Tarantino wrote the script in 1998 but struggled with the ending and chose to hold off filming and instead direct the two-part film Kill Bill. After directing Death Proof in 2007 (as part of the double feature Grindhouse), Tarantino returned to work on Inglourious Basterds. A co-production of the United States and Germany, the film began principal photography in October 2008 and was filmed in Germany and France with a $70 million production budget. Inglourious Basterds premiered on May 20, 2009, at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. It was widely released in theaters in the United States and Europe in August 2009 by The Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures.
In 1941, SS colonel Hans Landa interrogates French dairy farmer Perrier La Padite as to the whereabouts of the last unaccounted-for Jewish family in the area. In exchange for the Germans agreeing to leave his family alone for the rest of the war, La Padite reveals that the Dreyfus family is hidden under the floor. Landa orders SS soldiers to shoot through the floorboards. The family is killed except for Shosanna, a young woman who escapes.
Three years later, Lieutenant Aldo Raine of the First Special Service Force recruits Jewish-American soldiers to the Basterds, who spread fear among the German soldiers by killing and scalping them. The Basterds also recruit Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz, a German soldier who murdered thirteen Gestapo officers. Adolf Hitler interviews a German soldier, Private Butz, the only survivor of a Basterd attack on his squad. Raine carved the Nazi swastika into Butz's forehead with a knife so he could never hide that he served in the German Heer.
Shosanna is operating a cinema in Paris under an assumed name. She meets Fredrick Zoller, a German sniper who killed 250 soldiers in a single battle; Zoller is to star in a Nazi propaganda film, Stolz der Nation (Nation's Pride). Infatuated with Shosanna, Zoller convinces Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere of the film at her cinema. Shosanna plots with her projectionist and lover, Marcel, to kill the Nazi leaders attending the premiere by setting the cinema ablaze.
Unknown to Shosanna, British Royal Marine Lieutenant Archie Hicox is planning an attack at the premiere with the Basterds. Hicox goes to a tavern with Hugo Stiglitz and Basterd Wilhelm Wicki to meet an undercover agent, the German film star Bridget von Hammersmark. Hicox draws the attention of Wehrmacht Sergeant Wilhelm and Gestapo Major Dieter Hellstrom with his unusual accent. He gives himself away by ordering three drinks and gesturing "three" with his hand (with thumb and pinky finger down); Hellstrom knows that Germans gesture "three" with the thumb and first two fingers extended. Discovered, Stiglitz and the Basterds open fire, killing everyone in the tavern except Sergeant Wilhelm and Hammersmark, who is wounded. Raine arrives and negotiates with Sergeant Wilhelm for Hammersmark's release, but she shoots Wilhelm when he lowers his guard. Raine tortures Hammersmark and learns that Hitler will be attending the film premiere and decides to continue the mission. Landa investigates the aftermath at the tavern and finds one of Hammersmark's shoes and a napkin with her signature.
At the premiere, two of the Basterds, Donny Donowitz and Omar Ulmer, join Raine in posing as Italians, hoping to fool the Germans unfamiliar with the language. However, Landa, who speaks fluent Italian, converses briefly with the Basterds before sending Donowitz and Ulmer to their seats. He takes Hammersmark to a private room, verifies that the shoe from the tavern fits her, then strangles her to death. Raine and another of his men, Smithson "The Little Man" Utivich, are taken prisoner, but Landa has Raine contact his superior with the OSS and cuts a deal: he will allow the mission to proceed in exchange for immunity and rewards.
During the screening, Zoller slips away to the projection room to see Shosanna. After she rejects his advances, he becomes aggressive. She pretends to acquiesce, then pulls a pistol from her bag and shoots him. Zoller, mortally wounded, raises his pistol and shoots her before they both die. As Stolz der Nation reaches its climax, spliced-in footage of Shosanna tells the audience that they are about to be killed by a Jew. Marcel, having locked the doors of the cinema, ignites a pile of flammable nitrate film behind the screen as Shosanna's image laughs. Ulmer and Donowitz break into the box containing Hitler and Goebbels, killing them, then fire their submachine guns into the crowd until the bombs go off, killing everyone in the theater. Landa and his radio operator drive Raine and Utivich into Allied territory, where they surrender. Raine shoots the radio operator and carves a swastika into Landa's forehead.
Tarantino spent just over a decade writing the film's script because, as he told Charlie Rose in an interview, he became "too precious about the page", meaning the story kept growing and expanding. Tarantino viewed the script as his masterpiece in the making, so he felt it had to become the best thing he had ever written. Tarantino described an early premise of the film as his "bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission" film. He said it was "my Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare or Guns of Navarone kind of thing". According to Tarantino, all his films make the audience laugh at things that are not supposed to be funny, but the sense of humor differs in each.
