Quentin Tarantino can't have been the first person to wish that the Third Reich had ended not in a bunker below the Reich Chancellory in Berlin, with no outsiders watching, but in a public area made for mass entertainment: a Paris movie theater. And that the Jews, Hitler's special victims, might have had a crucial hand in his defeat indeed, that a French Jewess could have ignited her own holocaust of the Führer and his top aides with the words: "My name is Shoshanna Dreyfus. And this is the face of Jewish vengeance."
Anyway, he's the first director we know of to spin this sweet fantasy out into a 2½-hr., four-language epic. Receiving its world premiere on May 20 at the Cannes Film Festival, Inglourious Basterds first word as in "glower," second as in "turds" is an alternative history of World War II from the writer-director of Pulp Fiction, the Palme d'Or winner 15 years ago. As with all of his recent work the two Kill Bill movies and Death Proof Basterds draws portraits of strong women facing down evil men; and in Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) and Third Reich screen star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) he's created two of his fullest female portraits. But Basterds is long and, for the hypercharged auteur, surprisingly wan. It has to be declared a misfire. (See pictures of the Cannes 2009 red carpet.)
At the press conference following the film, Tarantino was asked if this was a "Jewish revenge fantasy," and he replied, "Well, that's not the section of the video store I'd put it in." But Eli Roth, director of the Hostel horror movies and one of Tarantino's Basterds, said the notion of Jews getting even with Hitler was "kosher porn. It's something I dreamed since I was a kid."
Tarantino has dreamed mostly of movies, and his pictures are pastiches, updatings, twistings of the films he loved in a previous life as the world's coolest, most knowledgeable video-store clerk. Kill Bill paid homage to Hong Kong swordplay films, and Death Proof to car-crazy exploitationers of the '70s. This one, which might seem a mixture of wartime films from the U.S. and France (it does absorb some of the aura of François Truffaut's 1980 The Last Metro), is really, as Tarantino has said, "a spaghetti Western but with World War II iconography." That means Sergio Leone's Fistful trilogy with Clint Eastwood and Leone's all-time top Western homage Once Upon a Time in the West. Tarantino sprinkles the sound track of Basterds with eight pieces by longtime Leone composer Ennio Morricone and begins with a title card telling us that the story is set "Once upon a time ... in Occupied France." (See TIME's review of Pulp Fiction.)
There was an Italian film called Inglorious Bastards (the English name for a movie whose original title translates as "That Damned Armored Train") made in 1978 by pulp journeyman Enzo G. Castellari, one of many vigorous imitators of the Leone Westerns. Bastards ripped off Robert Aldrich's 1967 WW II hit The Dirty Dozen, reducing the all-star 12 to a more manageable and economic five. "Whatever the Dirty Dozen did," the poster reads, "they do it dirtier!" It starred the American actors Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson, to whom Tarantino gives a cameo as a U.S. Army colonel. Beyond its title, Tarantino's film has no other similarities to Castellari's. Q.T. made the whole thing up himself.
In his warscape, an octet of eight rambunctious Jews most of them American but a couple German have been set loose with the mission to kill and disfigure the enemy army. "A hundred Nazi scalps each" is the order of the Basterds' leader, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, chewing heartily on an Ozark accent), who either doesn't make the distinction between German soldiers and Nazis or doesn't care. While the Basterds are giving the Krauts bloody haircuts, Raine takes his pleasure carving swastikas on the foreheads of his favorite prisoners.