***MODERATE SPOILERS AHEAD***
Last Sunday night’s series finale of the TV show BREAKING BAD found the show’s lead character, Walter White, on a collision course with a small army of neo-Nazi thugs who he’d originally hired to enact his brutal agenda. It’s a sign of how far in the direction of anti- your hero has become when he’s accepting a handshake from a man with a Swastika tattooed on the back of his hand. Some fans have griped that the head Nazi, Uncle Jack, isn’t on the level of some of Walter White’s longer-running and freakier antagonists, such as Tuco Salamanca or Gustavo Fring or Lydia Quayle, but oh boy do I disagree. Uncle Jack is played by career bad-guy Michael Bowen (almost unrecognizably) and again, HE’S A NAZI. How much more despicable do they come?
I hope I don’t have to explain to you why Nazis are the absolute worst. The reason why Nazis are so frequently cast as villains in stories because recent human history has rarely been so black-and-white. They’re humanity’s ready-made bad guys. The sign of the Swastika is a shorthand symbol of evil that is arguably more definitive than the pentagram. The atrocious crimes of the Third Reich, the Holocaust they perpetrated, happened not too long ago. The world rejected Nazism, yet like a cancer it persists, in the pernicious form of neo-Nazism, somehow still present in the United States and parts of Europe.
Nazism is indefensible as an ethos. It is a platform of hatred and violence, of mass-murder and proud sociopathy. This is as purely evil as creatures of human origin can get. Of course, since we are not them, and we still have our humanity and our empathy, we can never celebrate the act of killing. But if we are watching a movie, and the demands of the story are such that the villain is to be vanquished… well then, it’s pretty hard to get too worked up over the death of a Nazi on screen. We might even cheer about it, with some degree of post-credits guilt depending on the individual cheerer. You might as well hate the Nazis; after all, they hated you more than you could ever hate any of them. For some of us, watching Nazis get wiped out is one of the purest joys afforded by movies.
So while the story of Walter White has been one of rapidly detereorating morality, with many shades of painful and indelible depth to it, there is one way to — if even for a moment — very quickly shift the allegiance of a mainstream audience back to a man who is a liar, a bad husband, a failure as a father, a mass-marketer of addictive drugs, a criminal, a killer — and that’s to have him take on a campground full of neo-Nazis. I’m not going to tell you how it all ends, but obviously I wouldn’t be posting this list now if I hadn’t approvingly pumped my fist once or twice during the course of things. The enemy of my enemy, and all that jazz.
While he’s definitely a monster in his own right, Walter White, like it or not, is now part of a longstanding American tradition of cinematic foes of Nazis. It’s a tradition that includes characters as disparate as Captain America, Magneto, Hellboy, and Daffy Duck, and that’s before we get into the slightly more grown-up realm of action movies. Our country may not always do the right thing right away in real life, but in movies, we always get around to blowing up the bad guys.
So here’s a list of some of the most satisfying Nazi-kills in American cinema, along with the characters who performed them. A couple of these movies are stone classics, a couple are pretty far away from that, but one thing’s for damn sure — I’m clearly not the only one who enjoys watching Nazi heads being exploded forever into a fine mist.
10. SIR IVY (SMOKIN’ ACES, 2006)
The most memorable characters in Joe Carnahan’s underrated and pleasurably deranged action allegory SMOKIN’ ACES are the Tremor Brothers, three monstrous neo-Nazi punk murderers who are an engine of pure destruction. They’re basically an R-rated version of the Dreadnoks from the old G.I. JOE comics, using cartoonishly outsized weapons such as chainsaws and flamethrowers to get their killing done. Sir Ivy, played by the rapper Common, is the suave and stylish bodyguard to Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven), the lowlife who the Tremors are coming to kill.
The fact that Common, the guy who performed “The Light,” is in a movie like this in the first place is pretty funny to those of us who have been following his musical career for twenty years – he’s an unusually thoughtful and soulful type, far less a fighter than a lover. This was his first action movie. He’s been in a couple since , but I suspect that posterity will be kinder to SMOKIN’ ACES than to WANTED, STREET KINGS, or TERMINATOR: SALVATION. It’s a movie with more on the brain than mindless action, although ironically, mindless action is delivered by the metric ton.
I think there’s significance to Sir Ivy’s arc in this movie, the way he turns his back on his weasel of an employer and finds a kindred spirit in fellow hitperson Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys, perfect). Most of all I think it’s significant that Sir Ivy is the character who kills two out of three Tremor Brothers (played by Maury Sterling, Kevin Durand, and an unrecognizable Chris Pine, a.k.a. the new Captain Kirk.) Sir Ivy makes one of those big monster Aryan motherfuckers sit on his goddamn chainsaw, and therefore he deserves his due from this list.
