Here we have Round 1 in our Guest Writers Series at the ConFluence-Film Blog. Our first guest writer, Sunrise Tippeconnie, is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Oklahoma City who dabbles in film criticism and history. You can read more of his work in Sooner Cinema: Oklahoma Goes to the Movies and on The Candler Blog. To view Sunrise's original response to Inglourious Basterds, click here.
With the release of Inglourious Basterds for home viewing, I’ve culminated some suggested cinematic links to aid any Basterds study, and allow the film’s conversation to continue, and allow for a means of navigating some of the referenced materials.
While discussion about Basterds often results in it’s definition as a “war movie,” we must be specific, and just as Tarantino observers are quick to correct with definition of the film’s concept as propaganda analysis as well as a lover letter to “grindhouse” grade war-fare, we should be specific about what issues of these types of cinema are being discussed. While most war films about a squadron have a tendency to place the concept of manhood during war beneath the microscope, Basterds does not.
Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) is very clearly referenced through the initial framings in which we begin to learn about the assumed title roles, the men under watch by Lt. Aldo Reine. While this implies a connection to Aldrich’s film, what normally follows reference is thematic homage. This is where Tarantino severs the tie and we do not come to understand how these men develop a camaraderie, a code of honor among themselves, nor do we see them grow beyond their social status as “bottom of the barrel” expendables like The Dirty Dozen. While the initial response to these omissions is runtime and viewer completion, these elements are quite important in understanding the film’s satiric nature and would introduce problematic identification with these men, one that could destroy the film’s ending effect and film’s final messages.
As important as the development is of these themes, their removal allows for a better understanding of propaganda’s ability to instill pride and inspiration. Without such identification, these men appear ruthless and slightly unjustified. The introduction of “The Bear Jew” opens an opportunity for violence to be inflicted upon a Nazi soldier. This sequence also omits, and in this case it omits any context for the violence. There is no back-story given about the Nazi party, the war in Europe, nor the background histories of Raine and his collected rag-tag group of misfit soldiers. Just as audience completion requires the accessing of Aldrich’s film to understand these men might have learned to work as a group, learned the necessary war-survival skills and can be successful in their collected attempts, the film also assumes the audience will access their knowledge of history to complete the context of this violence. This is where the strength of the film’s narrative allows for the satire to plant its seed. While the violence in this section of the film feels justified, because of the Nazi agenda and tactics during the war, the mistake in assumption is what allows the satire to grow without notice until the final reel of the film. The justification for the violence comes from a specific assumption that these men have learned to develop camaraderie and honor instead of blind patriotism, which is perhaps something that we have missed between the scenes –and in omitting such moments allows for the film to play out a hidden narrative, one in which the men do not learn a value of life, nor question the meaning of war, thus becoming merciless vigilantes bent on winning in the name of patriotism. This ultimately becomes what feels like maniacal terrorism, the frightening reality of the film’s final moments of violent outburst. This is what makes Tarantino’s film diverge from most films in the war genre: without the compassion towards life on either side of the war zone there is no hope in cinema and thus such works are Tarantino-ized as propaganda.
It is important to look at the final moments of Aldrich’s film, which allows for this moment to come quite successfully when Jim Brown falls from Nazi bullets. At this moment the disheartened survivors see the fall of a man, who at the start of the film would have been seen as a less than a man because of his color. What is most incredible about this moment is twofold in the compassion for the death a fellow man as well as their ability to see beyond the limits of their racism. While this moment does not erase the possibility for future racist tendencies for these characters, and thus not suggestive of a solution to such tensions, what is important is the ability for these characters to put aside prejudices to mourn for the fatality and mortality of humanity.
What seems like a conscious response to this moment results in the fascinating introduction of “Hugo Stiglitz”. Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz serves as a means to understand the vigilante wrath of a propagandized hero; he is the only Jewish solider to look like an action hero, while others in the squadron look scrawny, disheveled, and un-muscled. Sgt. Stiglitz is further presented as an extreme assassin who’s Nazi SS officer death count is unrivaled, and Tarantino ignites an adrenaline rush through a flashback sequence that depicts intense infliction of violence upon Nazi officers while we hear the theme from Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972). The audience is again asked to access their own knowledge of both history and cinema via the Brechtian device of a Samuel L. Jackson voice over. While accessed history implies associations of World War II, it is most important to acknowledge contemporary associations of the recent Iraqi War and the violence of Iraqi ground forces and prisoners held within Guantanamo Bay. Cinema associations recall Jim Brown, and thus a connection is made between an action hero and the real horrors of violence in the name of patriotism. This connection suggests the actions of characters portrayed by Jim Brown are just as heroic, and perhaps justified at this point within the context of Basterd’s narrative since the satiric nature of the film has yet to completely unspool. Looking at this point closer, Jim Brown’s cinematic nature is not just implied by Slaughter and The Dirty Dozen, but through another musical reference of Dark of the Sun (1969), and further implicit connections to Pacific Inferno (1979).
All of these films contain Jim Brown as heroic protagonist that utilizes violence to overwhelm an oppressive force, justified by the sides of war. While these films reinforce the issue of humanity as the true victim of war, and those that find a bond beyond the confines of political allies are those that truly learn from the atrocities depicted on screen. Clyde Peterson, in Pacific Inferno, throws the final switch that explodes the Japanese prison camp, yet the film attempts to humanize his actions through the relationship he develops with one of the camp leaders who is indebted to Clyde for saving his life. The honor of code and a reverence for life allow Clyde (and thus, the audience) to define the elements that are in opposition of these humanistic concepts allowing justification for the violent end of the Japanese soldiers as part of the prison camp. While these seems acceptable, it is only so because of the propagandistic nature of the narrative elements, as Tarantino ultimately delivers. While experiencing such heroic tales with Jim Brown, the ultimate question is whether these violent responses are appropriate.
