01 May 2010

Movie review: The Inglorious Bastards

The Inglorious Bastards (1978)
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Starring Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, Fred Williamson, Michael Pergolani, Jackie Basehart, Michael Constantin, Debra Berger, Raimund Harmstorf, Ian Bannen.

Reviewing Enzo G. Castellari’s nonstop action Italian Western Kill Them All and Come Back Alone made me realize that I had an obligation to review what is—as of last year, at least—the director’s best-known film: Quell Maledetto Treno Blindato, a.k.a. The Inglorious Bastards.

Rumor control, here are the facts: Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds (which I think is the best work he’s done) is not a re-make of Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards. It is an important influence on Tarantino’s film (why else would he choose such a similar title?), and it’s also a World War II adventure featuring an “American soldiers on a mission behind enemy lines” plot. But as you’ll see from reading the storyline of Castellari’s movie, the two films have much different narratives and characters. Burning theater and a vengeful big face anywhere here? Nope.

But the confusion continues and isn’t likely ever to abate. If you go to the Netflix page for The Inglorious Bastards, you’ll find negative user reviews from people who thought they were “getting that Brad Pitt film.” Apparently, being able to write a comment on Netflix and actually being able to read a movie’s description on screen are unconnected. Wasn’t the date a tip-off?

Okay, I’m not here to review Inglourious Basterds, and you’ve already seen that movie anyway. (Please tell me you have.) Let’s head back to 1978 and Mr. Castellari’s action-packed World War II adventure.

The “macaroni combat” movie is a term used like “Spaghetti Western” to designate a genre of Italian-made films (with international casts) that were doing a slant on a U.S. genre. The Italian Western was close to dead in the late ‘70s, and war, crime, and horror films had taken over Italy’s genre output. The Inglorious Bastards was specifically influenced by the huge success of The Dirty Dozen in Italy; Kill Them All and Come Back Alone was similarly affected by Robert Aldrich’s classic movie of “tough-guys go do-or-die,” but here the similarities are right on the front lines.

The Inglorious Bastards puts the criminal dregs of the U.S. military onto the front lines, per the Dirty Dozen playbook. These soldiers, on their way to prison in a truck traveling through a German-infested corridor of France, get a chance to escape when a German plane strafes their convoy. Freed in the bloodshed are Lt. Robert Yaeger (Bo Svenson), Tony (Peter Hooten), Pvt. Fred Canfield (Fred Williamson), Nick (Michael Pergolani), and Berle (Jackie Basehart). They soon gain a German soldier deserter in their, Adolf Sachs (Raimund Harmstorf), who may be able to give this “Dirty Half Dozen Minus One” guidance to Switzerland and safety.

The problem: the U.S. military will now shoot them on sight as escaped criminals, and the Germans will shoot them because this is a war and that’s what you do to the enemy. Not a win-win situation.

The “bastards” are a purposely mixed lot. Yaeger is the stolid hero, and the man with the least offensive crime on his rap sheet: he likes to fly his fighter plane off to visit his girlfriend. He becomes the natural leader, but unfortunately Bo Svenson is the most wooden and uninteresting performance in the movie. The other actors make up for this, however.

Fred Williamson gets the most attention as the angry Fred Canfield, guilty of murder and unlikely to get any justice because of his race. He’s in the most touchy position of the team because he can’t disguise himself as a German, so he ends up the outsider among the outsiders. Williamson is athletic, tough, and brings that special American quality to the production.

Peter Hooten appears to be playing the John Cassavetes part: the psychopath who is going to cause trouble later in the mission and exists to aggravate the others. Michael Pergolani, a DJ by profession, brings the counterculture to his part of the long-haired klepto Nick. Having sticky fingers helps out the team, since he always happens to have the right gadget for any situation. Rounding out our bastards is the cowardly Berle, played by Jackie Basehart, son of actor and MST3K punchline Richard Basehart.

A turning point comes that puts our fugitive heroes into the position of acting as true heroes, but in a very precarious position. It turns out that a group of Germans they gunned down earlier were actually U.S. specialists headed for a rendezvous with the French resistance to carry out a sensitive mission. The “bastards” show up at the rendezvous, and get mistaken for the specialists. Some quick negotiating between Yaeger and the U.S. colonel who organized the mission (Ian Bannen) gets them the job of robbing a German train with rocket technology. (Hence the translation of the Italian title: That Bloody Damned Train.) Success just might, might, get them pardoned.

Whatever else you might think about Enzo G. Castellari as a director, the man could handle action. He knows how to pace the scenes, keep the steady build, and deliver in the finale with the exact level of BOOM! an audience wants. The stunt work in his films is always top-notch, with more people flying around from explosions than a demonstration of the Flying Zuccini Brothers on The Muppet Show.

The Inglorious Bastards has more character development than I often see in Castellari’s films. It never slows the film, and it’s all done in the shorthand of the macho-adventure flick and it works. It’s particularly effective with the subdued arc of Tony, who seems like the nutcase jerk doomed from the start, but he emerges from racist aggravator into an admirable figure. The short time spent with Berle is also enjoyable; he’s easily my favorite character in the movie, since I like watch the redemption of a frightened man who finds his courage. Berle is an audience surrogate, the character who’s as scared of war as we would be in his situation; watching him emerge as a hero in his particular way is a joy.

Castellari doesn’t cram the movie with as much action as I’ve seen in some of his other features, but all of it clicks. The twenty-minute finale involving the attack from within and without on the armored train is filled with explosions, gunfire, and people falling off of a fast-moving vehicle. It has a feel for the Western more than the war movie, but am I really going to complain about that?

I noticed from this film that Castellari seems to really love scenes of stunt men sliding down slanted ropes; it happens quite a bit in Kill Them All and Come Back Alone, and even more here.

The movie also includes naked girls firing machine guns. I’m just pointing it out, neither criticism or praise. I thought you would like to know that the film earns the R-rating in all ways possible.

The Inglorious Bastards isn’t the best of Castellari; I think Keoma deserves that honor, and I get a bigger rush from Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. But it delivers the great Italian genre high that never gets old.