Call me old-fashioned (like that’s a stretch) but I miss the historical military films that actually tried to offer a complex narrative that more or less resembled an approximation of an event that more or less actually happened. OK, there’s some post-modern historiographical slack in that thought, but I’m thinking of films from the late sixties and early seventies like Waterloo or The Battle of Britain that were reasonably accurate in their history telling. Granted, the same era gave us films like Kelly’s Heroes, with its heist and western movie influence and its wonderfully anachronistic Donald Sutherland as a stoner tank commander, but a few years after that came A Bridge Too Far, perhaps the last gasp in the traditional war movie.

Three decades later we have Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which I finally saw the other night. This blog does not deal in film reviews as a general rule, but as I watched QT’s WW2 film, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. On the one hand, he plays with film conventions and cliches in a way reminiscent of Kelly’s Heroes on steroids. As David Denby wrote in The New Yorker last August, “Tarantino has gone past his usual practice of decorating his movies with homages to others. This time, he has pulled the film-archive door shut behind him—there’s hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside the cinema except as the basis of a nutbrain fable”.

When Hitler, Goering, and the whole Nazi hierarchy gets roasted and machine-gunned to death inside a Parisian arthouse cinema in 1944, I realized that this film’s train had left the history station and was now racing towards pure fantasy. As Denby and others have pointed out, it’s gonzo wish-fulfilment: “Oooh, Nazi’s are evil and they are snappy dressers, so let’s see how many we can kill in really unpleasant ways”. Is there an ethical point to it all? Didn’t we already know that the Nazis were awful? Didn’t the Nazi’s lose the war, and wasn’t that point made by Bruno Ganz as Hitler in the recent German film Downfall? As Dana Stevens notes on, “Is the best way to work through the atrocities of the 20th century really to dream up ironically apt punishments for the long-dead torturers?” If you want to have fun at the expense of Hitler and his gang, I would far perfer Mel Brook’s treatment of the Third Reich in The Producers (either film version works), which, unlike QT’s film, doesn’t leave one feeling dirty. As Denby notes, “Tarantino’s fans will wait for the director’s cut, which no doubt shows Shirley Temple arriving at Treblinka with the Glenn Miller band and performing a special rendition of “Baby Take a Bow,” from the immortal 1934 movie of the same name, before she fetchingly leads the S.S. guards to the gas chamber.”

As a footnote, the night after I watched Basterds, I caught Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which further convinced me that history as we know it in the movies is, like the glaciers, in full retreat. Victorian London not good enough for you? Add radio-controlled weapons of mass destruction. The menace of the league of red-headed gentlemen not threatening enough? Replace them with a dude who wants to take over the world. Sherlock Holmes in his drawing room too fusty? Make him into an action hero with a hot girlfriend. Should we have been surprised that it would have turned out any other way? Great fun, sure, but there was more realism in the London of Charles Dicken’s Scrooge than there is in this version.

Watch for Clio, the muse of history, to turn up in the movies in high heeled knee boots and Madonna bra, brandishing a plasma pistol and kicking Nazi ass. Or has that been done already?

0 Responses

  1. I share your liking of the traditional War Film, one of my oddities, a Quaker that likes war films.

    I found QT's film odd because it choose to be a fantasy set in World War 2 and not to actually try to depict the amazing stories of what did happen.

    There have been some in the last years, one need not go back to the 70s for films like The Bridge at Remagen

    Band of Brothers
    Saving Private Ryan
    Thin Red Line
    Blackhawk Down

    There have also been some amazing Europeans ones

    No Man's Land (the Bosnian war)
    Tali-Ilhantala 1944 (good film about a battle between the Soviets and Finns)
    Die Flucht (German miniseries about the plight of Germans in the wake of the advancing Soviets)
    Katyn (Polish)