My Unfinished Inglourious Basterds Essay: 10,000 words, 12 years, one unfinished draft

The cast of Inglourious Basterds, with writer-director Quentin Tarantino (seated, second from right)

On March 9, 2010, I started an essay on Inglourious Basterds.

I wrote it on and off until May of 2011, and then stopped, with no further progress.

Now, in June 2022, I am declaring it officially unfinished for reasons I will explain here. To read my annotated draft of this essay — 10,000+ words, with screenshots from the movie — click here. If you’re a fellow writer and you want to talk shop, you should be able to drop comments directly in the Google Doc. If not, hit me in the comment section here, or on Twitter, or at readjack6@gmail.com.

Now then… what happened?

As I note in the comments, I started this essay in March 9, 2010, one week after I published this essay on another 2009 cinematic big hitter, Avatar. I was decidedly not a fan of Avatar, and in that essay I spent seven graphs comparing it to the new Tarantino film. After I published the Avatar essay (and after both Avatar and IB lost Best Picture to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker on March 7), I got to work on the Basterds essay.

In short, the Avatar essay explored my reasons for not liking a film, while the Basterds essay explored my reasons for liking a film.

Everything started well enough… kind of. I figured out my approximate structure, five sections to match the five chapters of Basterds, divided like this: Chapter 1, intro; Chapter 2, language; Chapter 3, symbolism; Chapter 4, history; Chapter 5, impact.

I banged out the first three sections from March 9 to March 13. I started Chapter 4 on March 16, and I was clearly frustrated the next day when I time-stamped my draft with this note: “FINISH THIS FUCKING THING, started March 17, 2010, 2:51 PM.” I wrote that until 5:50 p.m., making a note on the draft for a “walk break.” On March 19 I wrote a note called “SOOOOOO CLOSE.”

That was, more or less, the end.

My great writing teacher, mentor and now friend, Tony Ardizzone, compared drafting to the act of cleaning a floor. You don’t sweep a corner of the room, mop that corner, wax that corner and then move to another section of the floor. You sweep the entire floor, mop the entire floor and then wax the entire floor.

That’s how you draft, he said. Get everything on the page, and then edit everything. It’s advice I have followed ever since I had his class at Indiana University in 2003.

The only time I truly failed to follow that advice was this essay. For whatever reason, every time I tried to finish my first draft, the piece kept expanding. I struggled to get through chapter 4, and then I wrote a portion of chapter 5 and bulleted out notes for the rest. When I moved my work from a Word doc on my computer to a Google doc, I labeled my first three drafts as “unfinished” with three dates:

  • Unfinished 1st draft: 2010
  • Unfinished 2nd draft: March-May 2010
  • Unfinished 3rd draft: March 2011

Somewhere in this time, I pitched the unfinished draft to the great film analysis site Metaphilm.com. They declined the pitch, and in May of 2011 they stopped publishing altogether. I then paused the project, unsure of when I would finish it.

As Shosanna Dreyfus, Mélanie Laurent was my choice for the 2009 Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

The Django letdown and the grueling Hateful Eight: Tarantino’s decline 

When I learned that Tarantino was making a new film about American slavery called Django Unchained, I figured that the runup to Django was the perfect time to complete the essay. But I still couldn’t, and then I went to see Django and for the first time ever, I hated a Tarantino movie. I actually walked out of the theater (after Jamie was captured and Tarantino’s Aussie slaver was taunting him), believing that Tarantino had way overstepped. I was just not at all prepared for this movie to be so steeped in slavery. 

Django felt to me how Inglourious Basterds would have felt if it took place in a concentration camp. That to me was the major inspired choice of Basterds: to make it a World War II movie and a Jew-Nazi movie without making it a Holocaust movie. As I note in the Google Doc, Tarantino takes the normal gaunt Jews of Holocast movies and re-cast them as the Basterds — nearly the same look, both with uniforms, but built for revenge, not victimhood.

Django, on the other hand, was a real slavery movie, and I was not prepared for that. But I also just didn’t think it was nearly as strong as his other films — starting with the obvious opening scene — and I wondered if part of the reason was that for the first time ever, Tarantino was working without his producer Lawrence Bender, with whom he parted ways, and without his editor Sally Menke, who passed away in September of 2010.

I’ve since come to better appreciate Django, though I still think it has serious narrative and filmmaking problems, and so I felt that The Hateful Eight would be a great return to glory.

