Pop Culture Meets History – The story behind Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming INGLORIOUS BASTERDS!

When Quentin Tarantino attended a screening of BATTLE SQUADRON (La Battaglia d’Inghilterra) at the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles this…

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When Quentin Tarantino attended a screening of BATTLE SQUADRON (La Battaglia d’Inghilterra) at the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles this summer, he brought a very special guest. Enzo Castellari, the gray-haired eminence of Italian cult cinema and director of that film, joined him for a Q&A on stage, to the applause of lucky film geeks in the audience. That by itself is nothing out of the ordinary, were it not for the fact that Castellari is also the director of another much revered Italian cult film of the 70s, INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato).

The film stars Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson in a story about a gang of sentenced GIs on their escape to Switzerland. It might as well be described as the Italian version of THE DIRTY DOZEN. Roughly around the time when said Q&A appeared on YouTube, Tarantino came back into the spotlight, having kept a relatively low profile after the release of DEATH PROOF, announcing that he is done writing his newest project. He said he intended to start filming without further delay and even canceled an appearance in Spain where his much loved Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy was to be screened on location. His project was then still known as …INGLORIOUS BASTARDS.

As soon as Tarantino had made the announcement, his name was suddenly all over the web gossip pages again, this time not in association with the box-office bomb GRINDHOUSE, but with the World War II movie the director had been talking about, off and on, over the years.

Let us take a step back first. As with many Tarantino stories, this one starts much earlier. His writing process usually takes up many years, sometimes even decades. More often than not he lets ideas rest in his drawer for many years, only to revisit them when he feels the time is right.

INGLORIOUS BASTARDS began as an idea way before KILL BILL, some even trace it back to the early PULP FICTION days. After Kill Bill Tarantino had in fact started mentioning his “men on a mission” WW2 film many times, describing it as a Spaghetti Western set in Nazi-occupied France, an adventure ensemble film of epic proportions. He had reportedly been doing research on the topic and visited Normandy, but come 2007, the press was full with GRINDHOUSE buzz, and no Tarantinoesque world war to be seen.

Then there were scattered reports and sparse quotes from the auteur that he had in fact written not one, but three scripts, or one very long one, and that he just has to finish writing the ending. One other possibility would have been a TV project similar to Band of Brothers as a way to process all the material without having to cut characters or split the film in half as had happened with KILL BILL. There was speculation about Sylvester Stallone starring in the film, that a role had been written for Tarantino veteran Michael Madsen, that the film might be a remake of THE DIRTY DOZEN – or rather Castellari’s INGLORIOUS BASTARDS – and that Adam Sandler might have a character reserved for him. Tarantino’s new movie proved to be a mysterious project nobody knew anything substantial about.

Back to the present. It is the summer of 2008 and the actual script leaks onto the world wide web, entitled INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, only days after Tarantino had talked about it on the festival circuit. While Tarantino is already pulling together his production team, letting The Weinsteins loose upon Hollywood to find a co-financier (Universal Pictures ended up joining), and touring the globe to cast his main characters, the public finally finds out the truth about what the film is actually about. While still vaguely leaning on Castellari’s premise of a rag-tag gang of soldiers operating behind enemy lines, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS in its final form is neither a remake nor a re-telling.

The film centers on an all-Jewish American commando unit called “the Basterds” which is causing mayhem behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France. The unit is led by one Lieutentant Aldo Raine, played by none other than the yellow press’ favorite Hollywood beau Brad Pitt. He leads them to scalp Nazis and wreak havoc upon Hitler’s occupying force, while sporting a moustache that some claim will bring that type of facial hair back into the mainstream. The most surprising aspect of the script though is that the actual main character seems to be not Raine, but a young Jewish-French girl hiding in a Paris Cinematheque. Shosanna, as Tarantino has baptised his latest heroine, is seeking revenge for the murder of her family at the hands of an evil SS Colonel, Hans Landa. While Nazi party bigshots are planning the premiere of a propaganda film at the Cinemateque, The Basterds’ and Shosanna’s paths will inevitably cross, in what sounds very much like a clever and violent plot to strike against the occupiers. The propaganda film, amounting to a small film within the film, is actually directed by Eli Roth. Quentin Tarantino would not be the director he is known for if all hell would not be breaking loose, as politically incorrect as possible.

To let his very special vision of European history become a reality on the silver screen, Tarantino not only cast the biggest names in the German motion picture and TV industry, he also lined up a colorful mix of international stars for both in front and behind the camera. Joining Brad Pitt will be BJ Novak, star of The Office, Eli Roth, the director of the best entries into the otherwise boring torture porn genre with HOSTEL, and Michael Fassbender, one of the 300 Spartans, just to name a few BASTERDS.

But you will spot Mike Myers as a British General, Asian super star Maggie Cheung as one Madame Mimieux, and Diane Kruger as Tarantino’s version of Marlene Dietrich. Joining him behind the camera are Robert Richardson, one of the finest cinematographers working today, who has also collaborated with Tarantino on KILL BILL previously, and if everything goes well, the world’s greatest living film score composer, Ennio Morricone. Lawrence Bender, his producer – or rather partner in crime – on all his earlier films, is also back to get this film a slot at the Cannes Film Festival this coming spring.

With this convincing star power, a script that has craziness written all over it, a sufficient budget (some say only as a result of The Weinstein Company’s collaboration with Universal Pictures), and the cinephile resiliance and motivation that only a director like him can have, what does INGLORIOUS BASTERDS mean for 2009?

If we remember his last gigantic project KILL BILL, and compare it with his last side-project DEATH PROOF, you could imagine two scenarios. Scenario one plays out like this:

The film emerges from Cannes with an aura of controversy and scandal surrounding it, hitting theaters around the world months later to decent numbers and reviews covering the entire spectrum. The film’s impact is profound, with enormous press coverage, censorship and age-restriction controversies in many countries (possibly including Germany) and the ressurection of the non-serious WW2 movie genre. Scenario two plays out rather dissapointingly:

The film fails to make the Cannes deadline, is not able to get the producers a return for their investment on its initial theatrical run, and the reviews are, like those of DEATH PROOF, rather unspectacular. For two reasons, chances for scenario one are very high though. Firstly, the film’s development – and resulting from that the director’s dedication and enthusiasm for it – guarantee a maximum level of Tarantinoism hitting theaters with a big bang, including all the cool dialogue, crazy characters, trunk shots and war violence you will expect. Secondly, the film offers a variety of star power that will both attract the avid cinephile as well as the occasional Brad Pitt groupie among the audience, cast and crew of this film are fail-safe, a casting director’s version of a hedge fund.

Although the film takes place in France, Quentin Tarantino and his crew are currently filming interiors and exteriors exclusively in and around Berlin, having partnered up with Germany’s famous Babelsberg studios (their experience goes back to Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS). INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is on a fast-track shooting schedule to make the Cannes Film Festival release date envisioned by the director. Watch out for Brad Pitt scalping Nazis on the big screen later next year.

Sebastian Haselbeck is the founder and editor of The Quentin Tarantino Archives he also operates The Spaghetti Western Database and The Deuce: Grindhouse Cinema Database.