The Quarterly Journal of Military History asked a group of eminent historians to opine upon the most important what-ifs of warfare. Out of that exercise came a collection entitled The Collected What If? (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2001). Should a DVD version of the book be made today, Quinton Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (his misspellings, not ours) would be the lead entry.
Without revealing the ending, suffice to say that Tarantino asks the cinematic question, "What if a group of partisans could get Hitler and his top three or four lieutenants all into a Paris movie theater at the same time and then blow it up?" The path to that question's answer is a two-hour romp, strewn with corpses and sprinkled with laughs.
World War II played for laughs with an ending that rewrites world history? Clearly, this is not a film for everyone. First of all, most people who don't love Tarantino tend to hate him with a passion, and if you are among this (sizeable) crowd, there's really no point in seeing his movies unless you like to complain a lot. If his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, was nothing more to you than blood and bad language… if you didn't appreciate the sparkling dialog, brilliant editing, and superb plot lines… then avoid the Basterds.
However, if you appreciate those Tarantino trademarks, Basterds is replete with lengthy but sharp conversations - some spoken in three languages, complete with subtitles - and though we're positive that there were many movie references that went right over our heads (yet another Tarantino trademark), we found ourselves always tautly attentive, savoring every word and nervously anticipating the film's climax.
A second category of filmgoers who may hate the Basterds are historians (amateur and professional), who demand that their films sail as close as possible to the known facts, when depicting actual historical figures and events. This movie, as much a paean to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s as it is a "war picture," will send such folks howling out of the theater.
The premise of this fanciful yarn is fairly straightforward. Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a part-Apache Tennessean, leads a band of Jewish-American GIs behind the lines in France with the express purpose of killing as many Nazis as possible. This being an allegory of the American West, be prepared for graphic depictions of dead Nazis getting scalped (complete with the obligatory sawing noises) and an uncooperative German officer being beaten to death by a baseball bat, wielded by "The Bear Jew" (played by Eli Roth, whom we can only describe as enthusiastic to a fault).
If you can handle those things - which occur only briefly at the beginning, followed by comparatively little violence until the movie's grand finale - the rest of the film is so funny, smart and well acted that we think it's worth suffering through a few scalpings.
Yes, the movie is wildly historically inaccurate. Basterds, besides being homage to the Clint Eastwood High Plains Drifter brand of Western, is a commentary on the clichés of the genre of WWII movies. Every stereotypical American, British, French and German character is represented here… generally by wonderful character actors.
Most notable is Christopher Waltz as the principal Nazi villain of the piece. While the film is a mix of fiction and fanciful "what ifs," Waltz (who will win this year's Best Supporting Acting Oscar, if there is a God of cinema) creates a character of such playful evil that the viewer is persuaded that he has captured the true nature of the Nazi beast. Hannah Arendt, writing about the Holocaust, spoke of the banality of evil. Waltz takes this observation to a new level of insight, as he rejects his nickname - Jew Hunter - protesting that he is "simply a great detective." The cat-and-mouse games he plays with his victims made the hairs on our necks prickle. Waltz leads us to a truth about the Third Reich that surpasses the hard fact of the millions of dead. We experience the horror of the Nazi occupation of France in a way that no hard, cold facts could ever do… one individual human tragedy at a time.
In the epilog of his 1991 novel of the CIA, Harlot's Ghost, Norman Mailer observed about his story, "It is a fictional CIA and its only real existence is in my mind, but I would point out that the same is true for men and women who have spent forty years working within the agency. They have only their part of the CIA to know, even as each of us has our own America, and no two Americas will prove identical. If I have an argument to make, then, on grounds of verisimilitude, I will claim that my imaginative CIA is as real or more real than nearly all of the lived-in ones."
Substitute "World War II" for "CIA in this assertion and you have the best possible endorsement of Inglourious Basterds.
(Claire and Jim Castagnera, daughter and father, are the co-authors of Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires, a young-adult novel of domestic terrorism. Former Jim Thorper Jim Castagnera is also a former Times News columnist.)