Instead, I was let down again.

By this time, I had new ideas for the Basterds essay. One of my angles was on the impact of biographical and historical cinema and how the movies can actually overtake the history books. I had a fascinating new person to look at, one of my favorite artists of my life, Spike Lee. He protested Django in 2012, but three years later was in the opposite position when Chicagoans, including Chance the Rapper, took issue with his Chi-Raq.

Spike’s complaints about Django were the same as Chance’s complaints about Chi-Raq: “Who are you, an OUTSIDER, to tell our story?”

But any new momentum I had to work again on the Basterds essay was squashed in October 2017, and again in February 2018.

This might be my favorite ending of any Tarantino movie, and that’s saying something!

The horror of Weinstein, the sadness of Mira Sorvino, the anger of Uma Thurman: How I lost my Tarantino fandom

October 2017 is when the Harvey Weinstein accusations went public, with Tarantino admitting that “I knew enough to do more than I did.” Tarantino knew more than just rumors. In the mid-1990s, his then-girlfriend, Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, told Tarantino that Weinstein had harassed her with “unwelcomed advances and unwanted touches.”

Then in the first week of February 2018, Uma Thurman made two horrific allegations in an interview with the New York Times. The first was that Weinstein had sexually assaulted her, coming up just short of rape: “He pushed me down. He tried to shove himself on me. He tried to expose himself. He did all kinds of unpleasant things. But he didn’t actually put his back into it and force me.”

The second was that Tarantino, her longtime friend whom he called his “muse” while filming Kill Bill, insisted that she do her own driving in one scene for Kill Bill Vol. 2, despite her not being a stunt driver. 

“Quentin came in my trailer and didn’t like to hear no, like any director,” Thurman said. “He was furious because I’d cost them a lot of time. But I was scared. He said: ‘I promise you the car is fine. It’s a straight piece of road.’ … But that was a deathbox that I was in. The seat wasn’t screwed down properly. It was a sand road and it was not a straight road.”

Thurman continued, describing her terror as the car stunt failed, leading to injuries and a fight with her friend and colleague.

“The steering wheel was at my belly and my legs were jammed under me,” she said. “I felt this searing pain and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to walk again. When I came back from the hospital in a neck brace with my knees damaged and a large massive egg on my head and a concussion, I wanted to see the car and I was very upset. Quentin and I had an enormous fight, and I accused him of trying to kill me. And he was very angry at that, I guess understandably, because he didn’t feel he had tried to kill me.”

These three stories about Tarantino — that he knew something about Weinstein’s crimes, that he specifically knew about what he did to Mira Sorvino, and that he risked Thurman’s life and wellbeing — sapped my interest in writing what was ultimately a celebratory piece on his art. Add to that my declining interest in his work post-Basterds and my tightened schedule when my wife and I became parents, and for the first time since Pulp Fiction, (not counting Death Proof), I declined to see a Tarantino film in the theaters, eventually seeing the 2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on Hulu this year. 

(It was… okay. Better on a whole than Hateful Eight, not nearly as powerful as Django. I haven’t seen it widescreen though, and Hulu has commercials which breaks up the flow. So it’s good, not great, continuing the post-Basterds letdown.)

Eventually, 12 years removed from my essay start date, I decided enough was enough. I hadn’t finished the Inglourious Basterds essay and it was time I accepted that I never would.

What this essay is and what it isn’t

Let’s start with what it isn’t: it ain’t finished. 

My Avatar essay went through five drafts in 10 days, never reaching 2,500 words. More recently, my story The First Long Snapper about George Burman, for Windy City Gridiron, never even reached 8,000 words, and I wrote 10 drafts over two weeks. This Inglourious Basterds essay never reached a proper full draft. The first four sections say what I want them to say; the only question mark is the fifth section, which would have played out over a few drafts. I’m guessing I would have gotten this down to about 8,000 words. Hell, I even gave this quick-hit essay a good once-over. 

What it is: A look inside the early stages of a longer piece, showing a writer’s process. It’s also a pretty good essay in its own right, even though it’s obviously unfinished and unpolished. But as a raw piece of work, with its known limitations, I think it’s pretty good.

And with that, enjoy the essay. Utivich, it may not be my masterpiece. But at least I’m satisfied that I’ve gone as far as I’m going. In the words of Jules Winnfield, that’s probably a good idea.

Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.

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