Sunday, 6 September 2009

Aldo Raine and Aeneas (Basterds Post Three)

"Each and every man under my command owes me one-hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps..."

Brad Pitt's fearsome and paradoxically lynch-burned redneck, Aldo Raine, is (as has been spotted elsewhere) a direct tribute to Aldo Ray (star of 50s war films including The Naked and the Dead and Battle Cry), pictured to the right.

As well as this amusing homage to an Italian-American star (or Eye-talian, as Aldo himself might say), the character is, also, persistently identified as 'Aldo the Apache': a violent but courageous resistance fighter who takes the scalps of his victims. The fusion of 2 such apparently contradictory cinematic icons (the Soldier and the Indian) demonstrates the hybrid nature of this self-professed "spaghetti Western, but with World War II iconography" (as Tarantino described his film to Dylan Callaghan).

In addition to this bravura stylistic and satirical experiment (linking the cowboys with the nazis, the director imagines a form of American-Outsider resistance to both, exercised through the cinematic image, and liberal scalp-taking), Tarantino also seems to be exploring his own sense of American identity: his father was Italian-American, whilst the (single) mother who raised him was half-Cherokee. The film is, at least in part, Tarantino's 'Song of Myself', and Aldo Raine shares his own familial roots.

It is striking then that such an American figure, the most complex national symbol in all of Tarantino's films, is deliberately placed in the chapters of a work so defiantly European. The majority of the film's dialogue is in subtitled French and German. The main roles are all otherwise performed by Europeans... We find no Tom Cruise mugging as Claus von Stauffenberg in this war.

It is perhaps this conflation that leads to the final scene of this epic spaghetti-western being lifted directly from the founding epic of European literature, The Aeneid, as the Eye-talian Apache carves "his masterpiece", and is transformed into the horribly unforgiving Aeneas.

Here are the closing lines to Virgil's poem, as disturbing and abrupt as Tarantino's:

(The Aeneid, Book 12, Lines 927-952, Trans. David West) -

The Rutilian rose with a groan which echoed round the whole mountain, and far and wide the forests sent back the sound of their voices. He lowered his eyes and stretched out his right hand to beg as a suppliant:
"I have brought this upon myself," he said, "and for myself I ask nothing. But if any thought of my unhappy father can touch you, I beg of you – and you too had such a father in Anchises – take pity on the old age of Daunus, and give me back to my people... You have defeated me, and the men of Ausonia have seen me defeated and stretching out my hands to you. Lavinia is yours. Do not carry your hatred any further."
There stood Aeneas, deadly in his armour, rolling his eyes, but he checked his hand, hesitating more and more as the words of Turnus began to move him, when suddenly his eyes caught the fatal belt of the boy Pallas, high on Turnus's shoulder with the glittering studs he knew so well. Turnus had wounded him and then killed him, and now he was wearing his belt on his shoulder as a battle honour taken from an enemy. Aeneas feasted his eyes on this reminder of his own wild grief, then, burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath, he cried:
"Are you to escape me now? Wearing the belt stripped from the body of those I loved? By this wound which I now give you, it is Pallas who cuts you. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood."
And blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy's breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades below.

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