The Original Grindhouse War Movie: Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘Inglorious Bastards’

October 23, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

The biggest difference between Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds” and Enzo G. Castellari’s “The Inglorious Bastards” is not the fact that there is almost no similarity between the stories of the two movies. The real difference is that there is not one sentimental frame in Castellari’s version – human beings are dispatched with remarkable efficiency and frequency with not one iota of regret.

Tanrantino’s film, on the other hand, is steeped in sentimentality — he’s got nostalgia for grindhouse films, the the films of World War II, the old glamour of Hollywood, for the earlier version of the film he remade, for old-time villains and cinematic heroes and for the women who sometimes love them. His “Inglourious Basterds” is really a nostalgia trip.

Castellari’s 1978 film is an opera of carnage. None of the violence is terribly explicit — you won’t find the sickening realism of “Saving Private Ryan” here. But scores and scores and scores of people are killed during 99 minutes, including (spoiler alert!) some of the lead characters. But, honestly, Castellari wasn’t much interested in having you care about these people anyway.

It’s all about the explosions and the gunfire.

Castellari’s film is so defiantly unsentimental that the only character that expresses any criticism of warfare is a German soldier named Adolf Sachs (Raimond Harmstorf) who decides to throw his lot in with the Americans.

Sachs is also at the center of a remarkable, and brutal, misunderstanding that actually sets the plot in motion. This occurs almost halfway through the film. It’s an ingenious twist, and one that would be heartbreaking if Castellari and screenwriters Sandro Continenza and Sergio Grieco gave the audience a second to consider the implications of the event, but they don’t.

The plot is reminiscent of “The Dirty Dozen.” A ragtag group of soldiers who are about to be court martialed are being transported to either prison or the gallows. But unlike “The Dirty Dozen” they aren’t recruited for a mission that would, if completed, gain them salvation. Their convoy is attacked by the Germans on the way to the clink and everyone guarding them is killed. The bad-boy soldiers escape and they take it upon themselves to join the war again.

Their ultimate challenge comes about solely due to the turnabout with Sachs, the German soldier that was captured by the Americans and who joined their group.

The film isn’t as delirious as one would hope it to be. It’s a fairly conventional actioner, with few of the lurid touches you’d get in a real whacked out European film by someone like Jesus Franco. The cinematography (by Giovanni Bergamini) is solid, and the acting is uniformly lacking. It’s shot in the typical way of a film that was always meant to be dubbed, with the camera moving away from faces as they speak so the audience wouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that the mouth wasn’t forming the words you actually hear.

The only adjective I can find for the special effects is “cute” — the destroyed buildings and bridges and trains are straight out of tiny-town — miniature recreations that look small despite the best effort to disguise them. But the production also features real tanks and trains and jeeps, which is nice and retro.

There is also a very mini Steve McQueen-like motorcycle jump that is, well, cute.

The climax features a runaway train and a secret German weapon that must be deactivated. None of the plans laid out by the Bastards goes particularly well.

The cast includes the rock-like Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson and an actor named Peter Hooten who supplies, improbably, the only love interest the film has.

A genuine curiosity is the Americanized name of the film. In one of the odd and mysterious ways that language sometimes works, the two perjorative words in the title — “inglorious” and “bastards” — somehow, when taken together, conjure up an image of heroism, which is exactly what the film meant to convey. That may be coolest thing about it.

Inglourious Basterds: Two Hours of Great Cinema, 32 Minutes of Not-So-Great Cinema

August 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Roundtable Pictures Solves the Mystery Behind the Spelling of the Movie

By Lars Trodson

I was thinking back on all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies and wondering if he had ever filmed a big crowd scene like the one that ends his “Inglourious Basterds.” It seems to me, looking back on everything from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Death Proof” that Tarantino pretty much keeps the number of people he puts in a scene down to a manageable few.

That could account for what happens at the conclusion of “Basterds.” The ending takes place in a crowded theater lobby — which in certain shots doesn’t look so crowded at all — and in the auditorium of the theater. But with so many people to suddenly account for in his film — the Nazi high command, including Hitler, as well as the remaining “basterds” of the title — Tarantino literally looks lost. He moves from person to person, scene to scene, set to set, but nothing fits together particularly well. And while a couple of moments may be a bit shocking, in the end it all seems so delirious you wonder what his point was.

It turns out that for all the violence and sinisterism in his movies, Tarantino is — surprise! — not an action director.

The other problem here is how Tarantino fashioned the end of his script. In terms of suspense, Tarantino makes a choice that is not so much quirky or unexpected, but simply odd.

The movie is called “Inglourious Basterds” and you are given to think that they are the heroes of the film. Their big job is to kill the members of the Nazi high command — this is not only their purpose and their pleasure, but also the climax of the film. But this goes awry and the Basterds are pretty much taken out of the hunt at the very end. They’re not only not the heroes, they’re pretty much held captive during the explosive ending.