By 2002, Tarantino found Inglourious Basterds to be a bigger film than planned and saw that other directors were working on World War II films. At this point, Tarantino had produced three nearly finished scripts, proclaiming that it was "some of the best writing I've ever done. But I couldn't come up with an ending." Consequently, the director held off his planned film and moved on to direct the two-part film Kill Bill (2003–2004). After the completion of Kill Bill, Tarantino went back to his first storyline draft and came up with the idea of turning it into a mini-series. Instead he trimmed the script, using his script for Pulp Fiction as a guide to the right length. He then planned to begin production of Inglourious Basterds in 2005. The revised premise focused on a group of soldiers who escape from their executions and embark on a mission to help the Allies. He described the men as "not your normal hero types that are thrown into a big deal in the Second World War".
In November 2004, Tarantino decided to hold off the film's production and instead took an acting role in Takashi Miike's Western film Sukiyaki Western Django and intended to make a kung fu film entirely in Mandarin. This project foundered as well, and he ultimately directed a part of the 2007 Grindhouse before returning to work on Inglourious Basterds. The film's title was inspired by the English-language title of director Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 war film, The Inglorious Bastards. When asked for an explanation of the film's title's spelling during a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Tarantino said, "I'm never going to explain that". When pushed on it, Tarantino would not explain the first u in Inglourious, but said, "The Basterds? That's just the way you say it: Basterds." Tarantino later stated in an interview that the misspelled title is "a Basquiat-esque touch". He further commented on Late Show with David Letterman that Inglourious Basterds is a "Quentin Tarantino spelling".
Tarantino originally sought Leonardo DiCaprio to be cast as Hans Landa, before deciding to have the character played by a German actor. The role ultimately went to Christoph Waltz, who, according to Tarantino, "gave me my movie" as he feared the part was "unplayable". Pitt and Tarantino had wanted to work together for a number of years, but were forced to wait for the right project. When Tarantino was halfway through the film's script, he sensed that Pitt was a strong possibility for the role of Aldo Raine. By the time he had finished writing, Tarantino thought Pitt "would be terrific" and called Pitt's agent to ask if he was available.
Tarantino asked Adam Sandler to play the role of Donny Donowitz, but Sandler declined due to schedule conflicts with the film Funny People. Eli Roth was cast in the role instead. Roth also directed the film-within-the-film, Nation's Pride, which used 300 extras. The director also wanted to cast Simon Pegg in the film as Lt. Archie Hicox, but he was forced to drop out due to scheduling difficulties with Spielberg's Tintin adaptation. Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender began final negotiations to join the cast as Hicox in August 2008, although he originally auditioned for the role of Landa. B. J. Novak was also cast in August 2008 as Private First Class Smithson Utivich, "a New York-born soldier of 'slight build'".
Tarantino talked to actress Nastassja Kinski about playing the role of Bridget von Hammersmark and even flew to Germany to meet her, but a deal could not be reached and Tarantino cast Diane Kruger instead. Rod Taylor was effectively retired from acting and no longer had an agent, but came out of retirement when Tarantino offered him the role of Winston Churchill in the film. This would be Taylor's last appearance on film before his death on January 7, 2015. In preparation for the role, Taylor watched dozens of DVDs with footage of Churchill in order to get the Prime Minister's posture, body language, and voice, including a lisp, correct. Taylor initially recommended British actor Albert Finney for the role during their conversation, but agreed to take the part because of Tarantino's "passion." Mike Myers, a fan of Tarantino, had inquired about being in the film since Myers' parents had been in the British Armed Forces. In terms of the character's dialect, Myers felt that it was a version of Received Pronunciation meeting the officer class, but mostly an attitude of "I'm fed up with this war and if this dude can end it, great because my country is in ruins." Tarantino met Mélanie Laurent in three rounds and played all the characters on the first. On the second one, he shared the lines with her, and the third one, it was dinner face-to-face. During the dinner, he told Laurent, "Do you know something—there's just something I don't like. It's that you’re famous in your country, and I'm really wanting to discover somebody." Laurent replied "No, no, no. … I'm not so famous." And after four days he called and finalized her for the role of Shosanna. Samm Levine was cast as PFC Hirschberg, because, according to Levine, Tarantino was a big fan of Freaks and Geeks, which starred Levine.
