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This week's controversy at the movie theaters is Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the ultimate exemplar of escapist combat pictures that turn war into noisy fun. The Tarantino film's immediate inspiration is Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 Inglorious Bastards, a Dirty Dozen- style war fantasy. The basically unchallenging Italian popcorn picture refuses to take itself seriously and is enlivened by an enthusiastic cast having great fun with the wall-to-wall machine-gun violence. Impressive production values and fairly dangerous-looking set pieces abound. Ideas from Kelly's Heroes (campy anachronisms), The Secret Invasion (criminals turned commandos) and Von Ryan's Express (plenty of runaway train action) are joined in a Grindhouse- friendly exploitation pic that delivers the goods. Following up on their 3-Disc DVD Explosive Edition from last year, Severin now offers a Blu-ray with new extras.
We know exactly what kind of war movie we're in for when Fred Williamson gives the camera his meanest Jim Brown glare, and a 'funny' Italian prisoner takes off his helmet to reveal shoulder length hair. The smiling comic book anti-heroes of Inglorious Bastards trade quips and smirks as they gun down scores of unlucky Germans. One young coward soon regains his courage by battling through impossible skirmishes. Another is an authentic Chicago wise guy, always ready with an angle. The misfits naturally form a can't-miss fighting force. As the tag line puts it, "Whatever the Dirty Dozen did, they do it dirtier!"
1978 was the lean end of the Italian filmmaking boom. Prestigious productions had mostly given way to exploitation thrillers that resembled sexier, more violent versions of American TV fare. Inglorious Bastards puts action filmmaker Enzo G. Castellari at the helm of a rather large-scale show. Sure, the same thirty or so German extras probably each die five or six times apiece. But the show has trucks, trains, tanks and plenty of uniforms at its disposal, and the second-unit direction isn't bad. What the action lacks in originality it makes up in gusto. Svenson, Williamson & Company strike macho poses while expending thousands of rounds of machine gun bullets. Where are the carefree renegades getting all that ammo?
The Germans must have bubble gum stuck to the triggers of their guns, for they get shot by the bushel. The hundreds of actors abandoned by the demise of the Spaghetti Western may have ended up here, playing Germans eating machine gun bullets. Getting shot in Inglorious Bastards doesn't mean falling down. The stuntmen jerk upright and throw their arms wildly into the air. A gymnastic leg kick and backwards spin follow, completing the effect. This particular gag must be repeated 150 times! Castellari even uses a hi-con animation of one of these pirouette-deaths for the film's Leone-like animated main titles.
Just when we think Inglorious Bastards is becoming repetitious, the last act trots out a clever commando caper. Suddenly converted into dedicated warrior heroes, our bedfast stastards, excuse me, steadfast bastards spring a highly guarded prisoner and sidetrack a stolen train for a desperate race to freedom across the frontier. When the plan breaks down the men fight their way to various violent fates. The script even raids The Great Escape for some exciting motorcycle action. Ambitious matte paintings and special effect miniatures add to the explosive ending. Compared to a late 70s turnip like Force Ten From Navarone, Castellari's movie is an overachieving matinee winner.
Bo Svenson shows just enough charisma to play the rebellious pilot-turned-guerilla fighter. As the resident action star Fred Williamson seems to be saying "Watch me, I'm shootin' guns!" in every scene. But he also performs several impressive action stunts, like jumping onto a moving train from a bridge overpass. Ian Bannen adds a bit of class to the train caper; he may be dubbed into "Yankee" English. American actor Peter Hooten and others mug impressively during the comedy scenes. In true exploitation form, they happily chase after a dozen German nurses found swimming in a river. I tell ya, if A Bridge Too Far and Saving Private Ryan had the guts to show WW2 like it really was, a combat playground overrun with skinny-dipping babes, they might have been more realistic!
Severin's Blu-ray of Inglorious Bastards has a new Hi Def transfer created in Rome from the original camera negative and approved by director Enzo Castellari. Severin reports that a great deal of work went into digital fixes and additional color correction.
The Italian-produced 5.1 audio is serviceable but viewers will probably opt for the 2.0 track that recreates the original mix and sounds noticeably cleaner.
The video extras from the earlier edition are all present. The disc scores a commentary coup simply by locking director Castellari in a room with a gushing Quentin Tarantino. The American director excitedly lauds the cinematic splendors of this movie, which he originally caught up with on an early VHS release. Castellari speaks in good English, happy to share memories about his action moneymaker. Other docus cover the film's genesis and production with in-depth interviews with nearly every surviving crewmember.
Disc producer David Gregory explains the two new extras exclusive to the Blu-ray: "Last summer Severin brought director Enzo Castellari over to promote the original DVD release. A 70th birthday party was held at the Italian Cultural Institute and Castellari was visibly touched to see old colleagues like Lou Ferrigno, John Saxon, John Steiner, Edd "Kookie" Byrnes and of course Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson come out to celebrate with him. Enzo was beaming all night. A photo even made it into Variety of him holding a cake decorated with the words, "Happy Birthday Enzo - The Original Inglorious Bastard". The following night saw a heavily-attended Grindhouse double bill at the New Beverly of Inglorious Bastards and Eagles Over London. Again Enzo couldn't believe the interest in his work from the young cinemagoers. He did a Q&A, signed stuff for all his L.A. fans and generally had a ball. The Birthday Party and the Q&A are included on the disc; Bo, Fred and I answer questions alongside Enzo."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Inglorious Bastards (1978) Blu-ray rates:
1. I can't help but be reminded of the old Saturday Night Live segment featuring John Belushi and others in a parody of tough-guy war movies. The skit lampooned the use of the word 'bastards', as if hard-bitten soldiers are incapable of talking without using it. I'm sure it was an obscure joke to many in the audience, but anybody who's seen Inglorious Bastards will smile.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.