Review: Inglourious Basterds

Posted on August 25, 2009

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Opening weekend is over. If you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan, you’ve already seen the movie and have your own opinion of it. There are some good articles about the film here and here. My friend, Steve Barnes, commented on the movie on Facebook. I think he had some interesting things to say, and I’ll try to be as interesting.

The Overview

On the off-chance that you haven’t seen the film, the marketing for the film says that IB is a “men on a mission movie” (Tarantino’s term) inspired by films like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape about a bunch of American commandos operating behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France, where they terrorize the Nazi army with acts of barbaric terrorism.

The Bad

I found the movie an oddly empty experience. If you go back and watch some of the great WWII movies, you’ll find that they share a common trait. Specifically, they spend time developing memorable characters. Scenes are meant not only to advance the story, but also to reveal character. Even action scenes reveal character. Tarantino spends no time developing any of the commandos except Lieutenant (LT) Aldo Raine (played with unwinking vigor by Brad Pitt), and he only gets one good monologue. Most of the secondary characters are better drawn than the commandos.

The Good

Don’t let that complaint make you think it’s a poorly-made movie. It’s a spectacularly well-made film, and very well acted. Mélanie Laurent is mesmerizing as Shoshanna Dreyfuss/Emmanuelle Mimieux. Christopher Waltz plays Colonel Hans Landa as one of the best movie villains of the last 10 years. I could have watched an entire film about British commando Lt. Archie Hicox if Michael Fassbender would reprise the role. I’d seen Diane Kruger in the National Treasure films and in Troy without thinking too much of her. She’s fantastic as Bridget von Hammersmark – sexy, vulnerable, smart, and tough in rapid succession. I very much enjoyed Brad Pitt’s performance, and I didn’t mind Michael Myer’s cameo.

My complaint is that none of those people are the titular characters. Tarantino’s original title, “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” gives a better idea of this film than the one they used.

The Holocaust Issue

This is not a film about the Holocaust or, if you prefer, the Shoah, but I can see why some reviewers would see it that way. It is clearly a Jewish revenge fantasy. With the exception of their lieutenant (whose religion is never clarified), all the American commandos are specifically described in the film as Jewish. Shoshanna Dreyfuss is a Jew living under a false identity in Paris. Col. Landa’s nickname is “the Jew Hunter.” You can’t escape drawing the conclusion that this film is about Jews taking revenge on Nazis, which raises the question: Revenge for what? Tarantino never mentions Hitler’s Final Solution.

The Gags

Quentin Tarantino is famous, or perhaps infamous, for inserting inside jokes and film references into his movies. IB is no exception. Julie Dreyfus was in Kill Bill Vol. 1, and is in this film. Eli Roth’s character, Sgt Donnie “the Bear Jew” Donowitz, was specifically named for Lee Donowitz, the film maker character in True Romance who’s most famous for his Viet Nam war films. Speaking of True Romance: It was one of Brad Pitt’s early film roles. The name of Brad Pitt’s character is an homage to actor and WWII veteran Aldo Ray (among other things, he was in The Green Berets with John Wayne). Tarantino has a cameo in this film, as he does in many of his films, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it. He’s one of the American GIs in the film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride. Samuel L. Jackson, who’s done numerous Tarantino films, is the narrator. The voice of the American general heard speaking over a radio to Lt. Raine is the voice of Harvey Keitel, who has also done numerous Tarantino films.

The Wrap-up

Maybe I expected too much. Maybe I bought into the “men on a mission” marketing too heavily. Overall, I found the movie an entertaining bit of well-made fluff. Half an hour after it was over, I was hungry for something better – like The Longest Day, Kelly’s Heroes, The Great Escape, The Big Red One, or The Dirty Dozen. Rent one of those instead.

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Posted in: Movies