Quentin Tarantino’s latest pop art extravaganza, Inglourious Basterds, once again resurrects a formerly popular genre.
Having previously dabbled in the heist film, blacksploitation cinema, the chopsocky epic, and grindhouse horror, Tarantino has now turned his attention to a specific subset of war movies: The men-on-a-mission tale.
These films typically involve following a group of walking piles of testosterone on a seemingly impossible mission. Tarantino has assembled a colorful cast of characters, lead by Brad Pitt, who make it their goal to inflict as much pain on Adolph Hitler’s Nazis as possible during the Second World War.
As always, his film is steeped in movies of the past. Here are a few examples of the best men-on-a-mission movies that preceded Inglourious Basterds.
The Dirty Dozen: The granddaddy of all men-on-a-mission tales refines the genre to its most basic components. We see a group of badass actors assembled for a special mission, watch them train, fight, and bond with each other, and then see the gang head into the big game for a massive and gloriously violent climax.
The cast is stocked exclusively with guys’ guys like Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, and football great Jim Brown. Even at an epic 150 minutes, this is a streamlined action feast made to appeal to the audience’s base macho instincts. The movie has become a cable classic for a reason: It elicits the same hoot-and-holler response from the target audience as a football game.
The Big Red One: Writer/director Sam Fuller made a career out of aggression and sensationalism, but didn’t create the most personal and arguably best film of his career until his ’70s. The Big Red One once again puts Lee Marvin in command of a group soldiers during the Second World War, but this time Fuller mixes depressing wartime realism with the over-the-top theatrics (including the finest cinematic depiction of D-day until Spielberg went to Normandy).
Available in a sadly truncated theatrical cut and an overlong, but more satisfying director’s cut, this is one of the most unsentimental war movies out there.
The Inglorious Bastards: Tarantino stole the title and atmosphere from this ridiculous Italian exploitation flick from the ’70s, but little else. The movie is about a group of American soldiers being sent home for various crimes (including murder), whose transport gets attacked by Nazis, forcing them to fight there way through Germany to make it to Switzerland and freedom.
It’s absurdly violent and over-the-top, but that’s just part of the fun. Starring ’70s exploitation icon Fred Williamson, this is a lost trash classic.
Saving Private Ryan: Though Steven Spielberg’s trademark sentimentalism and humanism might keep most audiences from recognizing it as being part of the genre, this is a men-on-a-mission film through and through. The movie has all the action and macho one-upmanship that defines the genre, it’s just presented in a more realistic and Oscar friendly package.
Take off the unnecessary wrap around plot at a military graveyard and this is one of the purest and most entertaining men-on-a-mission movies ever made.
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