Inglorious | HistoryNet


By Robert M. Citino
12/29/2009 • Fire for Effect

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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7 Responses to Inglorious

  1. OBH says:

    I would agree – I just saw the movie after hearing raves and found it to be a painful experience. The opening was promising, but the whole American-Jewish death squad romping unmolested through Europe was just as silly as Pitt’s incongruous Tennessee/Apache chip-on-the-shoulder. I don’t know why Tarantino ‘s film(s) garner such praise when his contributions to profound thinking include what a Big Mac is named in Paris.

    As for war films, I do enjoy them for the historical perspectives and insights. I wish there were more on the eastern front battles – an part of the war that most of America is still very ignorant about.

  2. Luke Truxal says:

    I used to like old war movies for one reason which is John Wayne. Now that I am older I think I enjoy black and white films more in order to see how movie makers felt about the times they were depicting in their movies. My favorite examples are The Best Years of Our Lives and Casablanca. Although they may not be the most accurate historically. I believe you can get a good sense of what is on people’s minds during those eras. I really think that the movies that last are the ones that make you think. Inglorius Bastards just isn’t one of them. Entertaining to a young audience for a short length of time. I wonder what future historians will think of when they look at our era of war movies?

  3. Bill Nance says:

    I prefer the classics, with John Wayne being among the favorites. Of course, Starship Troopers – THE BOOK – is outstanding and should be required reading for all students (of course so should a civics class – but enough on that).

    As for Inglorious Basterds – I have to admit, I laughed, but any relation to history is purely coincidental.

    What is of far more concern is the latest trend in war movies of violence for the sake of violence. Also, I grow weary of the trend in movies that all veterans are suffering from PTSD and “the man” screwed us up, and we’re nothing but programmed killers, and victims of the government. Jeez, what a load of tripe.

  4. Bill Nance says:

    And another thought after some rumination.

    War movies make a pretty good window into the psyche and values of the nation.

    WW II era movies demonstrated a nation that valued heroism, stoicicism, and valor.

    By the 70s, war movies showed a public that thought of war as absurd and soldiers as generally degenerate (dirty dozen) or incompetent (Kelly’s Heroes – still a great movie, but watch it sometimes).

    In the 80s you have a resurgence of traditional military values. Witness the evolution of the Rambo movies.

    The 90s continued the trend, but typically looked back to WW II in nostalgia (e.g. Saving Private Ryan, Memphis Belle, etc.)

    The modern trend is that the Government is incompetent and evil (interesting mix) and Soldiers are generally good people, taken advantage of. Look at Avatar, Jarhead, Stoploss, 3 Kings, etc. Interestingly, the US government is often shown in the same light as the Nazis of the movies of the 50s and 60s. Another point is that modern military films are much more nihilistic in their violence and viewpoints.

    All this says something about what we as a culture value. My own personal thoughts are that the more we lose respect for the values of honor, courage, patriotism, and defense of the right, the more we slide into a nihilistic gray area that does not bode well for the continued survival of the nation.

  5. Gary says:

    I think war movies say more about the cultural values of Hollywood than they do about the country as a whole. During the 1940s-60s Hollywood largely mirrored the American public, but more recently they have chosen to distance themselves from the American public on these issues.

  6. Alice says:

    My personal take on Inglourious Basterds, it was not intended as a “war film” at all, but rather uses the memories of WWII and the Holocaust as a sorta predictive trigger for exciting/eliciting audience identification with the “good guys” with a very distinct purpose in mind. The atrocities of the Holocaust were so beyond even current societal mores it is an obvious/cheap empathy-invoking tool.
    Tarantino is an artist: a cultural commentator using the cameras lens as his voice. He was attempting, rather unsuccessfully, to elicited, first audience identification with the “Inglourious Basterds,” then reveal the base desire in humans to seek revenge- not just in the characters, but more intimately, with the individual on the other side of the screen. A “what would you do if you were in their shoes?” journey through the macabre violence fetish many in our society seem exhibit as part of the human condition. Taratino did a grave injustice using the Holocaust and Nazi realities. His “Kill Bill” films are far more clever, and attempt the same message (though neither my film genre of choice): “When pushed to the edge, even the most humble/compassionate person can become a monster too, particularly if there is a group feeling of disenfranchisement.” Tarantino and Oliver Stone both appear to miss the mark of a true artist, by mining to broad of swaths of societal/collective memories, rather than the more Joseph Campbell/George Lucus “individual as societal member” approach to evoke the intended identification/response. IMHO

  7. Mike Wilder says:

    OK Robert, I get that a Historian could be really uninterested by the Hollywoodization of great events. But you will watch ‘Inglourious Basterds’ because Variety asked you to? Would you watch ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ to comment on how it related to the American Civil War if Variety wanted you to?

    Movies have a great potential that is so rarely realized. So when they do present something that rises above the dreck, it should be recognized. ‘The Longest Day’ showed troops landing on the beach and hardly getting their feet wet. So when a movie can pull off what they did in the first 20 minutes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ i.e. put the audience as close as possisble to a moment in the past, it shouldn’t be blown off quite so casually.

    You haven’t seen all of ‘SPR,’ but assuming you saw the landing scenes at the beginning, did you watch it on a big screen with state of the art surround sound? If you did not duck or flinch as a shell went screaming past your head, then you did not experience ‘SPR’

    One more example that puts the audience back into a moment in the past was ‘Das Boot.’ Without the tech gimmicks, to have an audience feel just a bit of the claustrophobia and terror of submarine warfare is an amazing feat of movie making. But apparently it’s not something that comes up in learned discussions of ‘The Dirty Dozen’

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