Going to war the Quentin Tarantino way.
Who made it?: Quentin Tarantino (Director/Writer), Lawrence Bender (Producer), Universal Pictures/The Weinstein Company/A Band Apart.
Who’s in it?: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger.
Tagline: “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…”
IMDb rating: 8.3/10 (Top 250 #114).
Until Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino had stayed firmly in the world of fantasy. Gangsters and kung-fu experts might exist in the real world, but his films are not about specific real people and events. Was it right therefore for him to take on as heavy a topic as World War II in his unique style? After all, millions of people died, and we are still affected by its consequences. I don’t feel it’s a valid criticism of the movie. The plot has such a brazen disregard for the history books that it can’t be taken too seriously. In many ways, the war genre is one that is as ridiculous as any fantasy. Whilst relatively recent efforts such as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan have tried to simulate the true terror of war, so many were either propaganda pieces or carnage-filled exploitation fests. It’s here that Tarantino is setting out his stall. And regardless of this, is it any good? For me, definitely. Why I feel it works is that it manages to capture all the fun of an archetypal exploitation movie, with the slick production design and maturity that a higher budget can bring.
The plot follows two main strands. One follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who runs a cinema in occupied Paris after losing her family to top “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa (an Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz). The other is a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as “The Basterds,” run by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Their aim? To claim one hundred Nazi scalps each.
I’ll go out there and say that this is my favourite Tarantino movie. Although it doesn’t have the tight dialogue of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, it manages to rise above the Kill Bills and Death Proof by being more inventive. His aim was to mix the war movie with the spaghetti Western, and the result is truly remarkable. Just to spot some similarities between the genres is a brilliant observation. But what makes it stand out amongst his more iconic work?
Firstly, he didn’t reinvent his style. Those who are fans of his work will feel right at home. It contains all the standard tropes of a Tarantino movie; a soundtrack from across the decades, a mixture of purloined movie styles, a bizarre cast list, and insane amounts of violence and gore. If you really don’t like his movies, this probably won’t add you to his fan list. But with his seventh film, he is a master of his own brand, and it gives a stability and authority to the movie that lets you slip into its world. Tarantino uses WWII as a canvas, a place to paint a war movie of his own unique creation.
Despite some silly sections (perhaps the most ridiculous being the brief Goebbels sex scene), it does treat the subject with some seriousness. The bravura opening of Landa trying to find Jewish hideaways is especially nerve-shredding. Even when a 70s soundtrack kicks in later, it doesn’t detract from the terror.
Basterds is long at nearly three hours, but feels shorter than either version of Death Proof. Where his recent films have been hard watches thanks to heavy dialogue scenes, here the stakes are so high that each part is gripping. The best example is when the Basterds meet up with an undercover agent in a tiny French bar. Although a long part of the scene is spent on a game of “Celebrity Heads” (look it up), the fact there are so many guns in the room and so much at stake makes it utterly, hopelessly compelling. There is always a point to each scene, even if it takes a while to get there. Also, it’s a movie that suits three hours. So many of the Westerns that Tarantino takes inspiration from were surreal three-hour epics that took forever to get anywhere with the narrative. Any decent dedication will reflect that, and this is certainly the case here.
The actual production of the movie is fantastic. It feels like a bleak, washed-out forties landscape, and in terms of world-building, achieves its goals. What I like about the production design is that it feels slightly left-field; this is clearly World War II, but seen through strange eyes. It adds a unique taste to the movie that makes it thoroughly distinctive in a sea of war flicks. Also, the vast majority of the effects are practical. From heads getting caved-in to an astonishing shot of a cinema on fire, just the sheer difficulty of achieving some of the shots is impressive in itself. For sixty million dollars, this is as epic as The Lord of the Rings at points.
Tarantino is just as good at getting memorable performances from his actors, and here they are crucial to raising the bar of the final film. Although there are some goofy moments, Basterds is mostly played straight and is so much better for it. What could so easily be knowingly camp performances from all involved is thankfully avoided. The versatile cast work so hard throughout, and Waltz more than deserved his Academy Award. He is a rock or a terror that the rest of the cast washes against, forever changing his modus operandi. Tarantino even gets a fantastic performance from director Eli Roth, whose work till that point had mostly consisted of stoner cameos in his own movies.
And most of all, it’s just so much fun. You can tell this is a script that has had years of love poured into it, and each word of dialogue is there for a specific reason. Think about this. With Inglourious Basterds, he had managed to make a movie that has four different languages throughout, yet it had wide mainstream appeal. A film that is part of a sub-genre called “Nazi exploitation” won an Oscar. One that is nearly three hours long with constant dialogue, and yet still manages over $100 million at the box office. Whether you like him or not, Quentin Tarantino is a remarkable director and this is a movie made by a man in full control of his art.
So much of what makes this scene great is the lengthy build-up, so I won’t post one here. Instead, why not check out the fantastic trailer that manages to capture the spirit of the film without giving anything away?
- Quentin Tarantino started writing this movie before Kill Bill: Vol. 1 but could not decide on a good ending and decide to put it on hold to do Kill Bill with Uma Thurman, a project he had been mentally preparing since Pulp Fiction.
- The director had intended for this to be as much a war film as a spaghetti western, and considered titling the movie “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.” He gave that title instead to the first chapter of the film.
- Simon Pegg was originally set to play Lt. Archie Hicox but was forced to pull out of the project because of scheduling conflicts. Michael Fassbender replaced him.
- The name of Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine, is an homage to both the actor and WWII veteran Aldo Ray and a character from Rolling Thunder, Charles Rane (played by William Devane). One of the casting directors, Johanna Ray, is Aldo Ray’s ex-wife.
- Eli Roth directed the film-within-the-film, “Nation’s Pride.” Tarantino asked Roth to direct the short, and Roth requested his brother Gabriel Roth join him to direct behind a second camera, which Tarantino agreed to. In two days the brothers got 130 camera setups, and Tarantino was so pleased he gave Roth a third day that he was originally planning to shoot with actor Daniel Brühl. Roth got 50 more setups the third day, much to Tarantino’s delight. The total running time of the short is 5:30, and was always intended to feel like pieces of a longer film, not a coherent short. It is available on the DVD/Blu-ray in full.
- When asked about the misspelled title, Tarantino gave the following answer: “Here’s the thing. I’m never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to explain it would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place.”