War Games: ‘Bastards’ vs. ‘Basterds’


He tells the story this way – as a young man, Quentin Tarantino loved to read Variety. Sometimes, a single well worn (and read) copy would last him an entire year. In one issue he came across a review of a film that stirred his already hyper imagination. Recognizing the name of the director – Enzo Castellari, responsible for Few Dollars for Django and Django Rides Again – and intrigued by the Dirty Dozen like premise, the title stuck in his lexicon of personal cool for decades. Fast forward to 1996. Pulp Fiction is literally rocking the world of cinema, restating the undeniable magic in storytelling, characterization, and dialogue. Tarantino can do anything he wants as a follow-up. It’s at this moment when the idea for his possible remake/reimagining of Inglorious Bastards is first considered.

Move the clock forward another decade and a half, and cinema’s bad boy has finally delivered his take on the World War II action epic – and it’s much quieter, more contemplative, and far less ferocious than the Castellari original. In fact, it’s safe to say that Tarantino’s Basterds (purposefully misspelled as a way of differentiating itself from the past) is the antithesis of what the Italian journeyman strove to create. It’s like a Polaroid negative, a fun house mirror reflection where bullets turn into brainstorms, criminals morph into Nazi-scalping Jew soldiers, and the movies themselves actually play a part in the destruction of the Third Reich. In Castellari’s romp, a group of condemned grunts, on their way to court-marshal, hijack a distressed convoy and take off for Switzerland. Somehow, they become keys in a plot to steal a gyroscope out of a German V2 rocket.

On the recently released Blu-ray of Bastards, Tarantino sits down with his Mediterranean counterpart, hashing out their mutual admiration society while explaining the genesis of each of their films. What you slowly realize is that 30 years have really mellowed the man who put Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson, and a cast of otherwise unknowns through their paces. QT on the other hand is like a kid with diabetes in a candy store. He knows his geekdom’s not good for the digital package, but his desire to dish with Castellari is barely contained. And after watching both films, it’s not hard to see why. Tarantino remains clearly influenced by Italian cinema, by Leone and Fulci, Deodato and Lenzi. He worships the Grand Guignol operatics of their look at violence and virtue. In a film like Inglorious Bastards, he finds all that – and much, much more.

Castellari’s film is a Pilgrim’s Progress, a journey by the irredeemable toward some manner of salvation. It’s almost entirely action, brief breaks in the rifle fire maelstrom for characters to quickly establish their by-the-numbers personalities. Once the basics are down – racist, coward, bad-ass, cool customer, jack-thief of all trades – the director can get back to the fine art of blowing shit apart. The body count in the original Bastards must be in the low 400s. Dozens of stuntmen are sent into that recognizable death dance with the simple pull of an automatic weapons’ trigger, and those who don’t fall by means of multiple bullets soon see a hand grenade or mortar traveling in their direction. While made in ’78, there is little bloodshed here. Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch is much more of a gorefest than this exercise in ever-present explosions.

As our condemned men, Svenson and Williamson are wonderful. They “get” the b-movie magic of what Castellari is striving for, while aiding those in the cast – Peter Hooten, Jackie Basehart (Richard’s son) and Tom Savini look-a-like Michael Pergolani – more than hold up their end of the bargain. Since we have to follow these particular characters around for most of the movie, since they are the ones who will fuel all of our testosterone-laced battle fantasies, they become both the movie’s curative and its curse. Since the narrative has them constantly besting whole battalions, we marvel at their seeming superhuman abilities. But in the end, when it looks like nothing can stop them, a surreal sort of about fate steps in to subvert them. All of a sudden, our bastards are nothing but vulnerable, experiencing misfortune and – dare one say it – possible defeat.

In Tarantino’s world, the ‘Basterds’ are equally adept. They manage to lock horns with Lady Luck as often as they pull off a well planned assault. Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine is all homespun Southern gentry, his backwater bon mots a perfect contrast to the sadism we witness. His group of Jewish Avengers, symbolic of payback for the death of eight million others, is mostly nameless and faceless. Granted, there is Eli Roth’s Bear Jew, who has reduced the art of murder down to a play-by-play recounting of famous moments in baseball, and a German ex-patriot condemned to death (an obvious oddball bow to Castellari) enjoys the killing of his fellow countrymen so much it’s actually frightening. The rest, however, have their purpose and place: sidekick to Raine; interpreter; officer stand-in; fodder for the last act victim pool. Unlike the Italian original, this group of outcasts is not the main focus. Instead, they are the fear along the fringes, the ever-present threat to everything else going on in the film.