9. ELLIS FIELDING (LOOSE CANNONS, 1990)
This is not going to be a popular choice because this is not a popular movie. LOOSE CANNONS was co-written by Richard Matheson, his son Richard Christian Matheson, and director Bob Clark (BREAKING POINT, BLACK CHRISTMAS, A CHRISTMAS STORY). It stars Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd as a pair of mismatched buddy cops. Hackman is the cranky veteran and Aykroyd is his disturbed partner. Remember how Martin Riggs had a death wish? Ellis Fielding, Aykroyd’s character, has multiple personality disorder. Really, all that means is he talks like a bunch of different cartoon characters and he won’t stop. In other words, he’s Robin Williams. Some audience members and critics found it off-putting.
The case that Hackman and Aykroyd are working involves a major conspiracy, at the heart of which is a lost film of Adolf Hitler’s death, which certain parties will kill to keep secret. There are Mossad operatives in the mix also, one of them played by a young, crazy-cute Nancy Travis. ROBOCOP‘s Ronny Cox is in the mix as a corrupt lawman. Dom DeLuise appears as a career pornographer named Harry Gutterman, and seeing as how he acts as if he’s been airlifted in from the set of SPACEBALLS, there are officially seventeen different tones clashing in this flick. Is this 48 HRS.? Is it LETHAL WEAPON? Is it WHO’S HARRY CRUMB? For the purposes of this list, it doesn’t really matter.
LOOSE CANNONS gets on this list as a sentimental favorite. You’d have to understand how thoroughly I worshipped GHOSTBUSTERS at the time I saw LOOSE CANNONS. I watched GHOSTBUSTERS so much I have absorbed it into my being through osmosis. I loved Dan Aykroyd and I saw everything he appeared in. That wasn’t always a rewarding policy, to say the least (even Dan Aykroyd himself would advise against it), but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I genuinely still kinda like LOOSE CANNONS – not because it isn’t a mess, but because it’s such a glorious goddamn mess. It’s the kind of movie that ends with a ballad being belted out by Katey Sagal – I’m told this kind of thing happens all the time on SONS OF ANARCHY, but imagine how confusing it was in 1990. She was still Peg Bundy back then.
If you love Dan Aykroyd and you hate Nazis, LOOSE CANNONS is the movie to see. Dan Aykroyd also fights the forces of racism in TRADING PLACES and THE BLUES BROTHERS, but LOOSE CANNONS is the only one where he shoots a neo-Nazi dead while imitating Pee-Wee Herman and quoting Humpty Dumpty. You have to love that. Well, you don’t personally have to love that, but I will love it for you.
8. INDIANA JONES (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, 1981)
Indiana Jones was a one-man team of Basterds long before Tarantino got around to onscreen Nazi-killin.’ Indy as a character is not officially Jewish (from LAST CRUSADE we know something about the faith he was born into), but he was created by two Jews and played by Harrison Ford, who Adam Sandler told us is a not-too-shabby quarter-Jewish. In fact, Ford’s mom was full-on Jewish, which makes him one of us.
So while gentiles can root for Indy because of the Christian iconography and the pan-cultural coolness, audience members of the Hebraic persuasion may come at these movies from a slightly different vantage point. Jewish cinemaniacs were probably cheering just a little bit louder when Toht scalded his palm and those Nazis turned into melting skeletons. If only for the bit with the propeller, Indy would have a firm place on this list.
Unfortunately, Tarantino went and upped the ante. In INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, our hero comes face to hideous face with Adolf Hitler himself, but since Indy is hiding in plain sight in an SS uniform, Hitler takes him for a fan and gives him an autograph. (By the way, don’t you feel bad for the actor playing Hitler? That must truly suck as an acting gig. On the bright side, you’re working for Spielberg. Unfortunately, it’s due to your resemblance to one of the worst people ever.)
My point is, Indy gets that close to Hitler and he doesn’t put a bullet in his skull. I understand story-wise why he doesn’t do it, but I’m also making a list of great Nazi-killers here. It’s messed up to contemplate, but for this moment alone, Indiana Jones isn’t even as effective a Nazi-killer as Eli Roth.
7. SHOSHANA DREYFUS
(INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, 2009)
More than most movies, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has a real lifespan. Thanks to its loquacious writer-director, we’d been hearing many variations on the pitch from its gestation right up until its release. There was a draft reportedly intended to feature Adam Sandler, the modern poster boy for Jewish rage. I’d have watched that. Then there was this indelible image, from many of the trailers:
Again, I’m one of those moviegoers who’d have happily watched an entire movie showcasing little Neal Schweiber from FREAKS & GEEKS (real name: Samm Levine) running around with an oversized gat, mowing down hordes of Nazis. It took some mental recalibration to reconcile the premise — guerrilla Jewish-American soldiers recruited by a loud-mouthed Southerner to strike fear into the tiny hearts of the Third Reich — with the movie we actually got, which was a far more nuanced, leisurely, musical, even literate thing. In the end, the carnage is delicately parceled out into key moments, and Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine and his band of merry Nazi-scalpers are essentially supporting players in a film that decides to make a young Jewish woman the architect of the ultimate revenge fantasy.