It’s left to the beautiful Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, who has great range and is tough and touching) and her lover Marcel to actually pull off the plan. The funny thing is, we’re probably more emotionally connected with Shosanna than any specific member of the Basterds crew that we probably care more about her success in killing Hitler (and Landa, who killed her family) than we do theirs, but Tarantino throws in this switch so late in the game it’s tough to shift your emotional focus to her.

If I can make a comparison, it would be this: Let’s say we spent two hours watching the members of “The Dirty Dozen” get trained and prepped for their big mission (the entire premise of “Basterds” is taken straight out of the “Dirty Dozen” playbook, right down to collecting members of the Nazi command at a swanky function), and just minutes before the big plan was to begin John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas and Jim Brown and Charlie Bronson all got captured and suddenly actors you had never really seen before had to carry out the plan. That’s about (not quite, but about) what happens here.

The other thing is that the sets for the interior of the cinema where the ending takes place look really bad. If this was a conscious aesthetic choice I’m not sure what it means. But the balconies and the stairwell and the curving hallways of this place look cheap and badly painted. It looks like plaster of paris and balsa wood, and it feels like their set designer might have had to shove off to another project while these scenes were being filmed.

It seems like we had left off a Hollywood film with a high sheen and sense of design and landed in one of Tarantino’s beloved grindhouse flicks. That may have been the point, but it felt jarring to me.

I think the first two hours of this film are wonderfully written and beautifully acted by the principals (except for Brad Pitt and “Hostel” director Eli Roth), and the scenes bring back the leisurely yet pleasurable pace often found in “Jackie Brown.” And Tarantino brings off some great set pieces – the opening scene especially. In this scene the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) finds a Jewish family hiding out in a farmhouse. It’s amazingly tense and moody, and beautifully shot and edited. This is really old school Hollywood filmmaking here — you can just see that Tarantino really felt this one. Landa’s scene with Shosanna eating strudel is also terrific, and so is the long scene in the basement bar where we meet the beautiful double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, smart and old school movie star gorgeous) and some of the Basterds who are trying to pass themselves off as German soldiers (how they get caught is a neat touch).

There’s some real tension in all of those scenes, yet again they are all chamber pieces.

After the first scene introducing us to Landa, we meet the Basterds in what surely must be the most aborted “let’s introduce the major characters of the movie” scene ever produced.

It’s reminiscent of the yard scenes in “The Dirty Dozen”, which I am sure is deliberate, but aside from Roth — who is known as The Bear Jew, and some guy named Hugo Stiglitz (in another set taken right out of “The Dirty Dozen”) — you have absolutely no idea who the other Basterds are, or even what their names are. To shy away from characterizations, even of the smallest parts, is not the Tarantino we know.

This film has gotten mixed reviews, but the film itself is mixed. The first two hours are great cinema, just pure examples of a talented writer and director finding a new color, but the end gets pretty well jumbled up.

A few critics have wondered what has happened to Tarantino, but that just seems silly. The guy has only made six feature films, and I think each one before this is great. It may be heresy for me to say I like “Jackie Brown” better than “Pulp Fiction“, but that’s really only because I don’t care for the Bruce Willis section of that movie. It’s still masterful stuff, but I didn’t quite get that boxing part, and the revenge on the hillbillies part. “Jackie Brown” is joyous, though, and “Kill Bill” — all of it — is executed without a hitch. There’s nothing wrong with that two-part picture. “Reservoir Dogs” is a heist classic. I liked “Death Proof” — it wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was, which was a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.

Part of the problem with “Basterds” may be this is another classic example of a director not able to pull off his lifelong dream project. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to make “Gangs of New York” and that was mixed. Richard Attenborough said he was born to direct the life of Charlie Chaplin and he turned it into a mess. Richard Pryor poured his life into “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.” Maybe these dream projects are better left on the shelf.

I think what will come out of this experience for Tarantino is he will simply have more assurance as a director and writer. My guess — my prediction — is that his next film will be the best one he has ever done.

(P.S.: My take on the much-debated deliberately misspelled title is this. The words “inglourious basterds” are etched into the butt end of Lt. Aldo Raine’s service rifle, which we see only partially and fleetingly in one scene. In fact, the typeface we see in the opening titles is the same script we see on the rifle. So it’s Aldo Raine’s name for his group, and his spelling of it. Lt Aldo Raine (an homage to the late actor Aldo Ray) – played by Pitt – is a part Apache hillbilly from Tennessee who, in the 1940s, might not have had the best education. His attempt to write those two words could reasonably come out like that.So that, we feel, is why the movie is spelled like it is.)

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