Sunday 10 November 2019

Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's latest movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood divided opinion — to say the least. But I really loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that it set me off on something of a Tarantino retrospective.

And this was my first stop. I saw Inglourious Basterds (yes, that is how it's spelled) on the big screen when it first appeared in 2009.

This was Quentin Tarantino's excursion into World War Two. Or his "guys on a mission" movie as he put it. And in my memory I had retained four things from the film... 

The excruciatingly suspenseful opening sequence in which a Nazi officer (Christoph Waltz) interviews a French farmer (Denis Ménochet) in his kitchen.

The wildly outrageous ending in which history is flagrantly — and rather hilariously — rewritten. (Something Tarantino would do again, to great and welcome effect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

And two episodes of truly unsettling violence. One involving a finger probing a wound and the other featuring a baseball bat.

In fact the baseball bat sequence was so brutal that it sort of turned me off this whole film and had caused me to downgrade it in my memory.

So it was very odd to watch the movie again and see how brief and fleeting that scene actually is. It had swollen to enormous proportions in my mind, but really it is hardly there at all... yet it had huge impact.

A disproportionate impact, since it caused me to underestimate this terrific, ferociously entertaining film which I now view as one of Tarantino's best. 

Among Inglourious Basterds' many virtues is the sheer speed and economy with which things are set up. 

We see Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) telling a bunch of special recruits that they are going to be parachuted behind the lines in occupied France on a guerrilla mission to harass the Nazis.

And in the very next scene they are already there, well established, and their mission has been underway for some time.

Similarly, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is being briefed by top British brass (including Churchill) about his own espionage mission. And then, bang, we see him already linked up with Brad Pitt and his men in France and about to embark on a perilous rendezvous.

There then ensues another staggeringly suspenseful setpiece which culminates in tremendous violence. All admirably done and highly characteristic of Tarantino.

But in other ways Inglourious Basterds is distinctly different in his oeuvre, and indeed it's often overlooked when people are discussing his work. 

I recently heard a radio program where people were slagging Tarantino off for his supposedly stereotypical depiction of women — they're all hotpants-wearing bimbos, was the thrust of their commentary.

Which just isn't true. Or, rather, to build that case you need to ignore Inglourious Basterds for a start, which features a couple of powerful and unforgettable women, in the shape of Shosanna Dreyfus and Brigdet von Hammersmark

Classy and sophisticated heroines both, beautifully played by Mélanie Laurent and Diane Kruger, as a Jewish resistance fighter and a German film star respectively.

And they are balanced by a staggeringly evil villain in the twistedly charming Colonel Landa
perfectly brought to life by the great Christoph Waltz, who would go on to be tremendous again in another Tarantino movie, Django Unchained

Then there's the fantastic character of Fredrick Zoller, an engaging young German soldier who modulates from charming to monstrous, thanks to the considerable talent of Daniel Bruhl.

This is the first film I saw Bruhl in, and he's gone on to make his mark many times, notably in the fabulous Entebbe.

Inglourious Basterds is also a film which glories in film itself. It's no coincidence that much of the action, and the incendiary climax of this movie, takes place in a cinema.

It's also interesting to note how the film fits into Tarantino's body of work, looking ahead to Once upon a Time in Hollywood: one of the marketing slogans for Basterds was "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France."

And at one point in the movie Pitt goes undercover by pretending to be a stuntman. Of course, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he is a stuntman.

What's more, both films feature villains who are so monstrous that fantastically vicious punishment can be meted out to them and the audience can watch with guilt-free pleasure.

Inglourious Basterds is a wonderful entertainment. In fact, it's a great war movie. Of course, it is utterly unrealistic — a complete fantasy — but that doesn't stop it being stupendously enjoyable. 

I have overcome my reservations about the brutality, but I do regret the body count, in the sense that the film is full of memorable characters and I wish more of them could have survived to the end credits.

You may think you don't like war films, or the work of Quentin Tarantino, but I would urge you to put your preconceptions on hold and give Inglourious Basterds a try.

You may want to look away when that baseball bat comes out, however.

(Image credits: a wealth of posters at the indispensable Imp Awards.)

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