Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger

The saying goes that history is written by the victors. Fantasy, on the other hand, is written by those who could care less what the history books say. Quentin Tarantino, the writer/director who created such modern classics such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill” and “Pulp Fiction,” has for years brought us films which represent the kinds of movies he grew up on. But it wasn’t until 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” that Tarantino’s own “reel affinity” led him to try his hand at a World War II epic. Based on his previous work, one shouldn’t be going in expecting a serious drama. Indeed, “Basterds” is as uproarious as it is “Inglourious.” What might not be anticipated is just how deep into the realm of fantasy this movie travels.

In 1941, Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka “The Jew Hunter,” pressures a Frenchman into revealing that he is hiding a Jewish family underneath the floorboards of his home. All members of the Jewish family is killed, save for their daughter Shoshanna , who escapes the machine gun fire and is spotted by Landa running away from the house. Landa has his gun trained on Shoshanna, but shockingly allows her to continue running.

Three years later, United States Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt) gathers a team of eight Jewish-American soldiers for a behind-enemy-lines mission with a simple purpose: “killin’ Nazis!” The group scalps those they kill, and they leave an identifying mark on those they set free. Specifically, a swastika is carved into the head of anyone they spare, which will effectively let everyone know this person is a Nazi long after he has put away his uniform. Around this same time, a young blonde woman has come into ownership of a movie theater. The name she gives to identify herself is Emmanuelle Mimieux, but we know her better as Shoshanna Dreyfus. It is at this theater where a most bloody, war-changing and history-defying event is set to take place. The Nazis have a propoganda film they wish to premiere there, and in their arrogance, all of the important figures in the Third Reich plan to attend. Members of the British military, the Basterds and Shoshanna herself all have designs on making this the moment when World War II is brought to an abrupt end, but an awful lot of carelessness threatens to doom this mass assassination plot.

While writing my review for “The Fisher King” (1991), I brought up the subject of another Terry Gilliam film called “Brazil,” which I had thought overrated at the time I saw it… yet I feel now that I might have been too harsh. Although I don’t currently have access to that movie in order to prove my theory, it got me thinking about what other movies I might have given a bum rap. With today being Memorial Day, the time seemed right to revisit “Inglourious Basterds,” which I saw theatrically but remember coming out of the screening feeling underwhelmed. There were three distinct reasons for why this happened:

1) Any time Brad Pitt is not on-screen, I kept waiting for him to come back. Aldo is that much fun to watch.

2) I really hate it when any movie or TV show requires a character or characters to act foolishly or otherwise out-of-character for the express purpose of bringing about their death(s).

3) I was completely unprepared for exactly how fast and loose this movie plays around with history. Many things happen in this movie that, had they occurred in real life, would have drastically changed the way World War II ended. At the time, I forgot to simply have fun. Instead, I cast my mind toward how the climax of the movie in particular would seem to undermine the sacrifice of those who died in the remaining months of the war. If it were any other war except for World War II, I honestly don’t know whether that thought would have entered into it.

Perspective, especially several years worth of it, sure does a lot to alter one’s attitude. Of my three main objections from five years ago, only one still sticks around. I have come to appreciate the Oscar-winning performance of Christoph Waltz a hell of a lot more than I did in 2009. He’s very much like Anthony Hopkins in the way he commands attention. He could be narrating the business section of the newspaper and make it sound like something worth listening to. Thus, I am not as bothered when Brad Pitt is not in a given scene. I’m also at peace with the fact that, while this movie may happen to have a WWII setting, it is most definitely a fantasy film first. Where I still have a problem is in one particular scene featuring an easily avoidable death for a major character. That this character’s demise takes place is merely a sign that the script has run out of use for them, and this is simply the point where the story must cast them aside. I still maintain this could have been handled in a way that didn’t make this person look like an idiot. Though this happens during a crucial point in the film, I can’t consider this one flaw by itself to be a dealbreaker.

I can safely say that, in giving this movie another look, I enjoy “Inglourious Basterds” much more now. The problems I had with it should never have clouded my judgment, especially considering all the silly horror, comedy, and action films I watch to my heart’s content. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to see a Quentin Tarantino film a second time in order to fully appreciate what he was trying to do, and it probably won’t be the last.  But I hope that this experience has finally taught me to not only stay off the proverbial high horse, but put that sucker out to pasture entirely.

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