So why is the title spelled like that? Is it because Tarantino writes everything phonetically? Or maybe it’s because he didn’t feel like paying the license for the 1978 film The Inglorious Bastards? I’d imagine it’s the latter. If he had to pay for a license fee he wouldn’t have been able to have such an unnecessarily large cast. Also he probably had to pay someone off to let him have that personally gratifying foot fetish scene. On with the review!
This review may contain spoilers. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Inglourious Basterds tells the story of a team of Jewish Americans who are sent into occupied France during the Second World War to strike fear into the hearts of every Nazi soldier. They do this by ruthlessly killing and then scalping their enemy, leaving one alive to tell the tale. At least that’s what the box would likely say because the lead Basterd is Brad Pitt and he’s obviously more important to the studio than the films real lead. The real lead is Shosanna Dreyfus played by Melanie Laurent. See the story of the film is about a Jewish woman who narrowly escaped being killed by a man known as “The Jew Hunter” Col.Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz). Years later she is running a cinema under a pseudonym in Paris and has been roped into displaying the premier of a Nazi propaganda film about a lone soldier that killed over 200 men from a snipers nest. The premier is due to be attended by all of the National Socialist Parties leader including Hitler and Goebbels. She plans to use the extremely flammable nitrate film stock to burn the cinema to the ground with them inside thus ending the war and getting her revenge.
Here’s the issue with the story though. Her plan to get revenge doesn’t come along until nearly an hour into the 2 hour plus film. She is quite clearly the emotional core of the film. She is quite clearly the actual real plot of the film where all the tension and drama lies. instead we have scenes involving the Inglourious Basterds getting in the way. After the masterly tense opening scene where Shosanna family is killed and she runs for her life we are introduced to the Basterds and suddenly the momentum is lost. They have their own plot they cook up (after Shosanna’s I should add) to kill Hitler and Co in the cinema but it’s kind of pointless because we’re already invested in Shosanna’s revenge plot. The film is split into chapters as Tarantino is fond of doing but unlike his other films these are in chronological order. In fact after the first 30 minutes the entire film plays out over the course of a few days. Kind of makes the episodic presentation kind of pointless.
Because it is so clear that the entire audience investment is in Shosanna the Basterds end up being intrusions in their own film. They feel pointless and seem to merely be there for a few very brief scenes of action. They’re involved in one particularly tense scene where two of their team along with the English Lt. Archie Hicox but that scene could have easily been reworked for Shosanna, or at least she could have had some involvement. Instead her story is kept separate from the Basterds until the final half hour. They don’t actually even share a scene together. Their only purpose seems to be the final scene but even then that could have been reworked without them to involve Shosanna getting her revenge on Landa himself. Another odd aspect is the general portrayal of the various nationalities involved. The French are all dairy farmers or art lovers. The Germans are all super intelligent. The Brits are plum throated bumbling fools and the Americans are all blood thirst apes. How are we meant to get behind the Inglourious Basterds when the French and Germans are more interesting to watch and the Basterds are a bunch of brutish men of low intelligence?
Thematically the film has more in common with a Western at times than a War film. The film hinges on lawless justice and scenes of dialogue driven tension. Even the music feels straight out of a Western at times. To add to this Tarantino still makes the film feel like it comes from the 70s by use of occasional smooth talking voice over for expositional duties which are often accompanied by giant yellow, straight out of an exploitation flick, letters to inform you of a characters name. Now granted as usual he manages to craft a more all encompassing universe for the film to take place in, seemingly extrapolation on any detail he sees fit to. This exposition does get in the way though. I honestly think if the Basterds were not in this at all, if the story focused entirely on Shosanna and if all the pointless exposition was removed you’d have a much better film. I think there could have been a potential film just for the Basterds but this isn’t it. It almost feels like a Godfrey Ho film where he has inserted elements from his other films into one about a Jewish woman’s revenge plot.
Don’t get me wrong though. The film has plenty to praise. As mentioned there are dialogue driven scenes of extreme tension. the very first scene is a damn good opening for a film which draws you straight in. This is accomplished by a familiar theme of Nazis hunting Jews that is still fresh in the worlds collective memory thanks to books like The Diary Of Anne Frank and films like Schindler’s List. To add to that Christopher Waltz is an incredible villain in his guise as Landa. Landa is a slimy, exceptionally intelligent and intense individual. What makes him even more terrifying is that he takes genuine joy in his job. He is clearly satisfied with his career. A later scene between him and Shosanna is the centrepiece of the film and it is a work of Hitchcockian mastery. To add to this Tarantino still has one of the best visual eyes for a shot in Hollywood and his command of dialogue is excellent as usual.
Overall the film has plenty of strong performances and it is a memorable experience but, it’s story is unfocused and the title is entirely wrong. Tarantino needs to stop relying on his trademark 70s exploitation feel and his need to fill a film with exposition and unneeded characters and focus on the story that is at the core. He hasn’t been the same since Kill Bill Vol.1 and I think it’s down to his lack of flexibility when it comes to getting to the core of the films experience. He is still one of the better directors in Hollywood but he’s beginning to ride on past successes and there’s only so long that will last. It’s not his poorest film but it is a disappointment.