A Prologue to An Enormous Post about Inglourious Basterds, in which I make some remarks about Star Wars and American WWII films
After watching The Great Escape and Where Eagles Dare (in preparation to my big Inglourious Bastards post, for which stay tuned) I was struck by how many WWII movies have a sort of tangential “Gestopo vs. regular German Army” subtheme. The fact that the actual heroes of these films – the scrappy partnerships between British and American officers – often don’t even know that such a thing is going on within the enemy’s ranks makes that ubiquity even more interesting: what is at stake in making sure that a conflict between hard-line Nazi party members and figures representing a kind of “honorable German militarism” is always in the background?
Probably, I would imagine, the same thing that makes every WWII movie a closeted allegory about relations between the old world and the new (thus requiring the “alliance between British and American officers subtheme,” equally ubiquitous and equally disconnected from the ostensible plot). One of the most pertinent differences between the post-WWII world in which these movies were made and the pre-post-WWII world in which they were set (I apologize for that formulation, but stand by it) was that as Washington became the center of power within the “free” world (defining, in fact, what the “free world” was), the Berlin wall came to be an important signifier of the central fault-line of international politics, a literal embodiment of the metaphorical schism with which I started this post. In this sense, therefore, just as defining the “free world” as such required re-imagining a past in which “good” Europe and America joined forces against “evil” Europe and Asia, imagining the split between good and evil Europe which the Berlin Wall was to embody also required re-narrating WWII with a split between the honorable Germans who could be enlisted in the fight against communism and the totalitarian fascists who could not.*
It then struck me that, of course, Star Wars is exactly this kind of WWII film, albeit set in space: Darth Vader is the leader of the SS (complete with black leather Gestapo uniform), commanding a kind of state-within-a-state in opposition to a corrupted (but not intrinsically evil) remnant of a republican system. And, of course, when the American-accented rebels join with the remnants of good British-accented types in battling a totalitarian empire which has shoved them out (even distinguishing the good European father from the bad one), we are seeing the same kind of overriding concern with establishing an essential difference that can distinguish the free world from the totalitarian world, a problem less of simply defeating the enemy than of distinguishing the good enemies from the bad enemies.
Now. I’ve said all that as a prelude to my big enormous Inglourious Basterds post because I’m struck by how absent all of this from Tarantino’s remix. To put it as briefly and and as pithily as possible, I think this is as it should be: while cold war era WWII movies are about extracting the best of a reimagined judeo-christian tradition (a term invented, significantly, only after WWII) and welding to American ascendency, GWOT-era WWII movies like this one are about ripping that edifice down to reflect an American power articulated as a retreat from those very principles, and as such, a narrative about “us” either becoming the Nazis or being revealed always to have already been. Thus, instead of an ideological effort to extract a good victory from an evil war, “we” are now in a conflict in which the only way to win is to become evil in practice while re-defining “good” as a thing which is only possible as an ideological effect of that victory, and of the history writing which winning allows us to do. Instead of Luke rescuing his father from the dark side, we have a narrative of the son being revealed to have always already been there.**
* Much as I admire Hannah Arendt, by the way, I find the American-centricity of books like The Origins of Totalitarianism to be both telling and regrettable: like her programmatic failure to distinguish rigorously between Nazi and Soviet “totalitarianism” (a term coined basically to confuse the distinction), her underlying presumption that America defines freedom is just plain weird in a book that’s otherwise so stunningly smart. But I suspect that that’s what she was setting out to do, consciously or unconsciously.
** Perhaps a nice explanation for why this generation’s Star Wars is about exactly that, a child growing up to be the Darth Vader he always already was.