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Aldo Raines As Iconic Hero

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Longtime readers have already seen me rattle on about the difference between iconic and dramatic heroes. A dramatic hero follows a character arc in which he is changed by his experience of the world. Examples: Orpheus, King Lear, Ben Braddock. An iconic hero undertakes tasks (often serially) and changes the world, restoring order to it, by remaining true to his essential self. Examples: Beowulf, Sherlock Holmes, Batman.

Aldo Raines, the Brad Pitt character in Inglourious Bastards, is an iconic hero

The first time we see him, Raines, in a typically loopy display of verbal rhetoric, proclaims his identity and reason for being, in the form of a list of demands made to his freshly assigned squad members. Through his instructions, he expresses his iconic ethos. Raines changes the world through brutal vengeance, justified by his enemy’s greater brutality.

The next time, we see him again assert his iconic ethos, this time to an audience of captured enemy soldiers. We then see him, through his men, mete out his advertised vengeance. We see him establish his rules for the enemies whose lives he spares, when they cooperate with him: he carves an identifying swastika into the soldier’s forehead.

When captured, Raines behaves with the insouciance of a character who knows he’s an iconic hero [1]. He remains unchanged by his dire situation.

Landa’s decision to turn traitor tests his iconic ethos. Does Raines spare him his usual treatment, even when his enemy essentially wins the war for the Allies?

In the film’s punchline sequence, we see that, faced with this test, he remains true to his (arguably lunatic) iconic self. Raines shrugs off the consequences of putting his own policies above those of his superiors. He casually murders Landa’s assistant and marks the cooperating war criminal with a swastika. In doing so he imposes his essential self on the world. Raines is an iconic hero, and would be defeated if he allowed circumstances to change him.

The logic behind the already-notorious sequence in which Tarantino suddenly reveals that his film is set in an alternate timeline is the logic of the iconic hero. Iconic heroes get to win. The Basterds didn’t exist in the real world, but do in the Tarantinoverse. Therefore it makes sense, to QT at least, that, in the Taratinoverse, they get to brutally wipe out Hitler and the upper echelon of the Nazi party in 1944.

Tarantino confirms this logic, more or less, in an interview with Roger Ebert:

At no time during the start, the middle or ever, did I have the intention of rewriting history. It was only when I was smack dab up against it, that I decided to go my own way. It just came to me as I was doing what I do, which is follow my characters as opposed to lead.

My characters don't know that they are part of history. They have no pre-recorded future, and they are not aware of anything they can or cannot do. I have never pre-destined my characters, ever. And I felt now wasn't the time to start. So basically, where I'm coming from on this issue is: (1) My characters changed the course of the war. (2) Now that didn't happen because in real life my characters didn't exist. (3) But if they had've existed, from Frederick Zoller on down, everything that happens is quite plausible.
Raines and the Basterds are off-screen for the bulk of the film because this is one episode in their iconic adventures [2]. Therefore much of the action centers on characters who do have arcs: Landa and Shoshana. They appear before the Basterds, like guest stars introduced during the teaser sequence of an episodic TV show.

Shosana is changed by events, from a presumably ordinary woman into an avenger. Her story ends as she achieves her vengeance. She is more realistically drawn than the absurdist Raines, because she is a person, not an iconic hero.

Landa seems like a classic villain for an iconic hero, but then changes, presumably seeing the winds shifting against his current masters. In doing so, he gambles on Raines changing his nature and is handed a surprise comeuppance in the final scene.

That’s what Tarantino is doing with his WTF-inducing endings. Whether it was worth doing is a question I’m still processing.

1. Though not that he’s a fictional character. That’s a whole other kettle of self-awareness.
2. Albeit the only episode we’ll see, outside of deleted scenes, dropped screenplay sequences, and QT’s imagination.


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