Quentin Tarantino loves Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 warsploitation artifact The Inglorious Bastards (originally titled Quel maledetto treno blindato and released in the U.S. under numerous alternate titles) so much that he’s announced a remake as his next picture. Being Tarantino, he’s sure to overhaul the project from top to bottom, but it’s easy to see his attraction to this Dirty Dozen reworking/knock-off. A bunch of American soldiers in 1944 France, up for court martial and on their way to military prison, escape during a German attack on their convoy.
[update August 2009 - I review Tarantino's film, which he purposely misspells as Inglourious Basterds, here.]
They’re a colorful group: a decorated flier (Bo Svenson) with a tendency to go AWOL to visit his girlfriend in London, a black private (Fred Williamson) charged with murder (he killed his redneck superior officer, or so he says to another racist in an American uniform), a deserter coward (Michael Pergolani), a scavenger (Jackie Basehart) with hippie looks and a slightly Italian accent, and the joker misanthrope (Peter Hooten) who screws with everyone. It would be inappropriate to reveal Castellari’s most inspired twist, but suffice it to say that a combination of shame and responsibility and the last vestiges of honor and obligation land them in a suicide mission behind enemy lines. It’s a platoon thriller laced with the anti-hero cynicism of spaghetti westerns and the lurid violence of the post-Wild Bunch era and guided by the box-office instincts of exploitation filmmaking. In what other World War II caper film can you see the lost platoon stumble upon skinning dipping German babes, and then discover that these sex kittens come armed with machine guns?
Severin’s DVD release features an interview with Enzo G. Castellari conducted by Quentin Tarantino, or more accurately a conversation between fellow directors, one of whom happens to be the biggest fanboy behind a camera. Tarantino manages to dominate the video interview and is, frankly, the more interesting of the two, but he does get Castellari to talk about his work in some detail. Severin also offers a three-disc special edition featuring a terrific feature length retrospective documentary. Train Kept a Rollin’ gathers stars Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, producer Roberto Sbarigia, screenwriter Laura Toscano and director Enzo G. Castellari (among others) to chart the making of the film, but it’s what isn’t spoken that’s most interesting, notably the tensions between Williamson and Svenson (and, as far as that goes, Castellari and Svenson). Williamson shows just what a cagey businessman he was and still is as he talks about the film as an opportunity to extend his reach into the European market. “In American I was a black actor,” he observes. “In Europe, I was an action star.” Also includes a featurette with Castellari revisiting the location and a CD soundtrack of what survives of the original score.
Also new and notable this week: two early Michael Powell “quota quickies” debut on DVD in MPI’s Classic British Thrillers: The Phantom Light/Red Ensign/Upturned Glass:
The 1934 The Red Ensign is a drama set in the depressed British shipping industry where a Howard Hughes-like industrial maverick, part Capra idealist and part dictatorial rebel, proclaims that “Patriotism is good business!” and battles resistant corporate officers and a corrupt shipping magnate to prove it. However, despite a dramatic act of sabotage, it’s a stretch to call this a thriller, let alone a classic. The Phantom Light (1935) is better suited to the title, a murder mystery with comic accents set largely in an isolated lighthouse that is rumored to be haunted. The scripts are nothing special but Powell directs with a snappy energy and an eye for imagery that makes these low budget films look far more lavish than they are.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Eran Kolirin’s gently low-key character piece from Israel follows an Egyptian police band on a trip to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Israel, and their wrong turn to a sleepy little town where their arrival is the closest thing to excitement. “No Arab Cultural Center. No Israeli Cultural Center. No culture of any kind,” explains a restaurant owner, a funny, spirited divorced woman who arranges to put them all up for the night. There’s no instant cultural understanding, merely the sometimes awkward, sometimes easy interactions of former national enemies who don’t speak the same language but manage to find common ground nonetheless.
TV: TNT’s Witchblade: The Complete Series, Robin of Sherwood: The Complete Collection from Britain and the 1978 mini-series event Centennial:
The sprawling adaptation of James Michener’s epic novel is one of the best productions from the great age of the American mini-series. “It’s a big story, about the people who make the country what it is and the land that helped make the people what they are,” is how Michener himself introduces the series in the opening episode. “The great adventure of the American west.”… By the time it’s over, we’ve witnessed close to 200 years of frontier history over 26 hours of television (just under 21 hours without commercials). The show was an event when it first showed in 1978 and it’s still an engrossing production, especially the early episodes in the unsettled wilderness. Conrad has a terrible French-Canadian accent but makes for a hearty, earthy Pasquinel and Richard Chamberlain is marvelous as a captive saved by Pasquinel, the civilized counterpart to a savage mountain man.
The feature debut of director Peter Watkins, whose devastating anti-war short The War Game was banned in Britain and awarded an Oscar in the U.S., turned out to be equally polarizing. Shot as a fake documentary, complete with the dispassionate, characterless voice-of-authority narrator, this 1967 social satire profiles a pop icon (played by Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones) controlled by a totalitarian government who uses him to shill policy, products, and even religion (“We need no longer have any disturbing political differences when we are all of one faith and believe in one God and one flag”). Watkins doesn’t bother with subtlety (a massive Catholic revival resembles the Nuremburg Rally), but he finds a strange, almost Christ-like figure in the passive Jones, who opens the film with a stage act of public suffering and torment.
Alec Baldwin was the original screen incarnation of novelist Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan, a desk man who finds himself thrust into the field when a Soviet commander (Sean Connery) hijacks a Russian sub. The nuclear submarine ends up under fire from both sides until Ryan convinces the Americans of the Russian rebel’s true intentions: he’s defecting and bringing a military prize with him. John McTiernan turns the sprawling novel into a riveting thriller and a solid screen adventure.
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