Now that drive-in genre auteur Quentin Tarantino’s long-talked-about World War II saga Inglourious Basterds has finally made it onto the big screen–and captured the box office brass ring on its opening weekend–two questions remain in the public’s mind: What’s up with Tarantino’s spelling, and are his “basterds” anything like the ones in the ’70s Italian-made actioner? Well, Quentin’s keeping mum on the former, and I really can’t give an answer on the latter because I haven’t gotten to the new film yet (for a veteran employee of the home video business, I don’t get to the theater as much as some), but I would like to offer a look back at the original, and let you see what happens when you mix Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone…and toss in a little Fred Williamson for good measure.
Firmly entrenched in the “men-on-a-suicide-mission” tradition of The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, director Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (yeah, that’s right, QT also changed the spelling of “Inglorious”) is set, like Tarantino’s tale, in 1944 France, where a truckload of U.S. soldiers awaiting court martial is attacked by German forces. When the smoke clears, the five surviving prisoners–no-nonsense G.I. Williamson, who killed a man in a racially-motivated brawl; bigoted wise-ass Peter Hooten; deserter Jackie Basehart; petty thief/forger Michael Pergolani, whose hippie-length hair must have been inspired by Donald Sutherland’s in Kelly’s Heroes; and rogue flyer Bo Svenson, who “borrowed” a plane to visit his girlfriend–figure there’s nothing but jail awaiting them back behind Allied lines and decide to make for the Swiss border and freedom.
The quintet gets help from a German soldier they capture in a farmhouse, but between them and their goal are obstacles ranging from frisky frauleins frolicking naked in a river who are equally adept at firing machine guns (Bet QT wishes he’d thought of that one!) to a battle with what appears to be an enemy platoon. It’s this last skirmish that eventually gets the Bastards involved with a band of French underground fighters and accidentally caught up in a new mission: to steal a V-2 rocket gyroscope from Nazi scientists on board a heavily-guarded train and get it back to the Allies.
Hampered by both a lack of studio funds and a government-enforced confiscation of firearms (!) in mid-production thanks to Italian anti-terrorism laws, Castellari and his scriptwriters were able to come up with a fast-moving, action-filled tale that overcomes its limitations. A rescue scene set inside a German-held castle shows off the filmmaker’s resourcefulness with alternative weaponry ranging from spears to a slingshot, although the budget problems crop up later in some unconvincing miniature train work and re-used footage of people being blown into the air by explosions. On the acting side, stars Williamson and Svenson convey the macho without descending too far into self-parody, and you have to be impressed with the fact that the duo did nearly all their own stunts…including the ever-cool Fred jumping off a bridge onto a moving locomotive. There ‘s also able support from Pergolani, who does most of the film’s comic relief, and Ian Bannen as a colonel who begrudgingly joins forces with the Bastards.
Formerly available on home video only in often-truncated VHS versions with such retitlings as Deadly Mission, Counterfeit Commandos and (most infamously) G. I. Bro, the original Inglorious Bastards was finally given a quality release last summer by Severin Films with blu-ray and one- and three-disc DVD editions. All three feature a conversation between Castellari and the ever-talkative Tarantino, while the three-disc set and blu-ray also includes a great “making of” documentary and other extras. Once you’ve seen the new film (assuming that, like me, you haven’t already), you’ll definitely want to go back and see the Bastards that inspired the Basterds.