By Nadine Hussein
This article explores the way in which Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds challenges the myth of the American hero and criticizes the glorification of war cinema by satirizing the viewer directly. The particular focus is on the subtly with which Tarantino creates a network of parallels and analogical relations which dissolve the distinction between hero and villain. This article also argues that Tarantino effectively manipulates the audience into confronting the self-aggrandization of the American collective memory of WWII and exposes the ease at which the viewer is propagandized. Tarantino reveals the similarities between the spectator and the in-film Nazi audience by exposing the audiences enjoyment and acceptance of on-screen violence when depicted through the spaghetti western archetype of masculinity.
At first glance, Inglourious Basterds (2009) 1 might invoke a sense of amusement in its comedic deliverance that is atypical of war films designed to reveal the atrocities of war. 2 Given the idiosyncratic artistic style of its director, Quentin Tarantino, the intent of the film was not to mimic reality – especially as the plot is one of fiction, following an alternate history of WWII. Rather, Inglourious Basterds is a satirical criticism of war cinema and its persistent glorification of the WWII era, conveyed through Tarantino’s penchant for on-screen violence, references to pop culture and rich use of analogy. This film analysis argues that Inglourious Basterds’ depiction of masculinity through the Spaghetti Western era hero acts as a reflective medium for the critique of the Nazi enemy and of the violence of our own self-constitution. Tarantino directly challenges the glorification of heroism and cultural superiority embedded in the American collective memory of WWII by replicating the susceptibility of the spectator to the effects of fascism and propaganda in film.
The film takes place in German-occupied France following two independent but interconnected plots to kill Hitler. A French Jewish cinema owner, Shoshanna Dreyfus, witnesses the murder of her family at the hands of SS Colonel Hans Landa and narrowly escapes with her life. Years later when German war hero Fredrick Zoller arranges for the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film to be held at her cinema, she conspires to assassinate all the Nazi leaders in attendance by setting the theatre ablaze. Meanwhile, the Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine, known as the “Basterds,” also plan an attack on the premiere. The story tracks both groups’ preparation for the attacks and Colonel Landa’s inquisitive suspicion leading up to the premiere night.
Tarantino has spoken before on his love for director Sergio Leone and the spaghetti western film genre, so it comes to no surprise that he includes elements of it in Inglourious Basterds.3 From the subtle inclusion of the 1960s Universal Picture logo to the excessive violence and Western stylization, the uniquely American genre is implemented heavily throughout the film. The iconography of the Western tends to evoke America’s heroic self-image in the rugged cowboy, who embodies American masculinity and nationalism in the same way as the soldier.4 The Basterds personify many of the same qualities as the heroes of the frontier. In many Westerns, the hero is part of a group of men working together towards a common goal and act as a microcosm of American society. This is mirrored in the Basterds, a paramilitary unit of Jewish-American soldiers led by a half Native-American redneck with a heavy southern draw from the mountains in Tennessee.
The Basterds are characterized in the same traditional archetype as the warriors in Spaghetti Westerns. These Machiavellian heroes are violent forces who possess no moral compass and will act wrongly in order to accomplish good. The Basterds indifference to suffering and disregard for the established rules of warfare is evident in Aldo’s speech to the soldiers, where he states that the Germans “will find evidence of our cruelty, in the disembowelled, dismembered and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the Germans will be sickened by us … And the Germans will fear us.” The Western hero kills for political cause and vengeance, and their actions are justified as a means to an end.5 For the Basterds, their motivation is both political to save Europe from the National Socialist Party and vengeful, as they are determined to exalt the same “murder, torture, intimidation and terror” onto the Nazis as the Nazis did to the Europeans. It is thus not coincidental that the Jewish-American warriors in the film are referenced as the “avenging Jew angels,” claiming retribution for the actions of the Hitler regime. Furthermore, Aldo’s violent and ruthless tendencies in the guise of his Native-American ancestry reflects the Western view of Indigenous people as savages.
Although Tarantino is recognized for the aestheticization of violence in his films, Inglourious Basterds is designed to point out the hypocrisy of the viewer.6 National pride and admiration for the American military is profoundly embedded in the collective identity and culture of the US. By framing the Jewish-American soldiers in the Western warrior myth against one of history’s greatest villains, the Nazis, they are given an almost automatic approval. The Basterds appropriate the same tactics and language as the Nazis and are a group of all Jewish-Americans, which promotes the notion of racial purity that ironically mimics the Fascists they are fighting. The romanticization of violence justifies the actions of the Basterds by dehumanizing the Nazi, who “ain’t got no humanity. That’s why any and every son-of-a-bitch we find wearin’ a Nazi uniform, they’re gonna die,” similar to how Hitler dehumanized the Jews. Where Inglourious Basterds strays from the cinematic violence portrayed in Western films is that the hero typically uses violence in a reasoned and elegant fashion, whereas the villain is brutal and cruel.7 The Basterds methodology is hardly reasoned or elegant, being that they are tasked with collecting 100 Nazi scalps and wear them tied to their belts, or the character the ‘Bear Jew’ who aggressively kills Nazis with a baseball bat.
