Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Basterds — known in Italy as Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato or That Damned Armored Train — is a 1978 film that ran near constantly on cable throughout the late 70s and early 80s. In case you’re wondering just how important this film was to Quentin Taratino, check out his excitement as he speaks to Castellari in this clip from the extras from Severin’s out of print release.
Taratino started writing his World War II film in 1998, but would struggle with the film, working on it and then shelving it again and again. That’s when he arrived at a story much like Castellari’s film — a group of soldiers escape from their executions and go on a suicide mission. While that idea changed slightly, it was what he needed to get the script written.
Tarantino had always wanted to work with Brad Pitt, so this felt like the right film, and the addition of Christoph Waltz — Tarantino felt that the role of Hans Landa was unplayable until then — made the movie for him. Tarantino saw the film as just as much a spaghetti western as a war film and almost called the movie Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.
The film starts with SS colonel Landa interrogating a French dairy farmer about the last Jewish family in town. The farmer is promised that his family will be spared if he gives up the family, so the soldiers shoot through the floor, killing all of the members of the Dreyfus family except for their daughter, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent).
We them meet Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) of the First Special Service Force, who is recruiting Jewish-American soldiers to his team. They go way further than the regular troops, scalping Germans when they kill them. Called The Basterds, we soon meet two of them — Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz, a rogue German soldier who has changed sides and already claimed the lives of thirteen Gestapo officers, and Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth), a baseball bat carrying maniac. There’s also Smithson “The Little Man” Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Private Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom) amongst others.
Meanwhile, Hitler learns that the Basters have been atatcking his troops, carving swastikas into the heads of the survivors so they can never hide their shame. And teh surviving Shosanna is now operating a Paris cinama under the assumed name Emmanuelle Mimieux, plotting with her lover Marcel to murder the Nazi leadership who will attend the premiere of Nation’s Pride, a propaganda film all about Fredrick Zoller, who recently killed 250 Allied soldiers in one battle.
British Royal Marine Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and the Basterds are planning their own attack. He and Stiglitz meet an undercover agent, the German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), but Hicox’s accent nearly destroys the entire mission, as a firefight breaks out between the Basterds and an entire bar full of Germans. They survive, but now Landa is on to them. At the premiere, he strangles Hammersmark and catches on to the Basterds who have snuck in.
That’s when Landa makes his gambit. He has Raine contact his superiors and cuts a deal: the mission can continue as long as he has immunity for his war crimes. Zoller attempts to seduce Shosanna before they shoot one another and die. As the film draws to a close, footage of Shosanna appears, telling the assembled audience — including Hitler and most of his high command — that a Jew is about to kill all of them. The screen erupts into flames as Ulmer and Donowitz — using the fake name Antonio Margheriti, obviously a reference to the director of Yor Hunter from the Future — break into the box containing Hitler and Goebbels, killing the before firing their guns into the audience as bombs kill everyone.
The film closes with Landa and his radio operator driving Raine and Utivich into Allied territory, where they surrender. Raine responds by shooting the radio operator and carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead, marking him for life so that he’s never able to truly escape.
This being a Tarantino film, it’s filled with cameos and references. Bo Svenson from the original Bastards shows up as an American Colonel in the Eli Roth directed film within a film. Mike Myers plays Ed Fenech, named for the queen of giallo Edwige Fenech. Samuel Jackson and Harvey Keitel’s voices are in the film as the narrorator and an OSS commander. And Castellari himself shows up as a Nazi general.
How does this fit into the Tarantino Universe? Well, Lieutenant Aldo Raine is Floyd from True Romance‘s great-grandfather. And Donowitz would be the father of producer Lee Donowitz from that same film. This has great significance, as instead of Hitler killing himself in a bunker, American heroes killed him in a blaze of glory. Is it any coincidence that one of Lee’s movies was a war picture called Coming Home In a Body Bag?
For all the amazing roles that Quentin Tarantino has created for actors, this is the first of his films to win an Oscar for acting, as Christoph Waltz won Best Actor in a Supporting Role (he’s win another Oscar for Tarantino’s Django Unchained).