I like to think I’m the kind of person who would Get Inglourious Basterds. I can see what Quentin Tarantino was doing and so I’m not going to make myself look silly by protesting “but World War 2 wasn’t like that.” No. It’s a Spaghetti Western revenge-drama told in the framework of a WW2 movie. I get that. And it’s great fun, beautifully made, perfectly acted, impeccably dialogued. The bad guy in particular deserves an Oscar, if not for Best Supporting then for Best Nazi in a Serious Screenplay (Ever). In fact – another Spaghetti Western touch – he reminded me of Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time in the West, even with a touch of facial similarity, and I wondered if it was deliberate.
There are two ways revenge dramas should go. One is all-out tragedy – everyone dies horribly. The other is a happy ending, with the revenger triumphant and the revengee nicely dead, but always the revenger remains on the moral high ground. Even if we’re talking a difference of a matter of inches, he’s better than those around him.
In IB it’s an uncomfortable truth that the good guys are slightly worse than many of the bad guys. I can say this because it’s a driving point of the movie, so (unlike saying “World War 2 wasn’t like that”) it’s meaningful within the film’s own frame of reference. It may be that no fate is too bad for some Nazis, but then we get the perfectly decent Wehrmacht soldier wearing his Iron Cross – “for bravery,” he says, with quiet dignity – bludgeoned horribly to death by the Basterds for not giving away the position of his lines. Hmm.
And then there’s the ending … Right, we’re truly into fantasy territory here and it’s here that the film just rollercoasters along. But. Without giving anything away, let’s just say it’s a given within the movie that it would be better for Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and Bormann to have met their ends earlier and in a different way than they actually did. True, the cast don’t know they are characters within a movie: they have no idea that it was the total, humiliating Gotterdammerung of 1945 that smashed Nazism so decisively. To a group of US soldiers behind enemy lines in 1944 it might have seemed a perfectly reasonable proposition and so they act upon it. But I wasn’t convinced. That, plus the non-tragedy of the brutal revengers, means that for the first time I come away from a Tarantino movie thinking, “hmm, could have ended better.”