As stated before, in Tarantino’s Basterds, the movies literally save the world. In one of the update’s cleverest conceits, a cinema is the battleground where the war will be won or lost. Of course, to discuss Tarantino’s ending any further, one has to add a SPOILER WARNING. If you want to experience Inglourious Basterds without knowing what happens, avoid this paragraph and head to the next section. Okay – in Tarantino’s version of history, a screening of a Nazi propaganda film gives Raine and his men the perfect opportunity to wipe out the entire Third Reich hierarchy, including the big bad boogie man Adolph Hitler himself. It’s a plot mirrored by the movies two main supporting narratives. The theater is “run” by an escaped Jewish girl who saw her entire family murdered by the charismatic, if cruel SS Officer Col. Hans Landa. She plans on locking the Nazis in, and burning it to the ground. Across the Channel, the British want to use the Basterds, along with a film critic turned spy, to infiltrate the screening and assassinate the Fuhrer.

SPOILERS CONTINUE. When the UK plot gets bungled, it is up to Shosanna Dreyfus (the Jewish girl) and the Basterds to come through and succeed. Though discovered as well, Raine and his men manage to set up a scenario where all the attending Germans are primed for a hail of machine gun fire. Shosanna also gets her plan moving, locking the guests in the opulent auditorium before torching a huge pile of silver nitrate prints. Between the flames and the gunfire, everybody dies – Goebbels, Hitler, the rest of the Reich cabinet. Everyone. It’s a formidable and horrific bloodbath. With Raine captured by Landa, it looks like we’ve seen the last of our unlikely heroes. But then our slick sadistic Nazi offers his America captives a deal – he will let the massacre happen (and does) and turn them loose in exchange for asylum in America and a cushy lifetime pension. When the Allies agree to his demands, the Bijou massacre takes place. But Raine has a little comeuppance for the film’s main villain, an appropriate “mark” for his place as traitor to the Fatherland.

FINAL SPOILERS. There are no such world changing events in Castellari’s film. The Bastards are picked off one by one, their train hijacking plan working perfectly in the process. When the straight laced Colonel who acquiesced to letting Svenson and Williamson run the show accidentally sets the V2 rocket to self-destruct, it’s clear that no one will survive their espionage. Luckily, the bomb is headed to a train depot loaded with ambushing Germans. As the last of our heroes falls in a hail of bullets, the deadly locomotive positions itself in the middle of the troops before exploding. Everything is destroyed. The buildings. The soldiers. The brave and far outnumbered freedom fighters. In a movie which has already seen hundreds of men die, this last act of destruction is the icing on a corpse-covered cake. It’s not meant to be the final world on the Nazi regime, just a powerful bit of payback for all of their evil (present an in the future). Tarantino takes it one step further. In his film, a single act of espionage destroys the entire core of the Reich. SPOILERS OVER.

Both films are brilliant in their own way, each acting like an unusual if important companion piece to the other. Indeed, Tarantino appears to eschew the action Castellari embraces, keeping his dialogue-heavy deconstruction of the old school Hollywood war film as interpersonal as possible. The original Inglorious Bastards dwells on huge battle set-pieces, the excellent use of European locales and marvelous matte paintings that extend the scope of the carnage. In Tarantino’s film, caricature is kept to a minimum. Only Pitt appears lifted from a crafty dime store novel. The rest are relegated to playing along with the auteur’s pitch perfect conversations. Castellari, as stated before, just wants his character’s understood before they take up arms and head out into the fray. He could care less about verbal one-upmanship or individual power plays. Basterds tries to solves its problems with words. Bastards believes one shoots first and addresses the need for conversation much, much later.

Thanks to Severin Films fantastic Blu-ray release, which gives the three decades old cheapie a new, highly polished lease on life, we can appreciate Castellari’s chutzpah, and how it in turn fueled Tarantino’s vision. The commentary track and nostalgic Making-ofs offer additional insights into the more commercial aims of the release. There’s a full length documentary which covers the film’s production, and some new interviews with Svenson and Williamson. Tarantino is even on hand to dish with his Italian director idol over the influence Inglorious Bastards had on him, both before and after seeing the final product. As high end format releases go, it’s the perfect balance of fact and fandom.

More than anything else, however, the original Inglorious Bastards endures. Indeed, it’s the film that many thought Tarantino was making back when geek elite websites like Ain’t It Cool News were tracking the proposed update’s every move. Many envision a balls-out bit of violence, Pitt and his bad-ass band of brothers laying waste to hundreds of swastika loving swine. It was Cannes that corrected that perception, for good and for bad. Come 21 August, 2009, audiences will have their own chance to rate the reverence given by the boy who once obsessed on a copy of an industry rag and a title that captured his thoughts. One thing’s for certain – the original will see it’s profile raised once again. Without a doubt, it’s a time in the limelight it richly deserves.

RATING 8 / 10