Quentin Tarantino is about to unleash the ultimate Hollywood rewrite job: He’s changed the ending of World War II.
Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” opening in theaters today, puts an end to the Third Reich in, let’s say, a more visceral and audience-pleasing manner than the way history tells it.
Featuring an ensemble cast led by Brad Pitt, the film follows the Tarantino tradition established in such violent yet often hilarious romps as “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs” and the “Kill Bill” movies.
He takes a well-defined movie genre – in this case, the “Dirty Dozen”-style men-on-a-mission adventure – and turns the Hollywood conventions inside-out.
Who else would deliver a World War II movie where chatty characters trade more barbs than bullets and the action plays to a musical backdrop including David Bowie’s “Cat People” and Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western themes?
Tarantino, 46, says his alternate reality is an outgrowth of the way he develops a narrative, which he describes as a metaphor-paved road the characters trod, with all sorts of side roads they can turn down.
In this case, they led him to a colossal road block – history itself – a barrier Tarantino said he initially was prepared to respect. But the characters’ actions spoke louder than historians’ words.
“I realized, my characters don’t know they’re part of history. They’re in the here and they’re in the now, and they don’t have a clue about what exactly the outcome of the war is going to be,” Tarantino says.
“My characters didn’t exist, but if my characters had existed, they could have changed the outcome of the war.”
Pitt heads an international cast as leader of the title gang, an Allied commando team of Jewish troops that kills and scalps German soldiers. The Basterds eventually are assigned an undercover mission to take out the top German brass at the premiere of a propaganda film in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Caught up in this plot are a German movie star (Diane Kruger), a British film critic turned spy (Michael Fassbender), a vengeful French Jew (Melanie Laurent), a German war hero (Daniel Bruhl) and a Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz) known as the “Jew Hunter” for his skill at tracking down enemies of the Reich.
Co-star Eli Roth says Tarantino’s revisionist saga brings fresh meaning to the war.
“If that was a historically accurate movie, I’d go, ‘OK, that was important, that happened, but that was 70 years ago. That’s not me. That doesn’t apply to me,’ ” says Roth, director of the Tarantino-produced “Hostel” movies, who plays one of the Basterds, a Jew who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat.
“But because he makes it a fantasy, he taps into my fantasy as a Jew, wanting to go back in time and kill all those Nazis.”
Tarantino began the screenplay eight or nine years ago, but the story grew to miniseries proportions, so he abandoned it. He moved on to the “Kill Bill” movies and “Death Proof,” his half of the “Grindhouse” double-feature made with filmmaking pal Robert Rodriguez.
Returning to “Inglourious Basterds” late in 2007, Tarantino raced through a new screenplay, keeping many of the characters he’d originally created but putting them into a different story.
By late last summer, he came to visit Pitt, informing him he had a blitzkrieg plan to get the epic film ready to premiere the following May at the Cannes Film Festival, where Tarantino won the top prize for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.”
Shooting started in October, and Tarantino dashed through the production in time for Cannes, where “Inglourious Basterds” won the best-actor award for Waltz.
Hollywood generally handles World War II with reverence and restraint, but not Tarantino. He applies trademark touches to surprise and amuse audiences, lightening tense moments with macabre humor and veering the action into wickedly funny asides.
“The humor in the movie, it’s the same humor that’s been in all my movies,” Tarantino says.
“I stop short of calling any of my movies so far comedies, because there’s stuff in them that’s not funny. But I’ll put my movies on a laugh-for-laugh basis with any comedy playing in theaters right now.”