Roth) comes out and points a baseball bat at a medal on his uniform: “You get that for killin’ Jews?” “Bravery.” Donowitz bashes his skull in, cheered on by his compatriots.
The Americans as presented here are brutish and by all measures unsympathetic, the Nazi general honorable. But representative of a greater evil. It’s powerful, provocative stuff.
I’ve barely touched on the plot of the film. In 1944 Shosanna finds herself running a cinema in Paris. She catches the eye of Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who is starring in the new film produced by Joseph Goebbels. He’s smitten with her and wants to hold the premiere of the film at her cinema; she begins plotting her revenge.
Meanwhile, British Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender) is briefed on Operation Kino, which involves meeting up with the Basterds in a small French village and making contact with a German double-agent, actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
Eventually, paths cross with Col. Landa and Shosanna, and an outrageous and highly memorable climax wonderfully rewrites history. The thrust of the Inglourious Basterds seems to be a riff on Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with Shosanna as the good, Landa the bad, and Aldo the Ugly. The use of cultural stereotypes to reinforce these – and other – characters is nothing short of brilliant.
Acting is, as it is in most Tarantino films, uniformly excellent. Pitt, with his thick Tennessee drawl, has never been better, and Waltz steals the film as Landa, as he dances beautifully through four different languages. Stunt casting, like Hostel director Eli Roth as Donowitz and Mike Myers as a British general, or uncredited voice work by Samuel Jackson or Harvey Keitel, is never distracting as feared.
Inglourious Basterds is an impeccably crafted film with superb costume and set design and cinematography (by Robert Richardson) and an excellent use of music, including a number of Morricone tracks. It is, for better or worse and despite the period setting, a Tarantino film through and through; your appreciation of the movie may hinge on your feelings towards the director.
He has his share of detractors; I think he’s one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema, and he continues to prove it with each successive film.
The title of the film – misspellings taking from the term etched by a soldier into the butt of a rifle – is a reference to Enzo G. Castellari’s 1977 Inglorious Bastards, an Italian version (or ripoff) of The Dirty Dozen. Castellari’s film wasn’t much good, and thankfully, Tarantino’s film shares almost no similarities with it other than the title (though Castelleri and Bastards star Bo Svenson have cameo roles).