I'm sure many film fans will be vaguely aware of the film cited as an inspiration for a certain Mr Tarantino's newly released jaunt back to World War II with Inglourious Basterds starring Brad Pitt, but the source itself is perhaps not as widely viewed as the modern homage. Quel maledetto treno blindato, which roughly translates as “that damned armoured train”, was a 1978 piece by Italian director Enzo G. Castellari, who started his career, like many of his Italian compatriots, in the field of the Spaghetti Western. It was here he honed some of his early skills in depicting violent scenes and the utilisation of slow motion and brutal combat. His trajectory climbed as he made several interesting, if little known, crime films in the decade that followed, but found himself floundering a little as his output moved decidedly into B-movie territory and more unambiguous takes on Hollywood successes.
The Inglorious Bastards tells the story of five US army prisoners, set to be transported for their various crimes, to be locked up, face court martial, be hanged etc. They are understandably a fairly motley crew, made up of a murderer, a thief, a tough guy, a coward and a Lieutenant who amongst other things misused his aircraft to visit his girlfriend. If all this starts to sounds familiar, then you wouldn't be alone in making the connection with a similarly themed war film centred around US military convicts. The déjà vu linking it to The Dirty Dozen is even something that has been played on to promote the movie, with it carrying the tagline at one point of “Whatever the dirty dozen did, they do it dirtier!” This is safe ground for Castellari who has trodden these lines of what some would call homage (and others perhaps plagiarism) before and has proven there is an audience for them. One can understand the need for such comparison as, with a meagre budget and faces that won't draw large crowds, any extra potential incentive they could entice audiences in with was sure to be utilised. Make no mistake, we are squarely in B-movie territory here.
The first act is entirely a set-up to move the plot forward, though it arguably works to the strengths of the genre, by giving us broad brushstrokes rather than any kind of finesse. We are introduced to the characters, with each giving us a glimpse of his personality traits as if it were a trailer for the film entire. Stereotypes may not be de rigueur for the majority of film experiences, but here they fit in like pieces of a particularly simplistic jigsaw puzzle - any great amount of time spent developing multi layered personas would take away from what this ride is supposed to be all about - action and attitude. Whilst the former is spread fairly evenly amongst the ragtag rabble of quasi-soldiers, the latter quota is almost entirely fulfilled by Fred Williamson as Private Fred Canfield. Modern audiences will most likely know him for his cigar chewing badass vampire slayer role in Robert Rodriguez's 1996 blood soaked horror From Dusk Till Dawn but for those with a leaning for more lo-fi film fare will be aware of his position as a figure in the 70's era B-movies and blaxploitation pieces. Even The Inglorious Bastards itself, during one of its many renamed, reissued reincarnations (which included amongst others Hell's Heroes, Counterfeit Commandos and Deadly Mission) was titled G.I. Bro and was re-edited to place Williamson in a more central role in a ploy to appeal to the blaxploitation scene, with the thoroughly un-PC tagline “If you're a kraut, he'll take you out”. Thus the band of rogues is placed into the situation and the story begins without focussing too squarely on them as plausible individuals. The one exception to this rule is that of Bo Svenson as Lieutenant Yeager whose even headed personality is the only factor that keeps things on an even keel during many of the more ridiculous moments - but for a certain amount of people, it is these outlandish players they came to see and enjoy the most.
With regards plot (what little there is of it), it is a fairly straightforward affair for the most part. I won't go into too much detail as there is a nice little twist that ensnares the ne'er-do-wells which forces them into a daring assault on an armoured train, but it's a fairly straightforward mission movie at heart. The emphasis is always on the outcasts and any depiction of the US Military, or even military figures from any side, is usually that of slightly deranged and petty men. When our antiheroes first escape the clutches of their fellow countrymen's pursuit of imprisoning them, it is down to two factors which are key throughout; one is luck and the other necessity once their hands are forced. At no point are they ever truly in charge of their own destiny as they follow Lt. Yeager down the path of what's right and this brings with it several twists and turns of fortune. There is a tacked on subplot of romance but it is not only poorly conceived in terms of the forced emotion but also in terms of the character chosen to be the focus of someone's affections. It is saying something when the most ludicrous point about an Italian B-movie war film starring Fred Williamson is that of a romantic interlude, but such is the case.
What is left is pure action, which is paced perfectly for a film of this type, with a steady progression gathering momentum until the bloody finale. The feel of these set-pieces is generally that of grown men playing war games in a disused field, almost giving the impression that at any time they will be called together for refreshments. Machine guns aren't aimed, but rather sprayed in a twitching back and forth manner akin to The A-Team where bullets hit around people's ankles and the good guys jump out of the way with theatricality. This relaxed attitude to aiming is not only part of the general style of action but also extends to the film-making itself, as muzzles can be pointed at a German soldiers feet and yet the bullets still hit him in the body. It is quaint to see a grenade thrown and a man launched into the air via a wire with too much speed, or the plethora of those without the aid of such devices throwing themselves with all their might in a bid to look vaguely realistic. For all their efforts though, they cannot escape the limited budget, as corpses are seen breathing and the miniatures used for the explosion set-pieces are more likely to instil the vision of an apocalyptic out-take from Thomas the Tank Engine rather than the Dirty Dozen. But this surely is the point of such fare. Fans of the genre will wallow in its shtick and broad brushstrokes that include German officers deriding Americans for their love of hamburgers and chewing gum. The zany characters of a kleptomaniacal thief whose kit resembles an inventory store and a racist who takes joy in pushing Canfield's buttons just to get a rise out of him are comic book material and perfectly in keeping with the pulp roots of the film. The inventive ways of killing enemies with catapults, and the constant ploy of posing as prisoners to fool German troops are part of the charm of a ride that begs not to be taken too seriously but instead simply experienced. It is a very acquired taste and one which most will baulk at but for those who can happily sit through blaxploitation/grindhouse double bills, then this will be enjoyed. For the rest of the world's film fans, who perhaps judge by a different measure and are looking for craft and meaning in their narratives, this will be one to avoid.
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