High-profile directors like Tarantino and Spielberg dearly love taking a shot at putting their own brand on a World War II movie, no doubt because of the lure of working with badass villains and ass-kicking good guys.
Both of these films re-defined the genre as it existed when they were released and were considered Oscar-worthy enough to get Best Picture nominations (although both fell short).
Here at the Smack, they’ve each won a first round against a lesser contender: Saving Private Ryan knocked out the intense but difficult The Thin Red Line in our review, and Inglourious Basterds did the same against Spike Lee’s mediocre Miracle at St. Ana. Both of the winners in this Championship Round come with their passionate defenders. You can express yourself in our reader poll embedded in our post. Meantime, here’s how I call the fight…
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Inglourious Basterds is the bloody, fractured fairy-tale version of World War II, cooked to a high boil of fantasy and revenge, marched into combat by the starpower of Brad Pitt, where the Jews get a chance to put Hitler in his place in real-time while punishing the dangerous psychopaths who powered the Nazi death machine.
This is Quentin Tarantino’s scream-dream war film where the “basterds” are a Dirty Dozen style group dropped behind enemy lines with the mission to kill as many Nazis as they can. They’re led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), as broad a caricature as you’re likely to see in a film, a Southern boy who wants each of his men to give him 100 Nazi scalps. Literally. These guys would be content to just bring mayhem to the Third Reich, but they get lucky and get a chance to end it all early. If you’re trying to figure out when that happened in the World War II you remember from history class, well, just forget about it.
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The Defending Champion
According to the DVD bonus extras, Steven Spielberg’s first films as a kid were improvised World War II adventures. With Saving Private Ryan, he got the budget, the time and the talent to bring to life his mature vision. After a prologue with an old man visiting graves in France, the movie flashes back and starts with the D-Day landing where the slaughter on the beaches becomes real in a very visceral way.
After nearly a half-hour of this pre-amble and then carnage, the movie actually starts. It seems that back home a mother has lost three sons to the war already and has a fourth somewhere behind enemy lines. Captain Miller (played simply and powerfully by Tom Hanks) has to tell his men that their mission is to go looking for him, and to bring him back so he can go home. It’s a publicity stunt, no matter how well intended, and they know it. “He’d better cure cancer or something,” one of them grumbles, and no one really disagrees. Off they go to save the titular Private Ryan, through fields, villages, fear, and death. The characters of the eight men who set out on this mission all are spectacularly well-defined. Each feels credible, unique and real. Maybe you haven’t seen the film, so let’s just say that the mission doesn’t go exactly as expected.
Never mind that school kids all over America are going back to history class confronting their teachers with their new-found knowledge that the war ended in 1944 with Hitler’s death, Quentin Tarantino has at least managed to create a “teaching moment.” Spielberg, for his part, managed to have audiences worldwide feel like they had themselves stormed the beaches at Normandy, no less an achievement.
As mentioned, Inglourious Basterds won a previous Smackdown when it creamed Spike Lee’s effort Miracle at St. Anna, a film without logic, style or precision. Since neither of those films made a lick of sense, it came down to directorial skill, and there was no question that Tarantino packed more punch than Lee who seemed lost and adrift in is rendition. Saving Private Ryan, however, is directed by a champion, too, and Spielberg was at his masterful best here, making the film that you can tell he felt he was waiting his entire career to make. I know there are tons of Tarantino fans out there who think he can do no wrong and has dethroned those who came before him through his sheer audacity and spirit, but not in this Smackdown. Steven Spielberg is still a better director than Quentin Tarantino.
Given that directing reality, we have to move on to the characters. Tarantino did not set out to create people who feel real, but to create characters who feel watchable. He glories in their sheer over-the-topness, and based on audience reaction, so did a lot of viewers. So it’s apples and nectarines here. Spielberg’s characters may have their own cliches hanging around their necks, but they aren’t visible. Every word his men utter feels authentic. We feel the pain, seeing them as America’s youth, promise and future, and watching them march off to a place where we know many of them will die.
That leaves story. Inglourious Basterds doesn’t really care about that, either. It just blasts ahead, full of its own energy, resisting categorization. It is not a boring film. Saving Private Ryan has a very simple story, but its inexorable unveiling feels deep and rich. It is not an easy film.
Inglourious Basterds has nothing really to say about war — its purpose is essentially to be a Quentin Tarantino flick. As such, it’s excellent, probably one of his best or at least his best entertainment since Pulp Fiction. But I’m not looking for a revenge fantasy when I pay my admission to a movie set during the years of the Holocaust. I’m looking for understanding and insight. For me, Saving Private Ryan serves it up in a way that not only honors the men who gave their lives to defeat the Nazis, it lets me feel their loss. I didn’t feel anything about Inglourious Basterds except sadness that a generation is now going to think Aldo Raines & his men ended the war by killing Hitler. Our Smackdown winner now is Saving Private Ryan.