French-born Mélanie Laurent B plays Shoshana, who narrowly escapes an SS-commissioned massacre and three years later, masterminds a plot to trap members of the Nazi regime, including Adolf Hitler (again, not a role you’d be thrilled to win), inside the movie theater she owns, in order to burn the place down. Having the avenging avatar be a woman, having the method of murder be film itself, these are imaginative leaps that give the story more depth and poetic resonance than it may have had were it simply a movie about the cast of SEINFELD murdering the cast of HOGAN’S HEROES. I still can’t honestly say I would not very much want to see the latter, but the movie we did get is mighty fine also.
6. PRIVATE FRED CANFIELD
(THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, 1978)
If this list is to give tribute to Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-killing fantasia, then it damn sure ought to include its initial point of inspiration, Enzo G. Castellari’s THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. (Note the spelling!) And if the great Bo Svenson is the Kermit The Frog of this particular Nazi-killing Muppet Show, then Fred Williamson is surely its Doctor Teeth & The Electric Mayhem. You need the guy to hold the thing together, but you also better bring along a rock star. If that’s too labored an analogy, you can take a look at my piece on THE INGLORIOUS BASTERDS on my own site, where I compared Fred Williamson’s performance in it to Bugs Bunny: “mischievous, anarchic, hilarious.” The film is a shameless, shamelessly entertaining riff on THE DIRTY DOZEN, where — one more analogy — Svenson is the Lee Marvin figure, the leader, and Williamson is the John Cassavetes, the charismatic renegade. Or maybe he’s the Charles Bronson. He’s not the Jim Brown. Really, there’s no need for analogies, because there’s only one Fred Williamson, and you haven’t lived your life entirely right if you haven’t seen the look on his face as he runs away from topless German women who are firing machine guns at him, or his broad grin — through a cigar — as he tosses grenades at approaching Nazi cannon fodder, with the satisfaction of an old lady tossing bread to ducks at a park.
5. PRIVATE DANIEL JACKSON
(SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, 1998)
Instead of filling this space with some long-winded explanation, let’s just watch the man at work:
4. TOMMY NOWAK (PINK CADILLAC, 1989)
Clint Eastwood is one of the most efficient killers in cinema history. He’s probably killed more bastards than any other major star. But most of them have been on American soil. He was in two World War II movies where he racked up scores of dead Nazis — 1968’s WHERE EAGLES DARE and 1970’s KELLY’S HEROES, and please consider those titles to be part of this list item — but I’m going with an unconventional choice with this, another sentimental choice, one of the first Clint movies I ever saw. No one’s making an argument for PINK CADILLAC as one of the great Eastwood films, although I will argue it has plenty of charms. Clint plays a bounty hunter who tracks down Lou Ann McGuinn (Bernadette Peters) after she takes off with her no-good husband’s car (the titular vehicle) — it turns out she was trying to get away from the guy because he’s wrapped up with a gang called “The Birthright,” which is a fancy way of not saying they’re white supremacists. Lou Ann inadvertently made off with some of the Birthright’s counterfeit money and they want it back, which of course means that Clint is going to have to kill an entire forest full of white supremacists, which of course he does. People talk trash about this movie because Clint does a lot of Eddie-Murphy-in-BEVERLY–HILLS–COP-style dress-ups in his various guises as a skip tracer, but that stuff is kind of fun. There are plenty of Clint movies which are more than serious enough. This one is breezier. Yes, there are some jarring tonal 180’s. Clint didn’t direct this one. (His longtime stuntman Buddy Van Horn did.) It’s not capital-A “art.” Not unless you consider Clint Eastwood fucking up racist honkies “art,” which I personally do.
3. MOLASAR (THE KEEP, 1983)
In THE KEEP, greedy Nazi soldiers in search of treasures inside a passageway through a mountain range in Transylvania end up awakening an ancient evil. Things do not go too well for the Nazis. The demonic being that arises wields its untold supernatural powers in fantastical ways, such as vaporizing one of the soldiers so completely that only his clothes remain. Granted, this film, for a while, puts the viewer in the odd position of rooting for Satan, but luckily, some actual good guys come along soon enough to try to put the genie back in the bottle. THE KEEP is a flawed, underrated, unusual, and weirdly beautiful movie which you can read more about here. It’s also interesting as proof that Sir Ian McKellen has looked pretty much the same for thirty years now.
