Dirty Bastards: A Dive Into the Men-on-a-Mission War Subgenre

By David Weiner

A recent rewatch of Quentin Tarantino‘s compelling and entertaining INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) put me in the frame of mind to dive back into the dense cinematic catalog of the films that helped inspire the Oscar winner’s tip o’ the hat to the rollicking, rogue’s gallery/men-on-a-mission war subgenre.

In my opinion, the goal of a successful war film in any era is to show the Catch-22 pointlessness of the near-suicide landscape that many soldiers ultimately find themselves in behind enemy lines. The best war films manage to convey the heroism of the conventional and unconventional individual against all odds; the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms; and the tenacious pluck and humor of our protagonists amid the tragic destruction, loss of life (both innocent and deserving), and mind-numbing insanity of it all.

From similar rag-tag ensemble tales like THE DIRTY DOZEN and KELLY’S HEROES and historical combat recreations like THE LONGEST DAY and BATTLE OF THE BULGE to horror entries such as OVERLORD, the genre is a sizable beast, with literally hundreds of movies about World War II produced since the ’40s, not to mention the myriad other wars to choose form historically.

In true Tarantino form, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS borrows from the best WWII war-buddy flicks, yet manages to be wholly unique with the writer-director’s personal stamp all over it — complete with an opportunity to rewrite history for some explosive and gratuitous, Nazi-kicking just deserts. (Yes, the phrase “just deserts” has one “s” not two, believe it or not)

Below, get a recap of the original “Basterds” that Tarantino drew from, plus a handful of more films that provided inspiration that are worth a look, in no particular order:

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) – The film’s tagline said it all: “Whatever the Dirty Dozen did they do it dirtier!” Italian director Enzo Castellari’s film didn’t make it to the U.S. until 1981, and by that time a young Tarantino most likely fell in love with the DIRTY DOZEN knockoff in the darkness of one of his beloved grindhouse theaters, vowing to one day make his own version of the film. Bo Svenson takes on the commanding chores of a group of brig-bound soldiers who make a break for Switzerland, only to ally with the French resistance to steal valuable German hardware.

THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) – Twelve men facing time behind bars, including tough guys Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown, must be whipped into shape in no time by the indomitable Lee Marvin for a suicide mission behind enemy lines. Many war movies pulled their formula from the tried-and-true western genre, and this spaghetti western on the battlefield is the obvious template for BASTARDS, BASTERDS, and dozens of other action movies.

THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) – My all-time favorite war film. This prison-camp classic moves the action from the battlefield behind barbed wire as an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn and Donald Pleasence tries to tunnel, forge and finagle their way out of German prisoner-of-war camp. The mixture of the characters’ charm and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds – underlined by the fact that the film was based on a true story – make this one of the best war films ever. McQueen’s cool, daring motorcycle chase is the cherry on top.

KELLY’S HEROES (1970) – Looking to capitalize on the popularity of THE DIRTY DOZEN with a sense of humor and irony, HEROES is really a heist caper with spaghetti western flair in war genre guise. Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland decide to help themselves to 14,000 gold bars held in a bank behind enemy lines, but the greed of those around them may be more deadly than the Germans trying to cut them down at every turn.

THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) – Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn are the crack cast of pros who team up to take out a strategically placed German artillery unit in an impenetrable Aegean Sea fortress – if they don’t kill each other first. With a traitor in their midst, Peck’s best quote about leery partner Quinn’s vow to kill him if they survive the mission: “He’s from Crete. Those people don’t make idle threats.”

WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) – Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton are a U.S. Army Ranger and Brit commando who lead a team to rescue an American officer held captive in an Alpine mountaintop German castle, attainable only by cable car. The mission is simple: Get in. Get out. From Alistair MacLean, who wrote THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, this action-packed spy film is full of crosses and double-crosses and never lets up until the final frames.

FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (1978) – Worth it for the cast alone, and to see a STAR WARS-era Harrison Ford in WWII-period uniform, FORCE 10 is a too-little-too-late follow-up to the far superior GUNS OF NAVARONE, but still has its virtues as a rogues gallery men-on-a-mission-to-blow-up-a-bridge movie. Robert Shaw, Edward Fox and Carl Weathers round out the cast, with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME stars Barbara Bach and Richard “Jaws” Kiel reunited just for fun.

THE BIG RED ONE (1980) – Also on a break between STAR WARS flicks, Mark Hamill took a cue from Harrison Ford’s FORCE 10 anti-typecasting attempt to try his own hand at the combat genre. It’s a long, long way from CORVETTE SUMMER. Written and directed by maverick personality Sam Fuller, who based the story on action he saw during the war, THE BIG RED ONE is a movie with a more straightforward platoon diary narrative. Once again, Lee Marvin is the crusty sarge, this time leading a band of First Infantry Division soldiers through the horrors of war-torn Europe.

CROSS OF IRON (1977) – Not a “men-on-a-mission” premise, but worthy nonetheless for its complicated class-conflict relationships between competing soldiers with undaunted motivations. Slow-motion violence maestro Sam Peckinpah’s only war film, CROSS stars James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason and David Warner in a story told from the German army’s point of view as they battled for the Russian front in 1943.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) – The gung-ho sergeant. The sniper with the crucifix. The captain with shaky hands/heart of gold. Even though Steven Spielberg wholly succeeded in accurately portraying the horrors of war down to the very last detail, he couldn’t resist a few subtle nods to the “men-on-a-mission” and patriotic John Wayne/John Ford war movies of his youth, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN has it in spades. There is much soul to be found in this gritty war film, which redefined the genre with its jarring, hand-held combat footage that puts the viewer right in the middle of hell itself. And at the heart of it is the ultimate men-on-a-mission tale: To save one man they don’t even know in order to boost morale among the ranks.



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