Tarantino challenges this notion by demonstrating the extremity of what violence can be excused by the viewer when it’s done at the hands of the heroes they worship. The spectator is forced to confront their positive response to the cinematic violence, just as how “watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies,” for the Basterds. The distinction between the ‘evil’ Nazis and the viewer is dissolved when paralleled with the amused response of Hitler and the other Nazis in the theatre as they watch the bloodshed in the propaganda film ‘Nations Pride’. When the film cuts to Shosanna’s ‘Message to Germany’, the perspective shifts as the scene establishes a point of view where we become a part of the audience she is directing her speech to. As the cinema goes up in flames, two of the Basterds in an opera box above begin shooting the Nazi audience below them just as the SS soldiers had done to Shosanna’s family beneath the floorboards in the opening scene. The spectator is punished for their behaviour similar to the Nazis rationalized under the guise of American pride and heroism.8 German cinema during WWII made it difficult to distinguish propaganda from entertainment intentionally – Tarantino brings awareness to this effect by demonstrating that the viewer is no superior in their own susceptibility to propaganda. 9
The characterization of Americans in the archetype of the hero who saves humanity and delivers justice to the wrong doers is fixed in their national identity. By comparing the American soldiers with the Nazis, Inglourious Basterds also elucidates the atrocities committed by the United States to its own minority groups that is overwritten in the collective memory. This is portrayed most evidently in Aldo Raine, who has a rope burn scar around his neck visible in his first scene. In an interview with Tarantino, he clarifies Aldo had been fighting racism before joining the war effort.10 The rope burn can therefore indicate either a failed lynching as punishment for opposing the Klu Klux Klan or be symbolic of the historical racism and cruelty to African Americans. One might assume that, being a white man from Tennessee, he would embody the typical stereotypes of a racist white southerner. However, Aldo views the Nazis and the Klan in the same light; as unjust and immoral ethno-centrists from which stems his passion for vengeance. While this may be true, Aldo still displays bigotry similar to the Nazis towards the Germans, which is indirectly justified due to being the hero who ended WWII.
Moreover, Aldo Raine’s is part Native-American and is nicknamed ‘the Apache’ for his penchant for scalping every Nazis he kills. The United States military exiled the Apaches from their own treaty lands in 1875, similar to how the Jews had been exiled.11 The nickname of Aldo Raine as ‘the Apache’ and his affinity for scalping is an analogy for the bounties issued by state governors who offered upwards of 100$ per scalp of each Apache killed, beginning the 1800s.12 Just as Hitler or Colonel Landa hunted down the Jews, the American Basterds hunted down the Nazi soldiers and inflicted the same treatment on them as that received by the Natives. The parallel between the Apaches and the Jews accentuates the comment hardships and oppression they have faced from the Americans and the Nazis, which only further highlights the irony of glorifying the heroic American avenging the Jews.
The carving of the swastika on the forehead of the Nazis who Aldo spares can be viewed as a more subtle allusion to the United States oppressive history. Aldo carves a swastika in the forehead of both Private Butz and Hans Landa because if they “take off that uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi.” This is comparable to how the Nazis forced the Jews to wear the star of David as a means of identification, but also serves as a reminder to the two Nazi officers of the cruelty they inflicted that they can’t escape.13 The background story of Aldo and the addition of the rope burn scar around his neck contributes a more profound motif when considered in context of the swastika scar. Both serve as a reminder of the racially charged crimes, oppression, and deaths of innocent African Americans and Jews by the United States and the Hitler’s Germany, respectively. While the Americans self-glorification as heroes rooted in their national identity might cloud their collective memory of their own racially unjust history, a rope burn scar such as Aldo’s serves as a visual reminder.
Inglourious Basterds deconstructs the traditional Hollywood WWII film by forcing the viewer to confront their own passive compliance with being propagandized and become enlightened to the irony of their self-awarded grandeur. The film creates a counter memory to the normative collective memory of WWII of Americans in the telling of a fictional alternate history. By drawing parallels between the nationalist American hero and the evil nationalist Nazi, the likeness of the hero and the villain are exposed clearly in spite of the righteous self-image that clouds our collective memory. The American is no less susceptible to the effects of fascism or propaganda, and equally capable of committing the same atrocities for which they condemn the Germans for. Tarantino drives the audience to question the difference between the violence of the archetype derived from spaghetti western masculinity and the violence of the Nazis. By reminding the viewer of the injustices inflicted by the United States, Tarantino challenges the heroism and cultural superiority of the American identity.