In F.T. Rea’s post of favorite Westerns, Rea cleverly and accurately assigned each film with a word:
What links each of these films and their attendant words is an attempt to tell a story about the idea of the American nation. The idea of the American West is itself a narrative of how America came to be, and the Western film genre, in varied ways, always attempted to explain some part of the American existence. How does America negotiate freedom and justice as it grows and expands? Can honor exist alongside the difficult political realities inevitably introduced by democracy? At its core, the Western would employ a small town or rural outpost as a microcosm that could tell a story about such macro-issues.
At least the Western use to do that. After Sergio Leone and the Italian Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, the Western became less a narrative about America and more a fantasyland backdrop against which stylish heroes and villains could engage in aesthetically pleasing combat. Other than a wealth of gold coins, there is nothing at stake in the final showdown of Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), but Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach put on a great show.
While I have enjoyed Leone’s Westerns, I remain troubled by how easily they hollow out the Western’s thematic core, even if the politics of those themes contain problematic and disturbing notions regarding race and gender. Even if I have ethical disagreements with presentations of race in Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the film still allows for such a disagreement.
More worrisome and dangerous, for me, is the film that completely removes ethical and political concerns. A prime example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, an amazingly vibrant and stunning piece of cinema that succeeds in removing any ethical implications from arguably the greatest human tragedy of the twentieth century.
Not surprising, Inglourious Basterds owes much to Leone and the Italian Western. Tarantino employs
an original score from music by Ennio Morricone, who wrote dozens of scores for Italian Westerns. The film also brings back a portion of Morricone’s score from Revenge of a Gunfighter (1968). (Tarantino also used this same score in Kill Bill Vol. 2.) Many visual sequences mimic or pay homage to previous Leone films. Most notable among these are the opening sequence with the Nazi jeep driving at a distance and the masterfully directed bar scene.
And also like the Italian Westerns, Inglourious Basterds hollows out an ethically and morally complex setting, Nazi occupied France, to create an aesthetically pleasing background for a violent fantasy. Jews are still victims of unspeakable acts, but here their victimization serves as a vehicle for revenge. (Again, think of Kill Bill.) The Nazis still play the part of the bad guys, but their swastikas are merely akin to Lee Van Cleef’s black hat and devilish sneer. The swastikas and Nazi uniforms signify cinematic villain rather than human atrocity. It is exceptionally difficult to imagine the buffoonish Hitler and Nazi leadership of Inglourious Basterds as capable of monstrous evil. They are comic figures who, unlike their historical counterparts, could not seemingly pose any real threat and are easily defeated. Even Christoph Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa, a villain every bit the equal of Heath Ledger’s Joker, remains disassociated from actual Nazi atrocities; he is the stylistic counterpart to Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine. Landa is capable of ungodly violence, but we are often left rooting for him because, much like the Joker, he is far more entertaining and engaging than the rather stiff protagonist.
In the end, Nazism is reduced to the symbol of the swastika that Pitt carves into Waltz’s forehead. It designates a bad guy, but fails to communicate the story of why such a symbol signifies evil. The carving of the swastika is, like Tarantino’s film, a visual “masterpiece” to be admired rather than a narrative that communicates human tragedy.
Inglourious Basterds and the Italian Westerns upon which it draws artistic inspiration are still cinematic triumphs of style, and I would be hypocritical if I expressed a sentiment that indicated that I do not enjoy watching them. Such enjoyment, however, does not preclude the desire to see film meld such violent style with the substance that accompanies conversations about honor, justice, or freedom.