“I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” – Walt Disney
Imagine a person who doesn’t know much about history, but manages to watch a great deal of movies. Say he or she watches Argo, and then takes an interest in U.S.-Middle Eastern relations. Say he or she watches Gandhi and then studies up on Mahatma Gandhi and the history of India. Or, after watching Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds he or she looks into what American Jews were doing during World War II. If you know these movies, you’ll notice that one of those three is clearly less historical than the others.
Inglourious Basterds is history as we would like it to be, but not as it was. It’s nice to believe that Tarantino got his story from the history textbooks, but it’s complete fiction. The brutal-but-justified Nazi-hunting Jews against a wholly evil Jew-hunting Nazi is the fictional equivalent of revisionist history.
This is the formal SPOILER warning for this post. If you’re familiar with Inglourious Basterds, then you already know the scene I plan to talk about. If you haven’t seen it yet and would like to, it is currently on Netflix and I highly recommend.
Quentin Tarantino, director and writer of Basterds, and multiple classics, is certainly a ballsy man. (Either that or he simply doesn’t care, likely both.) Inglourious Basterds looked history in the eye, and then completely forgoes it. Inglorious Basterds kills Hitler, and it kills him in a spectacular fashion (which makes sense, because if you’re going to do something like that, you might as well do it big). This is historical fiction at its most fictional. And it’s lovely.
Usually, films such as biopics take poetic license with history, because those films are bound to pay some form of respect to history and historical reliability. It gets in the way of the story they’re trying to tell. On the other hand, Basterds is the counter argument against the need for historical reliability. Rather than shaping his creativity to fit history, Tarantino shapes history to fit his creativity. And by forgoing this need for historical accuracy, he creates a wonderful work of art. The goal of films, as suggested by the opening quote, is to entertain rather than to instruct. One necessary step in watching a movie, reading a book, etc. is suspending reality. At no point does Basterds claim to be a true film. But it introduces is to World War II Europe, which we have seen in plenty of other films. Even if your knowledge of history is minimal, you know who Hitler is, so to see Hitler in a movie builds upon our familiarity with the world.
Now, the fair counter-argument to this is that a large portion of the movie-going audience might have a lot to learn from the films they watch, and that seeing a lot of films about World War II will expand their knowledge of the era. However, films cannot be the only source of knowledge for such an important period in history would certainly be foolish.
Of course, I’m not the first to talk about this, here’s a review from Roger Ebert’s website which addresses the issue more eloquently than I can, stating “Inglourious Basterds exists on a plane of cinematic unreality, an alternative movie-movie universe,” and then provides a quote emphasizing the importance that our knowledge of history has on the way we view this film.
Point is, I’m using this point to highlight a bold moment in an extraordinary career. On the eve of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, it is interesting to think back to Basterds as one of the ballsiest moves in his ballsy
career. It’s unlikely that we’ll see anything as bold and grandiose as Hitler’s death, but his films have always been fascinating and innovative, and while Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs might get all the credit, Inglourious Basterds deserves to be recognized as the boundary-breaker that it is.
Anyhow, now that I’ve sufficiently gushed over a favorite director, I’m interested to see what you think about it. In the comments, tell me what you think of Inglourious Basterds and its massive twist.
Quentin Tarantino versus Krishnan Guru-Murthy (Interview)