The first thing to say about this 1978 war actioner from Enzo Castellari is that it’s difficult to talk too much about the story without spoiling it for the first-time viewer. Or, make that stories, since like From Dusk Till Dawn, it’s something of two different films in one.
After the nicely Rotoscoped titles, accompanied by Francesco De Masi’s suitably stirring martial music, we’re introduced to our protagonists, four GI’s and an air force lieutenant.
Berle is a coward who involuntarily pisses himself whenever in danger; Nick a compulsive thief; Tony an ex-gangster and all-round bad guy whose only loyalty is to himself, and Fred (Fred Williamson) an African-American sentenced to death for the accidental killing of a racist officer. Lieutenant Yaeger (Bo Sevenson) is an air-ace, court-martialled after repeatedly going AWOL and using his plane to visit his girlfriend in London. (Though the “make love not war” epithet otherwise applies better to Nick, as a long-haired proto hippy.)
By making the MPs escorting the prisoners as unsympathetic as possible, not caring whether their charges get to their destination dead or alive, the filmmakers do a good job of getting us on the side of characters that in some cases we might otherwise find it harder to care about. Indeed, as a Nazi plane strafes the party the MP’s are quite happy to gun down the prisoners as they too attempt to take cover.
In the confusion, Berle, Nick, Tony, Fred and Yaeger manage to escape and to turn the tables on the MPs. Here we also get further indicators of the rules by which the film is playing as the MPs are briefly humiliated and then sent marching back to camp rather than subjected to anything more extreme and with none of the other prisoners, those who were not introduced nor individuated, surviving the encounter.
Deciding to head for neutral Switzerland, whose border is only 100 or so miles away, the men set off in the hastily repaired truck.
Unfortunately it is soon destroyed by a Nazi mortar, in what proves to be the first of a series of episodic encounters whose temporal and geographical relationships and resolution, if not always as clear as they might be, nevertheless also help convey an appropriate sense of confusion, that no-one really knows what is going on and where the enemy is. (If the Rotoscoped titles recall A Fistful of Dollars, this aspect is more reminiscent of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, especially since identities and uniforms are rarely what they seem at first sight.)
This continues as, hiding out in a barn, the men discover a German deserter, Adolf Sachs (Raimund Harmstorf), and, with the rest of the countryside ahead of them swarming with the Wermacht, enter into an uneasy alliance.
An encounter with a group of skinny dipping female Nazi soldiers follows soon after, significantly ending before any real shooting to establish a contrast with an otherwise comparable scene in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron to further emphasise that this is more fantasy adventure than realistic depiction of warfare.
The strengths and weaknesses of Inglorious Bastards are pretty much those common to all Castellari’s work.
Most obviously in terms of strengths, he really knows how to sell an action scene and how to make maximum use of the available resources.
Note how the opening scenes in the US base are comparatively large scale, with various extra trucks and tanks in the background. Thus taken in we may not notice the smaller scale of some of the intermediate battle scenes, where at times it looks as though the one exterior set has been shot from different angles or with the props moved around, nor the matte paintings and models representing ruined towns, squadrons of aircraft and things generally getting blown up.
In terms of weaknesses, meanwhile, it’s an awkwardly integrated love subplot with a female resistance fighter, made all the less credible by involving the least likely member of the group, Tony.
Allowing for the inclusion of a touch of glamour in the form of William Berger's daughter Debra, this is however hardly a fatal flaw.
The filmmakers also deal rather more ably with the complicating presence of an African-American in the group, going beyond a couple of scenes where he plays the Chewbacca role of captive to explore the contrast between Yaeger and Tony, the former commenting on the link between prejudice and the war itself and the latter a prime example of home-grown US bigotry.
Donal(d) O’Brien turns in a memorable cameo as a SS officer, venomously spitting out a line about the US being a nation of mongrels, of blacks, Jews, Germans, and Irish, with delicious irony, whilst the denouement presents a nice example of the pen(cil) being mightier than the sword.
Recommended, especially in the extras-laden three-disc set released by Severin last year.