Director Enzo Castellari also makes a cameo appearance in the film at the movie premiere. He previously cameoed as a German in his own Inglorious Bastards and reprised the same role in this film, but under a different rank and SS organization. Bo Svenson, who starred in Castellari's The Inglorious Bastards, also has a small cameo in the film as a US colonel in the Nation's Pride movie. Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel, who have both previously starred in Tarantino's films, make small voice-only contributions as the narrator and an OSS commander, respectively. German musician Bela B. has an uncredited cameo appearance as an usher at the cinema. Two characters, Mrs. Himmelstein and Madame Ada Mimieux, played by Cloris Leachman and Maggie Cheung respectively, were both cut from the final film due to length reasons.
Tarantino teamed with The Weinstein Company to prepare what he planned to be his film for production. In July 2008, Tarantino and executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein set up an accelerated production schedule to be completed for release at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, where the film would compete for the Palme d'Or. The Weinstein Company co-financed the film and distributed it in the United States, and signed a deal with Universal Pictures to finance the rest of the film and distribute it internationally. Germany and France were scheduled as filming locations and principal photography started in October 2008 on location in Germany. Filming was scheduled to begin on October 13, 2008, and shooting started that week. Special effects were handled by KNB EFX Group with Greg Nicotero and much of the film was shot and edited in the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany and in Bad Schandau, a small spa town near Germany's border with the Czech Republic. Roth claimed that they "almost got incinerated", during the theater fire scene, as they projected the fire would burn at 400 °C (750 °F), but it instead burned at 1200 °C (2000 °F). He claimed the swastika was not supposed to fall either, as it was fastened with steel cables, but the steel softened and snapped. On January 11, 2013, on the BBC's The Graham Norton Show, Tarantino claimed that for the scene where Kruger was strangled, he personally strangled the actress, with his own bare hands, in one take, to aid authenticity.
Following the film's screening at Cannes, Tarantino stated that he would be re-editing the film in June before its ultimate theatrical release, allowing him time to finish assembling several scenes that were not completed in time for the hurried Cannes première.
Tarantino originally wanted Ennio Morricone to compose the film's soundtrack. Morricone was unable to, because the film's sped-up production schedule conflicted with his scoring of Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa. However, Tarantino did use eight tracks composed by Morricone in the film, with four of them included on the CD.
The opening theme is taken from the pseudo-folk ballad "The Green Leaves of Summer", which was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for the opening of the 1960 film The Alamo. The soundtrack uses a variety of music genres, including Spaghetti Western and R&B. Prominent in the latter part of the film is David Bowie's theme from the 1982 film Cat People. The soundtrack, the first of Tarantino's not to include dialogue excerpts, was released on August 18, 2009.
When the script's final draft was finished, it was leaked on the Internet and several Tarantino fan sites began posting reviews and excerpts from the script.
The film's first full teaser trailer premiered on Entertainment Tonight on February 10, 2009, and was shown in US theaters the following week attached to Friday the 13th. The trailer features excerpts of Lt. Aldo Raine talking to the Basterds, informing them of the plan to ambush and kill, torture, and scalp unwitting Nazi servicemen, intercut with various other scenes from the film. It also features the spaghetti-westernesque terms Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied France, which was considered for the film's title, and A Basterd's Work Is Never Done, a line not spoken in the final film (the line occurs in the script during the Bear Jew's backstory).
The film was released on August 19, 2009 in the United Kingdom and France, two days earlier than the US release date of August 21, 2009. It was released in Germany on August 20, 2009. Some European cinemas, however, showed previews starting on August 15. In Poland, the artwork on all advertisements and on DVD packaging is unchanged, but the title was translated non-literally to Bękarty Wojny (Bastards of War), so that Nazi iconography could stylize the letter "O".
Universal Pictures adjusted the film's German publicity website to the German penal law, as the display of Nazi iconography is restricted in Germany. The title has the swastika removed and the steel helmet has a bullet hole instead of the Nazi symbol. The German site's download section was revised to exclude wallpaper downloads that openly feature the swastika. Though the advertisement posters and wallpapers may not show Nazi iconography, this does not apply to "works of art" according to German law, so the film itself is not censored in Germany.
The film was released on single-disc DVD and a two-disc special edition DVD and Blu-ray Disc on December 15, 2009, by Universal Studios Home Entertainment in the United States and Australia. It was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on December 7, 2009, in the UK. On its first week of release, the film was number two, only behind The Hangover, selling an estimated 1,581,220 DVDs making $28,467,652 in the United States.
The German version is 50 seconds longer than the American version. The scene in the tavern has been extended. Although in other countries, the extended scene was released as a bonus feature, the German theatrical, DVD, and Blu-ray versions are the only ones to include the full scene. To comply with Germany's prohibition of the swastika symbol, some German DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film show a bullet hole partially obscuring the swastika on the cover.
