Friday, 4 March 2011

Inglourious Basterds: Re-writing History for Fun

Another film re-watched. The second time just strengthened what I had concluded the first time: for me, the most important thing this film has to offer is not the snappy dialogue, over-the-top dramatic style, brilliant performances, whacky assortment of characters or anything else the director is famous for. It's the fact that Hitler dies.

Before Inglourious Basterds I was, although I never noticed, labouring under the delusion that a historical film should accurately represent actual historical events. In fact, I held onto this belief right up until the very shot where one of the "basterds" fills Hitler with bullets. At that moment, watching his face disappear and thinking "wait a minute, I may have dropped out of a-level history but I'm pretty sure that's not what happened", it suddenly dawned on me that, not only was this film not concerned with historical accuracy, but there was no particular reason why any film should be. Unless the film claims to be historically accurate, why should we expect it to be?

In fact, Tarantino put me through a similar experience some years ago when I first watched his early films and found myself wondering why on earth I should expect a film to tell its story in chronological order. Later, David Lynch took me to the next level and made me wonder what reason there is for a film to make any kind of logical sense at all. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things a film (or any piece of fiction in any form) can do: ask why something is a certain way, ask if it has to be that way, challenge your assumptions. Perhaps this is where art and science intersect.

Of course, I'm not suggesting every historical film should throw fact out of the window. For instance, staying with the same subject matter, the film Valkyrie is all about what really happened; the whole point is that the plot to assassinate Hitler failed. So it's all a question of what the film wants to achieve. And I suspect that the real motive behind inglourious Basterds - aside from to tell a damn good yarn and to tell it well - was revenge. No need to be all serious and analytical about it; let's watch a film about the biggest badguy of the 20th century getting what he deserves. Simple, violent moral gratification. And why the hell not?

Now, can anyone recommend another good film that gleefully re-writes historical fact?

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