2. DETECTIVE GINA CALABRESE (MIAMI VICE, 2006)
The movie is underrated. The character is underrated. The actress is underrated. Let’s get into it. Gina Calabrese is a character on the original MIAMI VICE television series, re-imagined by Michael Mann for the movie. In the movie, she’s mostly a peripheral player, an efficient member of the constantly-cool undercover squad headed up by Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). Crockett and Tubbs are investigating a Colombian cartel who have employed members of the Aryan Brotherhood on the distribution end. (One of them is played by Tom Towles, from HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, if you want to know how scary these guys are.) In one scene, the Aryans are holding one member of the squad hostage in a Florida trailer park. The team goes in to get her, and Gina takes point. One particularly bold Aryan is holding a detonator to the explosive collar he’s rigged around the neck of his captive. Here there is a tense showdown. Gina only gets a couple lines in the course of MIAMI VICE, but when they come, hoo boy.
Shoot me, she dies. Shoot me, go ahead. Fuck it, we can all go. That’s cool.
That’s not what happens. What will happen is… what will happen is I will put a round at twenty-seven hundred feet per second into the medulla at the base of your brain. And you will be dead from the neck down before your body knows it. Your finger won’t even twitch. Only you get dead. So tell me, sport, do you believe that?
And Gina shoots him through the head.
It comes as a jolt even though she promised it would happen. Perfectly paced. Perfectly directed. Perfectly written (even if Gina does talk a lot like every Michael Mann character ever). Perfectly acted.
Elizabeth Rodriguez is an actress who has done a lot of stage work in New York. She’s also done a fair amount of TV, most recently appearing as Daya’s mother in Netflix’s women-in-prison dramedy ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. She’s straight-up incredible in MIAMI VICE and I’ve always wondered why she didn’t get a ton of leading roles out of it. That can still happen and I hope it does. In the meantime, she’s a clear choice for the number-two Nazi-killer of all time, quite an honorable showing considering the number-one…
1. MAJOR JOHN REISMAN & FRIENDS
(THE DIRTY DOZEN, 1967)
These guys get the number one spot because of the fact that everything violent that was done by anybody any earlier on this list was already done first and most brutishly by THE DIRTY DOZEN. Castellari’s INGLORIOUS BASTARDS riffs off the military-prisoners-recruited-to-do-the-dirty-work premise. Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has high-society Nazi pricks getting rounded up in a small space and being incinerated, which is reminiscent of the grenades-and-gasoline technique enlisted by the Dirty Dozen. And let’s face it, the Dirty Dozen killed more Nazis than anybody else on this list. Even Clint.
Robert Aldrich’s classic of action cinema rounds up quite possibly the single most unfukwitable cast of all time. It’s a moving Mount Rushmore of maniacal manliness. This is a roster stacked so deep with hardasses that Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine don’t even get onto the battlefield. Foremost and in the forefront is Lee Marvin as Major John Reisman, the veteran officer charged with turning a bunch of criminals into an elite unit. Let me tell you something: If you are wearing a Nazi uniform and holding a gun in a movie like this one, you’re in more than enough trouble if Lee Marvin shows up all by his lonesome, let alone if he brings friends. Here he’s got, for starters, Jim Brown and Charles Bronson. Now.
Before we call THE DIRTY DOZEN the original AVENGERS or the original EXPENDABLES, let us please remember that Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, and Charles Bronson don’t even believe in Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, and I think even Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger would admit that they would rather not have to arm-wrestle Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, and Charles Bronson. The Dirty Dozen also has John Cassavetes, not much the action-hero sort but one of cinema’s great anti-authoritarian figures. As a mainstream Hollywood actor, he was never more devilishly winning than he is here. Hey, Donald Sutherland is in the Dirty Dozen too! So is Telly Savalas, although his character is pretty repulsive. Second-stringer Clint Walker is a formidable presence. Singer-songwriter Trini Lopez got on the team somehow, I guess if we’re comparing this group to THE AVENGERS he’d be Gwyneth Paltrow. But that’s beside the point.
The Dirty Dozen are so rough they could offend those neatly-groomed Nazis just by the smell of them. (They don’t shower.) Their behavior is worse. You wouldn’t want to get a beer with any of these guys. They’re the ultimate anti-heroes. The only members of the bunch who are at all easy to like are Brown and Walker. Marvin and Cassavetes come off as borderline sociopaths. Savalas is an outright monster. This isn’t a character piece. This is an action movie, and the main action these characters are bound for is killing Nazis. The only way you’d bother to call them “good” is by following that word with “at killing Nazis.” THE DIRTY DOZEN is a movie that proposes that the best way to get rid of the worst enemy is to set the dogs on them. Pretty good metaphor for war, if you want to get deep about it.
So that’s the list. Agree? Disagree? Anything missing? Want to fight about it? That’s what the comment box is for. Fire away!
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