Inglourious Basterds opens next Friday, and it marks a major return to form for Quentin Tarantino. It also heralds the long-overdue return to form of the war movie.
The cliché of war films is that they are never really about the war they claim to be about, but rather, the war that the writer or director is living through. So, for example, M*A*S*H appears to be about the Korean War, but Robert Altman's view of that conflict is filtered heavily through the more contemporary Vietnam War.
Directors have tended, therefore, to make films about wars which are firmly in the past, whether it's the Trojan War or the Battle of the Bulge. The majority of films about Vietnam, particularly, came out about fifteen years afterwards: Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, Platoon, Casualties of War.
More recently, however, that time-lag has disappeared, and film-makers are addressing contemporary conflict in their movies: Lions For Lambs, Redacted, and In The Valley of Elah all deal with the US offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These films are made with unimpeachable motives: Kimberly Peirce, for example, the writer and director of Stop-Loss, felt compelled to write about the her country's habit of taking soldiers due to be discharged and putting them back into a war zone. Her brother was serving in Iraq, and she began researching the stories of US soldiers to try to understand what he was experiencing.
America was and is bitterly divided on its foreign policy, so it's no surprise that film-makers wish to add their views to the debate now, rather than decades after the fact. But trying to make a film about a contemporary war is hard to do without becoming po-faced (Rendition), depressing (Stop-Loss) or ludicrous (Body Of Lies, in which we are asked to believe that the uber-American CIA man, Leonardo DiCaprio, might pass, even momentarily, for an Arab).
Tarantino, being a film-fan above all, has realised that for a war film to be memorable, it needs to capture the fun of war. Plenty of us may disapprove of that very idea, but if war weren't fun, young men with plenty of other options, like Prince Harry, wouldn't sign up for it. And Tarantino has wisely gone back to history for his inspiration, rather than the nightly news.
The Second World War has produced endless fun-yet-serious films: The Dam Busters, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare. And Inglourious Basterds is a heroic addition to the genre. Its leading characters are mostly women and Jews, but there's no trace of a worthy holocaust drama. This, after all, is the movie which one of its stars, Eli Roth, referred to as 'kosher porn'. Tarantino, in other words, has made a war film about war films, instead of one about war. His usual blend of smart, reflexive dialogue and grisly violence is perfectly matched to his subject matter. War may be hell, but sometimes, on screen, it should be fun.