Quentin Tarantino's World War II movie has blood, but its heart doesn't beat.
By Kenneth Turan
I'm not even sure the Apaches believed the terrorist's usual excuse for killing and maiming people: to intimidate everyone else. The book Once They Moved Like the Wind suggests they tortured people for other reasons. To test people's courage through pain, to prevent enemy spirits from stalking them, even to "honor" their foes. You may not agree with their thinking, but it's different from torturing people because they enjoyed seeing them suffer.
Inglourious Basterds presumably doesn't show Aldo the "Apache" burying people alive for days. It wouldn't have been cinematic, but it also wouldn't have fit Tarantino's stereotypical notion of Indian warfare. To him, apparently, Indians are nothing but sadistic savages. They revel in killing viciously, brutally, and cruelly because they're not quite human.
What did most Indians do when the US forced them to give up their freedom? They forswore their warring ways, pledged to uphold the treaties they signed, and began working within the system. Far from being typical, Geronimo was notable as one of the tiny minority of Indians who refused to play by the rules.
So Tarantino has taken an extreme case and built his movie around it. It's as if he found one historically accurate story of a greedy Jew and created a "Jews control the world" fantasy. Or one historically accurate story of a black Uncle Tom and created a Song of the South-style fantasy. Apparently Geronimo is his excuse for a multimillion-dollar movie that exploits the worst Indian stereotypes.
Tarantino's childhood fantasy
So he made his "heroes" Jews, since you can't argue with the Jews' desire for vengeance. And he made his "villains" Nazis, because you can't argue with executing war criminals. He basically gave himself a pretext for presenting a couple of hours of gory, gratuitous violence. Watch Jews act like Apaches--i.e., homicidal maniacs--and kill everyone as sadistically as possible!
Again, we see Tarantino's falsification of Indian-style thought. Typically Indian warfare was about humiliating the opponents, not "dee-stroying" them. It was probably rare for a tribe to declare its goal was to wipe an enemy off the face of the earth. That kind of genocidal thinking was much more common among Europeans.
And no way would an Indian leader require a scalp quota. Scalping was all about taking a prize to glorify an individual victory. Indians didn't try to kill large numbers of people so they collect as many scalps as possible.
In short, Tarantino's version of Indian-style revenge is almost a pure fantasy. By highlighting the most extreme elements of Indian culture--Apaches! murder! torture!--he's perpetuated the most extreme Indian stereotypes. Inglourious Basterds isn't much different from 1950s-style Westerns in which people go on a rampage because they're "half-breeds." They kill people because the Indian inside them impels them to.
Perhaps Tarantino's next movie will show characters emulating Indians by honoring their pledge of allegiance to the US. You know, by serving in the military, getting college educations, and passing legislation. Maybe, but I doubt it. Tarantino wants audiences to leer and slaver at Indians, not understand and respect them.
For more on the subject, see Tarantino's Indian Revenge Fantasy and The Best Indian Movies.
Below: Tarantino's idea of a typical Indian.