Monday, July 21, 2008

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) d. Enzo Castellari

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It didn’t take long for film makers to start cranking out War Pictures after the guns went silent in Europe and The Pacific in 1945. Between 1945-1955, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster and many other “Leading Men” starred in epic and small time film efforts depicting the struggles of brave soldiers fighting in the Second World War from Belgium to Bataan and everywhere in between. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that War Cinema reached its height of spectacle and melodrama with some of the best remembered and most classic in the genre reaching the Silver Screen. Most of these films fell into two categories. On one hand there were the intensely serious films like BRIDGE AT REMAGEN, PATTON or A BRIDGE TOO FAR, while other films were more about action rather than historical accuracy and were even occasionally a bit humorous like THE DIRTY DOZEN and KELLY’S HEROES. The rare movie like THE GREAT ESCAPE fell in between the two categories and seemed to incorporate elements of both. With a name like THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (aka in Italy as QUEL MALEDETTO TRENO BLINDATO), you know you are getting a film that falls squarely in the realm of violent action and bombastic display and that is exactly what THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is all about.

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is the story of a small group of American military convicts being shipped off the front lines in France towards the justice that awaits them. Along the way, they are able to engineer their escape and make a break for the border of Switzerland in hopes of finding freedom. During their lunge for liberty, they happen to stumble into a plan hatched by American Special Forces and The Free French partisans to destroy new Nazi weaponry being moved to the front. In an effort to win their freedom by participation in this dangerous operation, Lt. Yeager, Pvt. Canfield, Nick, Tony and Berle join the fray and fight like Hell in an attempt to come out on the right side in the end.

If you are after a war flick that combines the smoke, shooting, stabbing and savagery of PATTON and the body count and athletic action sequences of COMMANDO, than THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is exactly what you want to see. Right out of the gate, this film is vulgar, violent and vituperative in its depiction of both the double-crossing and the dauntless in battle. There is gun play aplenty, as bullets tear through uniformed bodies, nicely supported by grenade and artillery explosions, strafing runs of fighter planes, arrows and knives slicing into soldiers, fisticuffs, throttling, bludgeoning and all manner of property destruction like bridges being blown up, cars, trucks, tanks and trains being bombed and buildings burning like bonfires. The language is coarse, the men are dirty, the women are beautiful and some of them are disrobed, and there is a mix of Americans, Germans and Free French all fighting for their lives in the closing days of 1944. This is not a serious look at war or an effort to be historically precise, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is a profane and tough-in-cheek look at testosterone-based battle glorification and if that is what you like, the action rarely lets up and the scenery looks every bit like that of the other Italian War Films that came out during the 1970s and early 1980s like Vietnam epic, THE LAST HUNTER.

There are many other reasons to like THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, not the least of which is how good it looks. Released in the U.S. under the titles DEADLY MISSION on vhs and G.I. BRO through Xenon, neither of which looks like THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS does now. To get an idea of how this film once looked, check out the theatrical trailer in the extras section in all of its grainy-ness and murkiness. That is how THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS use to look, but now it has been restored to its proper aspect ratio and can be seen in all of its glorious color, especially the creative red and blue title sequences. In addition, there is Francesco De Masi’s fabulously dramatic military score that adds an even deeper sense of soldierly emotion to the film. For those who are drawn to the actors and their performances in a film, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the study in contrasts between Bo Svenson (Lt. Yeager) and Fred Williamson (Pvt. Canfield). While Fred Williamson tried hard to make a name for himself in his films that was cool and suave, he is really the epicenter of machismo and lethal intensity, all the while sporting his ubiquitous cigar and impish grin. It is Bo Svenson who unknowingly was the icon of cool in THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. When interviewed, Bo Svenson is jovial, animated and even a little raucous, but on the set, he played the same character throughout his career, strong, semi-silent and even-keeled, a tower figure of range-less acting. The two men made a perfect compliment to each other. Svenson is the tolerance-minded straight man with a machine gun, to Williamson’s hammed-up killing instrument hurling men as far ass he could shoot bullets. Add to that chemistry the atypical mix of the magisterial Ian Bannen as Col. Buckner and Peter Hooten, Michael Pergolani and Jackie Basehart playing a wild-eyed gambler/thug Tony, a kleptomaniac trickster Nick and a cowardly fix-it-all Berle and you’ve got a team just as entertaining as THE DIRTY DOZEN. THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS isn’t as well made a film as its inspirational parent, but it can often-times be just as much fun.

The three disc “Explosive Edition” of THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is as chock-full of goodies as a Nazi hoard buried in an Alpine cave. On Disc 1, in addition to the feature film and an audio commentary by director Enzo Castellari, is the theatrical trailer and a 38 minute “Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Enzo Castellari”. Depending on your opinions of Mr. Tarantino’s conversational style, this may or may not be a boon to you. Tarantino is certainly a big fan of the original film and that is partly why his is in the process of remaking it. While the conversation does allow for Castellari to make comments at times, some of which are revisited later in another extra feature, it is Tarantino who does most of the talking about what he perceives to be the lasting legacies of THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS on himself and film in general. On Disc 2 there is a spectacular 75 minute documentary about the film called “Train Kept a Rolling”, which stars Enzo Castellari, Filippo De Masi the son of Musical Composer Francesco De Masi, special effects maestro Gino De Rossi, producer Roberto Sbarigia, screen writer Laura Toscano, and actors Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson and Massimo Vanni. Their reminiscences about the entire pre and post production experience, music, writing, pyrotechnics, on-set relationships and impressions of the experience, then and now, are just amazing. I haven’t enjoyed a lengthy film documentary like this in some time. After this opus, the 13 minute “Back to the War Zone” seems a little anti-climactic, but upon further reflection, it is just as enjoyable on another level. “Back to the War Zone” is Enzo Castellari walking over the old grounds where much of the film was shot and his reactions and memories are simply enchanting. The third disc is a CD of the music of THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. Severin Films deserves high praise for their collection of such a wide variety of visual and auditory materials related to this film.

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS didn’t receive much attention in the U.S. in the late 1970s or even the 1980s when it first hit the video market and it certainly deserved it. Since Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson were not “big name stars” at the time, it is likely that release rights were not taken very seriously and what could have been a well received film languished in obscurity. If you are looking for a bit of the old-time action/war film appeal like MIDWAY, but without the “recognizable names”, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is worth your time. In some ways, while this film may not be as well-made or well known as the usual fare like WHERE EAGLES DARE or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, it may be just as much fun in its own quirky way. It isn’t often that you get to see Fred Williamson shoot down storm troopers with a smile on his face or Bo Svenson shoot an SS lackey in the back with a crossbow. You’ll get an almost lethal dose of bullets shredding smoke-filled air and bodies flying in every direction. In an era when war films mean pretty boys walking across the decks of ships so that fourteen year old girls will swoon and then log-on to fan sites, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS takes you back to a time when action/adventure and war combined on the Big Screen to be gritty, gangrenous and glorious.

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