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The Inglorious Bastards

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy/Curiosity factor: In the case of The Inglorious Bastards, there’s no separation between what recently made it famous and why I was curious to watch it. For much of its lengthy conception and production stages, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was pitched as a remake of this 1978 Italian warsploitation movie. The recent DVD re-release even includes a half-hour videotaped conversation between Tarantino (who says he’s just finished writing the script and is about to head into production) and Bastards director Enzo G. Castellari, who is clearly under the impression that Tarantino is remaking his film. He specifically talks about how excited he is to see how Tarantino tackles certain sequences. He even comes up with a theoretical cast for the Tarantino remake, with Samuel L. Jackson as the black Bastard, Antonio Banderas as the Italian Bastard, and George Clooney as the officer Bastard. He clearly has no idea—maybe Tarantino didn’t even realize at the time, since he just laughs in response—that Tarantino would wind up throwing out the entire plot of the film and calling the original Bastards an inspiration rather than an actual source. Poor Castellari. He never did get to see how Tarantino would restage Bastards’ climactic train-heist mission, much less its sequence involving a bunch of naked German women attacking the leads with machine guns.

Still, I was curious to see how much of the original movie made it into Tarantino’s version. (Quick answer, for the terminally impatient: pretty much none, at least as far as the plot and overall look and tone go.) And that’s almost the entire reason I watched it. Before Tarantino’s version was announced, I’d never heard of The Inglorious Bastards. Nor, it seems, have a lot of people. Castellari himself has a solid reputation as an auteur of superior low-budget genre B-movies (he’s been called “the poor man’s Peckinpah”), like the spaghetti Western Keoma and the successfully sued Jaws rip-off Great White. But before Tarantino came along, Inglorious Bastards was mostly known as one of Castellari’s biggest financial successes and the film that was recut and re-released in America as G.I. Bro in order to take advantage of the blaxploitation craze. But more on that in a bit. 

The viewing experience: Inglorious Bastards isn’t shy about having stolen its basic premise from the 1967 Robert Aldrich war classic The Dirty Dozen: One tagline for Inglorious Bastards even announced “Whatever the Dirty Dozen did, they do it dirtier!” Both films are set in 1944 France (though Dirty Dozen starts out in England), and both concern a group of military prisoners—a bunch of riffraff on their way to court martial or worse—who become (mostly dead) heroes when they take on a dangerous mission against the Nazis. The difference is, in Inglorious Bastards, the men aren’t recruited and promised pardons in exchange for going on that mission, they just kind of fall into it. And that only comes after an hour or so of meandering around, with some shooting up Nazis, attempting to pick up women, and race-baiting thrown in for good measure.

The film first introduces its eponymous inglorious bastards as the military police round them up from various parts of the war and loads them onto a truck to be shipped off to a military hoosegow. Among the prisoners: blaxploitation star Fred Williamson, who “accidentally killed a loudmouth sergeant,” and Jackie Basehart, a craven whiner who attempted to desert and escape the scary, scary war. Joining them shortly thereafter is swaggering jerk-off Peter Hooten, who also claims he’s in for murder, and who, in his introductory scene, seems to be making a point of just how badly his dialogue is overdubbed:

Accompanying him is shaggy-haired Italian soldier Michael Pergolani, who’s apparently in for theft, judging by the collection of contraband odds and ends he has secreted all over his person. The final member of the group is bland heroic type Bo Svenson, an Air Force lieutenant with a habit of misappropriating his own plane to go visit his girlfriend. Having hit the three-strikes-you’re-out limit, he’s being thrown in with all the enlisted criminals and sent to the stockade.

But they never make it there, thanks to an ill-timed Nazi air bombardment that kills all the other prisoners and most of the MP guards, leaving Svenson and his enlisted crew to beat feet across France, making for Switzerland with the hope of sitting out the rest of the war. Roughly half of Inglorious Bastards is dedicated to this attempted trip, and its various obstacles, from an angsty German deserter who joins their lackadaisical group to a run-in with a German troop that they don’t bluff nearly well enough. And then there’s the inter-group tension. The amiable Pergolani gets along with everyone, and Svenson attempts to keep the peace, but even he can’t stomach the way Baseheart curls up and wails in terror every time they wind up in a firefight.

