This week sees the release of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's gory World War II revenge flick. But audiences won't just see Nazi-scalping action; they'll also watch Tarantino dip his toes into the waters of alternate history. Spoilers below...
Basterds is set around a historical event that never happened: Adolf Hitler and several other top members of the Nazi Party attend the premiere of a new propaganda film in Paris, an event that inspires two separate groups to make an attempt on the Fuhrer's life. And, as events that never happened tend to do, this event snowballs into more and more ahistorical events, culminating in a version of 1944 that is a good deal different than our own — to the point where World War II itself would have ended very differently.
Several critics on both sides of the "loved it"/"burn it" fence have termed the film a "Jewish revenge fantasy," an excuse to create a pulpy war movie with a villain we already know and hate. And, without getting too much into how the plot unfolds, it's certainly not the more usual type of alternate history. Instead of picking a point where history diverged and showing how the world has changed from there, Tarantino is slicing up the timeline before our very eyes.
Paul Donovan, in reviewing the film for Camp Kansas City, has perhaps the most astute observation on what Basterds accomplishes from a genre standpoint:
In 1978, an Italian film was released with the American name "Inglorious Bastards", about four U.S. soldiers on their way to prison who end up volunteering for a commando mission behind enemy lines. Tarantino took the name and the idea of rough-and-tumble American soldiers on a mission, and that's where the movie remake stops. His movie is a remake, all right, but not of any old movie. He had the audacity to rewrite history.
Quentin Tarantino remade World War II.
There's certainly a speculative bent to the Tarantino's grisly exercise, asking what might have to happen for WWII to end one way instead of another, what stars would have to align and what personalities would have to be in play. And, when war movies like The Dirty Dozen already add elements and events to history that simply weren't there, there's something appealing about an artist who owns his historical revisionism and goes all out to rewrite the ending.
But beyond asking how firmly Inglourious Basterds fits into the alternate history genre, I'm more interested in what happens after Basterds has left the theaters. Now that Tarantino has created an alternate universe, will we get more stories to populate it and show us how the world has really changed? Will it inspire other artists to create these in-the-moment historical remakes? And what does this mean for the future of Tarantino's movies? While his films often fall outside the realm of reality, they still skirt around science fiction and fantasy (with the notable exception of his screenplay for vampire slaughterfest From Dusk Till Dawn). Could Inglourious Basterds be the sign of more speculative fiction to come?