What if World War II had come to an explosive end not in Hitler's bunker in shattered Berlin, but in a movie theater in Nazi occupied France? This is the premise for Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds, the story of how a band of avenging American Jews demolish the Third Reich with the help of the explosive glories of silver nitrate. Tarantino's new film is both exasperating as well as enjoyable; it is also episodic, juvenile, and way too long. But if you latch on to its postmodern riff, mixing everything from 70's films to 1940's pulp, it is a helluva good ride into the kind of Hollywood fantasy land that only exists in the mind of the director.
Tarantino's film is based on a little known Italian war movie called The Inglorious Bastards, an almost forgotten 1970's B movie rip-off of Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen. This complicates things for any viewer who wants to know where Tarantino is coming from. It all becomes crystal-clear, however, if you bring to mind one particular genre that nowadays we usually don't think about: the Western.
Once Upon a Time in the Western part of Europe there were advancing hordes of Jewish-hating Nazis who came into conflict with good-hearted Frenchmen who tried to save Jewish families from extermination. The pastoral first scene of this film captures this confrontation while at the same time surprising us by conjuring the spirit of the American Western. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of the opening of The Magnificent Seven, a film based on Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. This is the smoke and mirrors celluloid world in which Tarantino inhabits. This new war film surprisingly conjures up the spirit of the American Western as seen by Italian director Sergio Leone, and it features music written for those "spaghetti Westerns" by the great Ennio Morricone. Even Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who leads the band of Nazi hunters, demands, like a pre-politically correct redskin on the warpath, that all Nazis killed be scalped. Inglourious Basterds might just be the first WWII Western, whatever that is!
For a postmodernist, Tarantino's WWII is curiously devoid of too many references to the classic war films made in the 1940's. There's very little John Ford or Raoul Walsh in Tarantino's vocabulary, hence don't look for the spirit of They Were Expendable or Objective Burma! to creep through. Instead, Tarantino's war comes complete with Samuel L. Jackson's narration in which he tells us that film shot on silver nitrate is highly combustible. I'm not surprised. Tarantino is a child of the 1970s, and for anyone who came of age in that decade the jingoism of WWII American films just did not jive. It was the era of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And in Hollywood, it was the era of M*A*S*H, Apocalypse Now, as well as 1970's Kelly's Heroes, a film with which Inglorious Basterds shares many a comparison.
For my money, Inglorious Basterds belongs to Austrian actor Christoph Waltz who shines as Colonel Hans Landa, better known as "The Jew Hunter." His performance is carefully and memorably crafted: over the top one minute, minimalist the next. In reality, it is nothing more than an update of a wonderful caricature of the Hollywood Nazi: the kind of role that the great Conrad Veidt excelled at. Waltz's Landa, however, is more tongue-in-cheek, smoother, funnier, and as a result more dangerous. His Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this performance was well deserved.
I don't think that Quentin Tarantino fans will be disappointed with Inglorious Basterds. It is a worthy addition to the small number of films that he's directed. If we boil the film down to its essence, it is a series of disjointed dialogue scenes, broken into various chapters, brilliantly choreographed and acted, which eventually come together in a fiery Wagnerian climax that channels the spirit of Brian De Palma's Carrie. The rhythms of Inglourious Basterds are reminiscent of Pulp Fiction though it lacks the earlier film's incredible crackling dialogue or its brilliant handling of the story's timeline.
On a personal note, I wish they would have held off the summer opening of this film and saved it for a prestige premiere at this year's New York Film Festival. This year the festival promises to be mostly a ho-hum affair, and I think that Inglorious Basterds would have given that New York institution a good kick in the pants as well as brought Tarantino back to the place that launched his unusual career.