Friday, October 23, 2009

The Original Grindhouse War Movie: Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘Inglorious Bastards'

By Lars Trodson

The biggest difference between Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds” and Enzo G. Castellari’s “The Inglorious Bastards” is not the fact that there is almost no similarity between the stories of the two movies. The real difference is that there is not one sentimental frame in Castellari’s version - human beings are dispatched with remarkable efficiency and frequency with not one iota of regret.

Tanrantino’s film, on the other hand, is steeped in sentimentality -- he’s got nostalgia for grindhouse films, the the films of World War II, the old glamour of Hollywood, for the earlier version of the film he remade, for old-time villains and cinematic heroes and for the women who sometimes love them. His “Inglourious Basterds” is really a nostalgia trip.

Castellari’s 1978 film is an opera of carnage. None of the violence is terribly explicit -- you won’t find the sickening realism of “Saving Private Ryan” here. But scores and scores and scores of people are killed during 99 minutes, including (spoiler alert!) some of the lead characters. But, honestly, Castellari wasn’t much interested in having you care about these people anyway.

It’s all about the explosions and the gunfire.

Castellari’s film is so defiantly unsentimental that the only character that expresses any criticism of warfare is a German soldier named Adolf Sachs (Raimond Harmstorf) who decides to throw his lot in with the Americans.

Sachs is also at the center of a remarkable, and brutal, misunderstanding that actually sets the plot in motion. This occurs almost halfway through the film. It’s an ingenious twist, and one that would be heartbreaking if Castellari and screenwriters Sandro Continenza and Sergio Grieco gave the audience a second to consider the implications of the event, but they don’t.

The plot is reminiscent of “The Dirty Dozen.” A ragtag group of soldiers who are about to be court martialed are being transported to either prison or the gallows. But unlike “The Dirty Dozen” they aren’t recruited for a mission that would, if completed, gain them salvation. Their convoy is attacked by the Germans on the way to the clink and everyone guarding them is killed. The bad-boy soldiers escape and they take it upon themselves to join the war again.

Their ultimate challenge comes about solely due to the turnabout with Sachs, the German soldier that was captured by the Americans and who joined their group.

The film isn’t as delirious as one would hope it to be. It’s a fairly conventional actioner, with few of the lurid touches you’d get in a real whacked out European film by someone like Jesus Franco. The cinematography (by Giovanni Bergamini) is solid, and the acting is uniformly lacking. It’s shot in the typical way of a film that was always meant to be dubbed, with the camera moving away from faces as they speak so the audience wouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that the mouth wasn’t forming the words you actually hear.

The only adjective I can find for the special effects is “cute” -- the destroyed buildings and bridges and trains are straight out of tiny-town -- miniature recreations that look small despite the best effort to disguise them. But the production also features real tanks and trains and jeeps, which is nice and retro.

There is also a very mini Steve McQueen-like motorcycle jump that is, well, cute.

The climax features a runaway train and a secret German weapon that must be deactivated. None of the plans laid out by the Bastards goes particularly well.

The cast includes the rock-like Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson and an actor named Peter Hooten who supplies, improbably, the only love interest the film has.

A genuine curiosity is the Americanized name of the film. In one of the odd and mysterious ways that language sometimes works, the two perjorative words in the title -- “inglorious” and “bastards” -- somehow, when taken together, conjure up an image of heroism, which is exactly what the film meant to convey. That may be coolest thing about it.