Opening in 3,165 screens, the film earned $14.3 million on the opening Friday of its North American release, on the way to an opening weekend gross of $38 million, giving Tarantino a personal best weekend opening and the number one spot at the box office, ahead of District 9. The film fell to number two in its second weekend, behind The Final Destination, with earnings of $20 million, and grossed $73.8 million in its first ten days. Inglourious Basterds opened internationally at number one in 22 markets on 2,650 screens making $27.49 million. First place openings included France, taking in $6.09 million on 500 screens. The United Kingdom was not far behind making $5.92 million (£3.8m) on 444 screens. Germany took in $4.20 million on 439 screens and Australia with $2.56 million (A$2.8m) on 266 screens. It has come to gross $120.5 million in the United States and Canada and $200.9 million in other territories, making its worldwide gross $321.4 million. Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino's highest-grossing film, both in the U.S. and worldwide until Django Unchained in 2012.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 89% of 307 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.8 out of 10. According to the site's critical consensus, "A classic Tarantino genre-blending thrill ride, Inglourious Basterds is violent, unrestrained, and thoroughly entertaining." Metacritic, which assigns a score of 1–100 to individual film reviews, gives the film an averaged rating of 69 based on 36 reviews.
Critics' initial reactions at the Cannes Film Festival were mixed. The film received an eight- to eleven-minute standing ovation from critics after its first screening at Cannes, although Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, dismissed it, saying "Tarantino gets lost in a fictional World War II". Despite this, Anne Thompson of Variety praised the film, but opined that it was not a masterpiece, claiming, "Inglourious Basterds is great fun to watch, but the movie isn't entirely engaging... You don't jump into the world of the film in a participatory way; you watch it from a distance, appreciating the references and the masterful mise en scène. This is a film that will benefit from a second viewing". Critic James Berardinelli gave the film his first four-star review of 2009, stating, "With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has made his best movie since Pulp Fiction," and that it was "one hell of an enjoyable ride." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times also gave the film a four-star review, writing that "Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a big, bold, audacious war movie that will annoy some, startle others and demonstrate once again that he's the real thing, a director of quixotic delights." Author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn was disturbed by the portrayal of Jewish American soldiers mimicking German atrocities done to European Jews, stating, "In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis". Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian stated he was "struck... by how exasperatingly awful and transcendentally disappointing it is". While praising Christoph Waltz's performance ("a good actor new to American audiences"), David Denby, of The New Yorker, dismissed the film with the following words: "The film is skillfully made, but it's too silly to be enjoyed, even as a joke. [...] Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque." Journalist Christopher Hitchens likened the experience of watching the film to "sitting in the dark having a great pot of warm piss emptied very slowly over your head."
The film has met some criticism from Jewish press, as well. In Tablet, Liel Liebowitz criticizes the film as lacking moral depth. He argues that the power of film lies in its ability to impart knowledge and subtle understanding, but Inglourious Basterds serves more as an "alternative to reality, a magical and Manichaean world where we needn't worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat". Anthony Frosh, writer for the online magazine Galus Australis, has criticized the film for failing to develop its characters sufficiently, labeling the film "Enthralling, but lacking in Jewish content".
Inglourious Basterds was later ranked #62 on a BBC critics' poll of the greatest films since 2000. In 2010, the Independent Film & Television Alliance selected the film as one of the 30 Most Significant Independent Films of the last 30 years.
Christoph Waltz was singled out for Cannes honors, receiving the Best Actor Award at the festival's end. Film critic Devin Faraci of CHUD.com stated: "The cry has been raised long before this review, but let me continue it: Christoph Waltz needs not an Oscar nomination but rather an actual Oscar in his hands.... he must have gold". The film received four Golden Globe Award nominations including Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Supporting Actor for Waltz, who went on to win the award. The film also received three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and went on to win the awards for Best Cast and Best Supporting Actor, which was awarded to Waltz. The film was nominated for six BAFTA Awards, including Best Director for Tarantino, winning only one award—Best Supporting Actor for Waltz. In February 2010, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Waltz, and Best Original Screenplay. Waltz was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
On December 5, 2010, "The Fight Before Christmas", the eighth episode of The Simpsons' 22nd season, featured an Inglourious Basterds sequence during a World War II flashback.
When the Jewish, 6-foot-7-inch (2.01 m), 314-pound (142 kg) American football player Gabe Carimi was drafted in the 2011 NFL Draft's first round by the Chicago Bears, he was nicknamed "The Bear Jew", a reference to the character in Inglourious Basterds.