Inglourious savages

September 10, 2009

Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's contribution to Hollywood's long list of movies on the Second World War--but he hasn't added much.

THE "LOVE of movies" can sometimes get in the way of making a great film. A case in point is Quentin Tarantino's latest film Inglourious Basterds.

This film is a fantasy adventure centered on the exploits of an American Special Forces unit during the Second World War, who are dropped behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France on the eve of the Normandy invasion. Their job is to spread panic and fear among German soldiers through their brutal methods of killing--particularly, the scalping of captured and disarmed German prisoners. (This is, by the way, a war crime--but that doesn't seem to concern the director.)

The Germans dub them the "basterds"--the misspelling of the word in the movie title is Tarantino's "artistic flourish," as he called it during a recent interview. It is largely based on a 1978 B-movie of the same name.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads the "basterds." He is straight out of central casting, the walking stereotype of a cracker lieutenant. In his opening speech to his new unit, Raine calls for cruelty toward the enemy and 100 scalps from each of his men. "I will have my scalps," he tells them.

The unit is initially made up of Jewish Americans. They all earn nicknames from the Germans, who grow terrified of the prospect of any potential encounter with them. This is especially true of the strangely named "Bear Jew" (Eli Roth), whose signature is to kill captured and unarmed Germans with a baseball bat. (By the way, this is another war crime.)

A German soldier, Hugo Stiglitz, who went on an unexplained killing spree of German officers, also joins the ranks of the basterds. Savagery is their business, and business is good. The question you're probably asking yourself is, who are the heroes in this movie?

The basterds take a detour from their sadistic killing spree when they are given orders to hook up with a British film critic-turned-secret agent Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and German actress (and Allied agent) Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). They plot to kill Hitler and the entire Nazi high command at the premiere of new German propaganda film at a theater in Paris.

Review: Movies

Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Walz and Diane Kruger.

By a funny coincidence, the theater owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), has plans of her own to kill them. She is a Jew who escaped capture and was hidden by the late theater owners who posed as her aunt and uncle.

The man who torments them all and attempts to thwart their plans is Nazi officer Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Walz). The multilingual, obsequiously well-mannered Landa is the epitome of evil. He is popularly known as the "Jew Hunter" in France. As you can probably guess, the climax of the film is a massive bloodbath that is the trademark of virtually all of Tarantino's films.

WHAT ARE we to make of this film? It has proven popular at the box office and among most film critics. Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics, called Inglourious Basterds a "big, bold, audacious war movie." But does this make it a good movie? I don't think so.

This isn't to say that there aren't parts of the film that are brilliant. I think the opening scene is one of the best in many years. A tension-laden scene in the village bar is another. The acting of Christoph Walz is incredible. But, ultimately, these things don't hold the film together. Ebert says, "The film embeds Tarantino's love of the movies." True. But this mishmash of styles makes this film disjointed, even juvenile.

The scenes in Inglourious Basterds that are the most Tarantino-like--the gratuitous violence and overblown music with mostly American actors--are the weakest parts of the film. In sharp contrast, the most un-Tarantino-like scenes with European actors speaking in German and French are the strongest.

Ebert praises Tarantino for providing us with a much-needed "alternative ending" to the Second World War. I'm all for fantasy adventure films, but why would the entire Nazi leadership go to a film premiere in Paris while the Allied forces are racing to capture the city? (In real life, Hitler ordered the city to be burned, but those orders were never carried out.)

The film may be bold and audacious, but that doesn't mean that it's at all challenging. In fact, Tarantino's World War Two is a lot like the standard Hollywood history of the war. The handsome Americans with their trusty British allies save the world. The Russians don't even get a word of mention. Hogan's Heroes was better than this.

I couldn't help but feel that Inglourious Basterds was just an opportunity for Tarantino to act out his juvenile fantasies about the Second World War--much like it was for Tom Cruise in Valkyrie or for Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.

With the exception of the American Civil War, Hollywood has made more films about the Second World War than any other historical period. The reason for this is pretty straightforward. The Second World War made the U.S. the dominant world power, and as the myth goes, the benevolent defender of freedom-loving people around the world.

Few films have challenged this bedtime story. But over the last decade, Hollywood has been willing to have a more critical take on the war. Clint Eastwood's 2006 film Flags of Our Fathers is a painful and beautiful film about the men who did and didn't raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima, and the terrible consequences it had on their lives. Spike Lee's 2008 Miracle at St. Anna put Black soldiers in the center of the war. We need more films like these.

If Inglourious Basterds were Tarantino's first big movie, I would say that someday he will make a masterpiece. Unfortunately, I think that time has passed. I hope I'm wrong.

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