Inglourious Basterds is an utterly preposterous mess of a film from Quentin Tarantino. Even at two and a half hours, it sorely misses some cut scenes. Until the final key moments, it lacks any real structure, and not in a cleverish, knowing kind of way. More like a not properly thought through way. Major characters – including all of the ‘Basterds’ – get dropped and then lost in the sprawling self-indulgent sweep of the thing. It’s often very good fun though, albeit in a mostly empty way.
The ‘Basterds’ of the title are Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)’s entirely fictional band of revenge-hungry male Jewish resistance fighters, keen to kill as many Nazis as possible in the most gruesome ways imaginable, so as to strike fear into the German populace and help win the war for the Allies. After a lot of skull-bashing, they hook up with a famous movie star (Diane Kruger) and British intelligence and begin plotting ‘Operation Kino’.
Meanwhile, young Jewish woman Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) also has plenty of reasons to want revenge, having seen her family brutally machine-gunned down in their French countryside shelter by the troops of ‘Jew Hunter’ Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Three years later, she is somehow an undercover Paris cinema owner. When Shosanna gets unwelcome romantic advances from a celebrated German ‘war hero’ (Daniel Brühl), she is very reluctantly drawn into the lives of the German top brass, and into their efforts to successfully premiere a propaganda film in her theatre. Unsurprisingly, she has a better idea.
Inglorious Basterds is only Quentin Tarantino’s sixth feature as director, and it’s clear that he’s put many years and much energy into it. Some elements have been polished to perfection, such as the characterisation of Raine and Landa, both of who seem like real – if extreme – people, in a way that is as wonderful as it has been rare in Hollywood over the last few decades. This often gives rise to some excellent black humour, especially during Landa’s scenes.
But there is an emptiness at the heart of this enjoyment. Of course, the story is completely made-up, and that’s fine (most fiction is, let’s remember). But World War Two happened, and millions upon millions were killed. This can’t honestly be set aside for the sake of a few guffaws and cheers as cartoon authority figures get their comeuppance.
The writer/director told Rotten Tomatoes.com that: “What happens in this movie didn’t happen in real life because my characters didn’t exist. But if they had, this could have happened in real life.”
Tarantino is just trying to have his cake and eat it. The Basterds didn’t exist, but there were real underground resistance fighters, so their story could prove much more inspirational in times yet to come. They might even have had a few laughs along the way.