As Basterds comes to its close, non-historical events take precedent and allows for the accessing of history to halt with a sudden error, meanwhile the accessing of cinema remains un-severed. This disconnect springs a sudden question of legitimacy. While cinema history serves the moment as possible, world history states the moment is fictive, unbelievable, and absurd. These audience threads don’t simply separate, they open the door wide for a sudden reassessment of one’s allegiance to American cinema history in its entirety: have we been lied to? Why would the actions of Jim Brown’s characters be dishonorable since his position against such oppressive forces is justified. While Slaughter’s anger (as well as Clyde Peterson’s) is justified by racism, oppression, and exploitation, the means of his violent reparations and retaliations are what is questioned.
What makes this moment of Hugo Stiglitz more complex is the nature of this character’s name, which is a direct association with a caucasian, Mexican actor of the same name. While Stiglitz is associated with the “grindhouse” aesthetic with which Tarantino has made his name, the context of his cannot be overlooked in comparison to the referenced Jim Brown roles.
Within the range of Stiglitz’s work, a good consistency of roles portray a confident, imposing character that takes charge and gets things done, often resulting in the kind of antagonist strong enough for a climactic battle. The work that Basterds seems to reference most strongly is Counterforce (1988), in which Stiglitz portrays a world-class assassin that races an American counter-terrorist squadron to a targeted Middle Eastern leader. Stiglitz is constantly out maneuvering the team with disguises, weaponry, and most notably through a surprise attack upon a theater audience during the leader’s address.
With such an antagonistic character actor serving as reference through the name for a Jewish war hero, the resulting conflict between Jim Jones and Hugo Stiglitz implies more than just race or audience identification. What results is a complicated identity that implies the real nature of a war hero: one side is an honorable man that fights against the injustice of oppressive forces and ideals, while the other side in a dishonorable man that will do whatever is necessary to stay atop of his game, and eliminate all others in the way. While Basterds eliminates the Stiglitz character after a game of deception, the violent tactics of Counterforce’s surprise attack remains. Humanity becomes a casualty that cannot survive such moments of deception within the games of war, and any character that holds the possibility of the human integrity of Jim Brown’s Clyde Peterson will not see the sight of the third act, which would imply that all those alive at the end of the film are in fact the Basterds of the film’s title. What remains is a request for audience identification removal from cinematic material that requests joyous participation in violence as an acceptable means for accomplishment. Even if American Aldo Raine obtains the upper hand in the end, the reality of this situation completes the absurdity of the actual political nature of America’s contemporary international relationships, allowing Tarantino to strongly suggest a change in allegiance to vengeance over patriotism.
A final thought, before anyone comes to the conclusion that Jim Brown is a good guy, Hugo Stiglitz is a bad guy, and therefore a racial divide occurs between “good” and “evil,” this critical analysis of the “suppressed” taking vengeance upon their “oppressors” is further paralleled by Aldo Raine’s brief comment about his moonshine exploits that mirror the plot of Burt Reynold’s Gator in White Lighting (which is also musically referenced). Although Raine’s back-story implies an empathy with Jim Brown’s Slaughter, he is not capable of completely understanding the racial tensions because of his privilege as a Caucasian male during the fifties. Raine’s own name is similar to character Aldo Ray, who played a rough mixture of Brown and Stiglitz character descriptions. The reference that serves best here is Raoul Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). In this film, Aldo Ray plays tough Sgt. Sam Croft who heads a Pacific reconnaissance squadron behind enemy lines when his tactics of leadership are questioned by his men. The film deconstructs the morality and integrity of war’s catch-22 nature, where successful leadership takes no prisoners, disregards individual humanity, and often appears murderous as a means to save lives. Failure to comply with Sgt. Croft’s hard edged and crazy rules results in what feels like negligence with life. The Naked and the Dead treads a really thin line between moral decency and reckless murder when conveying that war sometimes necessitates a clear line of division between sides for survival. When placed within the context of Tarantino’s Raine, the development of the character excludes such dichotomies that are more likely developed within the parallel character in The Dirty Dozen. This exclusion implies that Raine lacks the internal moral responsibility of Croft while maintaining the murderous exterior, which allows for the most two-dimensional character of the major cast. This vapid character further perpetuates the myth of the American hero so that there is a point for comparative analysis with Jewish war hero Hugo Stiglitz. Without such a comparison point there is no way to understand the complicated satire implied through character actions and intentions when the film’s violence comes to full climax, otherwise belief within the actions of these heroes would be misrepresented as appropriate.
Two more films that serve as subtle reference points for comparison films for further dialog on the themes of race, violence, and the war genre: Lee Frost’s The Scavengers (1969) and Umberto Lenzi’s Desert Commandos (1967). Also a strong satire, Frost’s film follows a troop of Confederate soldiers that continue the war against the North after the Civil War has ended, and their maniacal leader holds nothing back when he retaliates against supposedly freed slaves. Lenzi, whose film Bridge to Hell (1986) also serves as a visual reference for Basterd’s violence, helms Desert Commandos’s similar plot with a clever approach towards breaking down audience identification without satire nor irony, and yet remains just as strong as Basterd’s analysis and critique.