It is a cynical Hollywood wisdom that one cannot win at the Academy Awards against any well-made film focused on World War II and the crimes Nazi Germany committed against European Jews who were murdered on an industrial scale. Any reference to the Third Reich is ultimately an allusion to those murders.
Given all that, you would think Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a sure bet for winning Best Picture. As they used to say: Not. While it is set during the German occupation of France, Tarantino decided to make a variation on a Hollywood propaganda film, up to and including a revenge-fantasy ending. Having been born in 1945, I saw many World War II espionage melodramas in the early days of television. That was a time in America when weekend afternoons and evenings were filled with such movies, and revenge-fantasy endings were not uncommon.
In his latest film, Tarantino has proven himself with some of the finest scenes ever written. One begins this complex, espionage tall tale in the French countryside, where the infamous “Jew hunter” searches a farmhouse. Then there is the basement bar scene, taut with suspense as Nazis and British spies mix it up—and then shoot it up. Both scenes will, doubtlessly, stand up against whatever you have on your private list of the absolute best.
Much of Tarantino’s brilliance comes from his scholarly—but vital—comprehension of international film history and his expanding mastery of dialogue, something far from rare in modern literature, which has often reframed classical myths and themes.
For Tarantino, film itself creates the modern mythic forms that touch us all. Beyond that, he is something of a cinematic William Faulkner; the filmmaker seems to completely grasp the central significance of Negro Americans to this country’s history and its culture, which always pops up in his films, from Reservoir Dogs forward.