And Hooten suddenly reveals himself as a psychopath the second his life is no longer threatened. In this clip, he waves the racism flag around, but doesn’t really seem to be a bigot so much as a gleefully insane, bullying button-pusher who knows exactly what will get Williamson’s goat and provoke a violent confrontation:

Incidentally, the recut version, G.I. Bro, supposedly eliminates a bunch of footage in order to make Williamson the star and hero of the movie. I have no idea how that’s possible, given that he’s playing the third banana behind Svenson and Hooten. While he’s the most gleefully violent of the Bastards, a gun-lovin’, cigar-chomping tough guy who would most certainly be played by Samuel L. Jackson today, and he does get a bunch of scenes to himself, he’s also perpetually put-upon. When the Bastards run across a bevy of German women bathing naked in a river, they run in among them, pretending to be German men, and are gleefully welcomed—until Williamson shows up and the German women freak out, grab their guns, and start shooting. Wherever Williamson goes, he’s a dead giveaway that he and his companions are Americans, so he always has to pretend to be the other Bastards’ prisoner when they’re disguised as German soldiers. When the Bastards fall in among suspicious French partisans, though, they point at Williamson as proof they’re American, and Svenson demands he be the one to prove it. Which he meekly does by listing other black Americans: “Joe Louis? Jesse Owens? Louis Armstrong?”

These humiliations aside, though, I just don’t know how G.I. Bro could let the race-baiting sequence above stand, and then not end with Williamson triumphantly teaching Hooten a lesson by feeding him his own nuts.

In fact, easily my biggest problem with Inglorious Bastards is that toward the end, it seems to spontaneously decide that Hooten is the hero. After nearly an hour of episodic wartime escapades, the Bastards join the French partisans and get their first chance to relax. Hooten immediately takes the chance to fake an illness and hit on the partisans’ pretty young nurse, who responds to his lame ploy, nonexistent charm, and terrible dubbing as though no one else in the whole war has ever found her attractive before. She deals with him fairly handily at first, then softens in the face of some particularly weak lies about how he might die leading his men into battle, and how they might get married someday if they both survive. And for the rest of the film, she reacts to him as though they’re long-lost sweethearts; whenever she sees him, she cries his name with obvious relief and runs to him joyfully. Given that he’s far more deserving of a good old-fashioned nut-feeding than he is of love (or even a wartime roll in the hay), that gets irritating fast.

But apart from that, The Inglorious Bastards is a relatively fun experience. It gets draggy at times: The classic ’70s pacing spends too long on dull incidental details and conversations, but since the characters are stylized, familiar iconic types, and too cartoonish to take seriously, what they have to say for themselves isn’t that interesting. It also isn’t really what Castellari cares about; in essence, any scene where his characters are talking is just meant as padding. They pay a little lip-service to the idea that they should work together instead of fighting each other, but this isn’t a philosophy-of-war movie, and they never question why they’re there, or why they should suddenly drop their escape plans in order to take on a pair of hellaciously dangerous missions. The two real purposes of the movie are the lovingly filmed combat and the extended heist-esque sequences.

As far as that combat goes, it also got a little draggy for me, probably because Castellari was operating on such a small budget, and because he loves war more than I do. Here at The A.V. Club, we often reference François Truffaut’s famous dictum that it’s impossible to make a true anti-war film, because war always looks exciting on the screen. I’ve never really gotten that quote, because it’s certainly possible to make a boring war movie. And Castellari’s sequences, especially in the middle going of this film, tend to go on too long. He’s a big fan of slow motion, especially when something blows up, throwing soldiers into the air. The problem with that is that slow motion makes it easier to notice the signs of a cobbled-together, low-budget feature, like explosions that aren’t really close to the soldiers it kills, or stuntmen prepping themselves for a leap just before the explosions go off, or scenes where the same extra “dies” several times in a row.

But the heist sequences do drum up a bunch of solid tension. First, the Bastards, their partisan buddies, and an American commander have to infiltrate a German-held castle in order to appropriate a truck. They need it for the real mission: infiltrating a Nazi train to steal a crucial gyroscope being used as a missile stabilizer. The second half of the film is devoted to these two missions, and the former in particular is pretty gripping, especially since it goes south almost immediately. The American commander and Williamson, pretending to be prisoners, are taken away from their friends and hauled off to the outpost commander for questioning. And lo and behold, Castellari himself plays that commander. He also gets more creative with framing in his introductory sequence than he does at any other time in the movie. Dig that hat, eh?

A good bit of The Inglorious Bastards was a drag, with endless lo-fi shoot-’em-ups and Hooten being a badly dubbed dick, but moments like these, when Castellari stretches himself creatively, or when Williamson gets to show off his sense of humor, make the film almost campy fun. It’s no wonder Tarantino loves it. It plays to all his tastes: It’s violent, talky, trashy, funny, and crappy enough to have escaped popular notice. It isn’t going to replace The Dirty Dozen on anyone’s radar anytime soon, but it’s the fun kind of bad instead of the dreary kind of bad.

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? A good 65 percent. The Inglorious Bastards could use some editing, and less of the slo-mo Castellari loves so much, and more of a sense of direction that isn’t just “Some stuff happens to kill time until we can get to the good parts.” The whole thing has a reckless, raw, handmade quality that’s alternately endearing and off-putting. Mostly, it makes me want to see G.I. Bro, which I’m betting features less Hooten, less chatter, and more of Williamson talking to his gun and generally being awesome.