Let me start with a confession: I don’t really like war movies.
Yeah, I know that makes me suspect in the World of Guys. It also makes me suspect in the world of military historians. You want talk about war movies? Sit around with a bunch of historians of war and wait. Ten minutes or so into the conversation, I promise that someone will drop in a quote from Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, or Patton. For my students, the film Starship Troopers remains a kind of cultural touchstone, discussed, praised, and quoted constantly. I get asked at least once a week what I think about Saving Private Ryan (answer: I don’t. I still haven’t seen the film all the way through). For whatever reason, I just didn’t get the war movie gene. To me, most of them are a waste of time in a world of tight schedules and an unlimited number of good books.
But this holiday season I sat down and watched one in its entirety: Inglourious Basterds, by critically acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino. It wasn’t my idea. I got a call from Variety magazine asking me to comment as a historian on it, and it seemed like a good idea to see the thing before I went on the record.
My review? In the classic form of the traditional marquee blurb, “I laughed. I cried. But mainly, I winced.”
I winced for a lot of reasons. The movie isn’t “history” at all, of course. I don’t think it’s any longer a spoiler to mention that Brad Pitt leads a fictional squad of U.S. Jewish G.I.’s on a crazed vengeance raid in occupied France. They act like American Einsatzgruppen: smashing in heads with baseball bats, scalping their victims, carving swastikas in foreheads of the survivors, etc. At the end of the film, certain Very Important Nazis are killed by the “good guys” in a manner that beggars belief. To be fair, Tarantino doesn’t mean it to be history (I don’t think). Rather, he’s created a sort of warped revenge fantasy. But if you ARE watching it for history, this film arguably abuses the concept of “taking liberties.”
The longer I thought about it, though, I had to admit that someone born in 1958, as I was, grew up in the 60s and 70s watching some pretty dumb war movies. In films like The Dirty Dozen or The Great Escape, American soldiers were tough and smart and handsome and they routinely did impossible things. The Germans were unredeemingly stupid and pretty much stood around and got shot. In other words, in many ways these films were a lot like Tarantino’s (although no critic, to my memory, ever praised The Dirty Dozen for its artistic merit).
I still don’t like war movies.
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