By Chris Nashawaty
Updated August 18, 2009 at 05:52 PM EDT

Take your seats, class: Senior writer Chris Nashawaty is kicking off his in-depth weeklong tutorial on all things Quentin Tarantino for the latest installment of EW University. Check out our gallery of 20 Tarantino movie and movie poster faves and our Quentin Tarantino trivia quiz.

The Original Bastards: ‘Guys on a mission’ Italian-style

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already hip to the fact that Quentin Tarantino has a new (and badly spelled) new film coming out on August 21 called Inglourious Basterds. And depending on your level of interest in the Pulp Fiction auteur and his well-chronicled movie-geek obsessions, you may also already know that the Brad Pitt WWII epic is loosely based on a fairly obscure (and better spelled) Italian-produced action flick from 1978 called Inglorious Bastards.

I’ve seen Tarantino’s Basterds already and I think it’s absolutely fantastic — the best thing he’s done since John Travolta did the Twist with Uma Thurman. Better than his interminably talky Death Proof. Better than Kill Bill (both parts). And better than Jackie Brown. I’ve also seen Enzo G. Castellari’s original Bastards (you can read EWs review of the 2008 three-disc DVD edition) and I can honestly say that not only is Tarantino’s film a gajillion times better, it also has virtually nothing to do with Castellari’s B-movie beyond the title and the whole guys-on-a-mission-during-WWII thing.

But hey, that shouldn’t stop us from dipping our cinematic piggy toe into the original Bastards in anticipation of Tarantino’s homage.

Before we do, though, let’s just come out and say it: Enzo G. Castellari must be thanking his lucky stars that people like Quentin Tarantino exist — people who wasted their childhoods in the dark, sitting in the torn-upholstered seats of seedy movie theaters watching badly dubbed spaghetti westerns and Hong Kong chopsocky flicks. Otherwise, the guy might be largely forgotten (at least, on this side of the Atlantic). After all, Castellari’s made forty-something movies. But you’d never confuse him with his esteemed countrymen Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, or even Dario Argento. Castellari got his start in the early ’60s in Rome — a boom time in the movie-mad country’s film industry — working as an assistant director on westerns like $100,000 For Ringo and Django Shoots First. The Ringo and Django franchises were huge in Europe. And there are so many (sanctioned and unsanctioned) chapters in each saga it’s practically impossible to keep track of them all. Still, these films eventually led to Castellari getting his start as a director and maturing into “The Poor Man’s Peckinpah” thanks to westerns like 1968’s Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (which he directed under his occasional pseudonym, Enzo Girolami) and his “masterpiece,” 1976’s Keoma, which starred Italian box-office idol Franco Nero (who’s now married to Vanessa Redgrave, for the record).

While Castellari would also dabble during his spotty career in Italian cop films (The Big Racket, The Heroin Busters), “>Jaws knockoffs (a surprisingly huge Italian subgenre, by the way), and futuristic Mad Max action ripoffs (“>ditto), it was 1978’s macaroni WWII combat epic The Inglorious Bastards that obsessed Tarantino. Like most of his other genre films, Castellari knew that shelling out a stack of lira for a couple of B-list Hollywood actors gave his exploitation films sellable elements. And for Bastards, he snagged the big, blonde Walking Tall he-man Bo Svenson (after Burt Lancaster apparently said ‘No thanks’) and ex-NFL cool cat Fred ‘the Hammer’ Williamson. And if those names on a marquee weren’t catnip enough for grindhouse audiences, then Bastards’ shameless tagline would certainly have done the trick: “Whatever the Dirty Dozen Did, They Do It Dirtier!” (Just to show how extreme the grand-theft nature of Castellari and the Italian film industry is, it should be noted that right this second Castellari is trying to cash in on Tarantino’s fame by releasing a film of his own called Caribbean Basterds. Yes, he’s officially ripping off the guy who’s ripping him off! Brilliant!)

Castellari’s Bastards has been butchered and repackaged more times than you can shake a breadstick at over the years. In one incarnation, it put Blaxploitation star Williamson front and center on the VHS box and retitled the film G.I. Bro. But either way, the movie kicks off by introducing us to Svenson, Williamson, and a group of fellow American G.I. wiseasses, malcontents, and screw-ups in France who are being taken by Army convoy to be court-martialed. On the way, however, the convoy is bombed by the Nazis and the fellas escape. They’re caught behind enemy lines and only want to make a run for the Swiss border and freedom. But their consciences get the better of them and they volunteer for a deadly suicide mission against Hitler’s jackbooted goons. That’s it. There’s some nice gunfights. A lot of really corny one-liners. A bizarre sequence where some skinny-dipping fraüleins fire machine guns while topless. And a creative slo-mo blow-em-up finale that looks like it was made with a pack of firecrackers and a Lionel train set.

All in all, Bastards is a perfectly solid way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy Sunday. But obviously, Tarantino saw more in it: Castellari’s film, its title, and its theme have fueled his moviemaking dreams for the past decade. In the three-disc DVD edition of Castellari’s film, there’s an interview on the extras between Tarantino and the Italian director. And it’s a fascinating dynamic to spy on because they’re both so obviously smitten with each other – Tarantino because he’s rapping with the guy who helped shape his drive-in movie love; and Castellari because he gets to have his ring kissed by the star who’s resurrected his rep. There’s something touching, almost sweet about it. It’s like watching a grown-up kid finally getting the chance to thank Santa Claus in person for the bike he brought 20 years earlier.

For discussion: Does Tarantino’s passion for referencing old movies help or hurt his own films? And, are you planning on seeing Inglourious Basterds?

More EW University: