Violent Style without Ethical Substance: “Inglourious Basterds” and the Italian Western

The cast of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" (2009).

In F.T. Rea’s post of favorite Westerns, Rea cleverly and accurately assigned each film with a word:

High Noon is about honor. Lonely Are the Brave is about freedom. Stagecoach is about survival. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is about greed. Unforgiven is about revenge.

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.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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8 Responses to Violent Style without Ethical Substance: “Inglourious Basterds” and the Italian Western

  1. Peter Schilling says:

    “Inglourious Basterds” was my personal favorite of 2009, and I guess I chafe a bit at the thought that any film that addresses the Nazis has to be “ethically sound”. You criticize Basterds because it “is exceptionally difficult to imagine the buffoonish Hitler and Nazi leadership of “Inglourious Basterds” as capable of monstrous evil.” Since “Basterds” is meant to be an entertainment (Tarantino would never claim this is meant as a comment on Nazi atrocities), I am at a loss as to why it is important that Tarantino address this issue (which is so prevalent in modern society that I don’t think it needs to be addressed–everyone knows Hitler was evil, which is why everyone compares the politician they hate to him.)

    You certainly cannot see Chaplin’s buffoonish Hitler as someone capable of great evil, and yet “The Great Dictator” was a necessary film about that great evil, just as “Basterds” takes this to a new extreme, lampooning the greatest evil in the world, an evil so profound (and whose symbols are so visceral) . And the swastikas being symbolizing cinematic evil has long been used in Hollywood, most notably “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” On a personal note, I would also add that I think the comparison to “Batman’s” Joker/Batman dichotomy is off–Aldo Raine is also engaging, and unlike Batman (who is stiff and dull in “Dark Knight”), it is Aldo’s lines–and not Landa’s– that are constantly repeated by fans of “Basterds” (“And I want my scalps” is perhaps the most popular amongst fans I know.)

    I’m not being cynical when I say that I believe that Tarantino is functioning along the lines of William Shakespeare, who took incredible liberties with his historical figures to create what was, at the time, great entertainment. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Richard II was an evil hunchback, but that functioned well for the story, which was meant to entertain.

    Furthermore, I would argue that if we feel that every movie, and by extension every novel, story, television show, song, play, etc. that has a Nazi or swastika be held to addressing ethical and political concerns, well, I’d say that’s a victory for Nazis–there’s nothing they hated more than being lampooned. I’d add that I think Tarantino knows this, and having Hitler die in a movie theater is a statement of liberation on Tarantino’s part–that not even a figure as giant as Adolph Hitler is subject to cinema’s freedom to express itself.

  2. F.T. Rea says:

    Although I haven’t seen “Inglourious Basterds” I am familiar with Tarantino’s films and Leone’s. So, I can dig the point Todd Starkweather makes in his essay.

    When bloodthirsty style runs roughshod over substance it removes the context. The viewer can’t feel the meaning of the action. And, I’d throw the same penalty flag at some of Scorsese’s films in the last 20 years.

  3. F.T. Rea says:

    Peter, I’m as happy to see Hitler mocked as anybody. As far as my favorite buffoon Hitlers go, Dick Shawn in (the original) “The Producers” runs a close second to Charlie Chaplin in his immortal dance-with-the-globe scene in “The Dictator.” But both of those Hitlers were surrounded by comedic settings; it would be more than a little risky to drop such characterizations into a gory WWII action movie about cruelty.

    However, since I haven’t seen “Inglourious Basterds,” I can’t say anything about its characters, plot, or how well any of it worked.

    The larger point that Starkweather seemed to be making was that the most watchable Westerns, made before the influence of Leone’s movies became to pervasive, usually pitted bloodlust and greed against honor and dignity. The question of whether, or not, civilization’s ideals about morality and duty have to give way to the extremes of the frontier was a much-used theme in classic Westerns.

    Off the top of my head, “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are good examples.

    With a modern Western (or any action movie), when greed is pitted against greed, and it all comes down to which amoral character is cooler than the other, well, for me, that’s the sort of film that usually fades from memory in a matter of weeks.

  4. Peter Schilling says:

    I agree with that, insofar as Westerns are concerned. Or any other genre. But “Basterds”, like “Raiders”, uses the Nazis as bad guys, and limits their historical context. “Basterds” is often played for laughs, and certainly for thrills. But Aldo Raine is a good guy, and “The Bear Jew” is definitely meting out his own brand of justice for the horrors done to the Jews. If in fact Starkweather is saying (in a great article, btw) that both sides are equally greedy, or immoral (or amoral), I can’t agree. I don’t think he is, though.

    Though I have to admit it’s pretty cool to have a guy named Starkweather criticizing a film for its lack of morals!

  5. thstarkweather says:

    “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is my favorite Western.

    Schilling is correct when he writes that I am not making the sides equivalent, but I do feel that de-historicizing the context of the setting makes locating a moral or ethical ground on which to judge the sides more difficult.

    Furthermore, I do not feel that all films are by any means obligated to locate such a ground and perform ethical work. Yet I think it is important to recognize how film can do such work and do it well.

  6. Ryan says:

    You say in the article that Tarantino “employs an original score from Ennio Morricone” which is inaccurate. In fact, the film has no score. It is comprised entirely of music from other movies.

    • thstarkweather says:

      Ryan, you are correct. My sentence is misleading. Tarantino employs film scores originally written by Ennio Morricone for other films. I will make the appropriate edit.

  7. Pingback: Five Film Favorites: Films about Films | James River Film Journal

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