My Father Was A Real 'Inglourious Basterd'

Inglourious Basterds is about Jewish-American soldiers chosen to assassinate Nazis during World War II. Kim Masters' father really was part of a secret unit that took down leaders of the Third Reich. She tells the story of how his real life was more dramatic than the film.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On this day in 1939, German soldiers burst across the Polish border and triggered the bloodiest and most destructive conflict in human history. Seventy years later, it can seem sometimes as if it was all staged for Hollywood's benefit, as if what actually happened wasn't traumatic or horrible, courageous or cowardly enough.

Some pictures worked very hard to get it right. But, inevitably, events are simplified and characters combined to fit the necessities of a screenplay. The very best get the metaphors right, if not all of the facts, and some use the war as a point of departure.

Quentin Tarantino's new film, "Inglourious Basterds," is in that latter category. European Jews who escaped the Nazis did return as members of an elite force of commandos, but this new movie is not about them or about what they did.

Our former colleague Kim Masters who now covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you back in the program, Kim.

Ms. KIM MASTERS (Columnist, The Daily Beast): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And tell us, how did a teenager named Peter Arany become your father, Peter Masters?

Ms. MASTERS: Well, he married my mother - a key moment. But before that, he was born in Vienna. He was a fairly assimilated Viennese, middleclass Jew, so he, you know, he had some Jewish connections. But he really felt that he was a Viennese boy like a lot of Jews in Europe at that time.

And then the noose began to tighten, you know? The kids were not allowed to go to their schools. They were being attacked by hooligans in the street, and eventually my father's family was getting regular calls, threatening that the SS would be picking them up and that they'd better be ready to be deported.

So in that very anxious environment, he and his mother and sister managed to get to London.

CONAN: And found themselves, well, not politically very popular there after war erupted.

Ms. MASTERS: No. My father had been sent to a farm. They were destitute. They got out, but they had absolutely no money, of course, and everything was taken from them. His mother's shop had been taken by the government. And so they had nothing. He was sent to a farm to work as the farmhand for room and board.

But when war broke out, the authorities showed up at this farm, Frog Mill Farm, and said, you can't be here. You're an enemy alien. So he returned to London where his mother was and he was promptly arrested and interned as an enemy alien. Of course, that was somewhat ironic, considering that he had been, you know, fleeing for his life before he came to London. But that's what happened.

CONAN: And then there was an announcement that they were looking for young men for especially dangerous mission.

Ms. MASTERS: Well, yeah. Before that, they were offered a chance to serve in something called Pioneer Corps, which was manual labor. And it wasn't pretty, particularly fun or, you know, glamorous. But these guys were, you know, fit, young men, they had a stake in the conflict and they did volunteer.

And then at some point when they were working as laborers, they were offered this special and hazardous duty, this opportunity to volunteer. And my father then took that opportunity. And they, you know, they screened these guys pretty carefully. They did, in fact, go for the best and the brightest. This was a very secret thing in the British army.

CONAN: And your father was happy to join. He thought - this is an interesting quote. You said he was asked at one point why he wanted to join.

Ms. MASTERS: Yes. He said, I think I have a stake in this war. Part of this war belongs to me. I can't remember the exact words myself right now, but he's -they asked him why and he said, I believe part of this war belongs to me.

And then at that point, he had to become a different person. He had to choose an identity - a British identity - that would explain, you know, that he was somehow a Brit - he was from a different British regiment. He wasn't, you know, suddenly spirited into this secret unit.

And he had to have a British name, which is why my name is Masters now. All of these - these were all, you know, Austrian-Germans, sometimes Hungarian-Jews with names like Manfred Ganz and Peter Tischler, or in my father's case, Peter Arany, and they became, respectively, Freddy Gray, Peter Terry, and Peter Masters.

CONAN: Expecting them to be in the club at Pall Mall.

Ms. MASTERS: Well, yes. It was - it's funny because, of course, I've known some of these guys who were my father's fellow soldiers, and they all have accents and they had stories to explain it. They were - as my father said, pretty lame stories. I mean, if anybody had really inquired, they probably would've figured out that these stories were… There were some story about my father had been left in a boarding school in Vienna and that's why his first language, you know, by his British parents who were salesmen or something - traveling salesmen. Some story cooked up.

But you know, if you were taken prisoner, it was far better to be a British soldier than to be a Jewish boy from Vienna. So they all had those stories and kept those identities throughout the war.

CONAN: Highly trained commandos, useful for interrogation of prisoners and other things incorporated to this Force X, that goes ashore…

Ms. MASTERS: X Troop. Churchill called this X Troop, yes. And then they became 3 Commando, eventually. And they had stories about where they came from, the Queen's own certain regiment. And they were not kept in a group. They were detailed to different commando units and blended in with British soldiers.

So my father was sent along. And you know, they were trained to use all sorts of weaponry to - literally to kill with their hands. My father had wrote a memoir called "Striking Back" and he talks about how there was one guy who had this sort of double-jointed neck and everybody liked him for the neck-twisting exercise…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: …because his neck twisted in a sort of exciting way, I guess. But they, you know, they have all kinds of - how to assemble and disassemble guns, knives, you name it, they did it - and parachuting also.

CONAN: And they go ashore on D-Day.

Ms. MASTERS: They do. That was the first real action. And some of them were sent into various different locations. And my father - and they were used a lot for reconnaissance and sent behind lines. Some of them were sent into Normandy ahead of time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MASTERS: But my father's case, he landed - he crossed the Channel. This was the first real action that his troop - he saw as a soldier. They were part of a bicycle troop. They carried collapsible bicycles on their backs. And when they crossed and got to Normandy, of course, some of them were killed before they even could get off the boat. And some of them - and fortunately for me, including my father, got off the boat and made their way up the beach and successfully put their bicycles together.

CONAN: And he rode to a place called Pegasus Bridge, which is, I'm sure you know, is a very famous incident in the battle on D-Day, in Normandy. And the actor, Richard Todd, the British actor, was there on D-Day and then later reprised his role in "The Longest Day." But your father was there too.

Ms. MASTERS: It's an amazing story. You know, I had the chance to go there a couple of summers ago, and I'd never actually seen it before. But they sent in these gliders beforehand. They wanted to hold these couple of bridges, one of them was Pegasus Bridge. They were key supply roots as the Allied troops advanced. And they didn't want the Germans to destroy them.

So my father's job - the gliders went in first and they were supposed to kind of crash land, quite quietly, because they were gliders, and take the bridges. My father followed with this very heavy rope and the bicycle. Apparently it was a very difficult act to bike and rope at the same time, but he did it. And the idea was that the bridge had been blown out. They were gonna kind of jerry-rig the rope across the river and try to re-supply the troops by using dinghies, rubber dinghies and this rope. But fortunately, he got to the bridge. It was still there. He was very pleased. He dumped the rope and he was free to bicycle around and continue advancing into Normandy.

CONAN: And to continue our cinematic's leitmotif, if you will…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …he then is sent ahead on a reconnaissance into a village where he thinks this is suicide.

Ms. MASTERS: Yes. He - it's a dark part of the story. I mean, obviously this was very terrifying and there were lots of, you know, people being shot and killed. And as his bicycle troop went forward, the lead bicyclist was shot in the head and the rest of the troop took cover in behind some sort of hillock.

And my father's commander told him to go and see where - go see what was going on ahead in the road. And my father thought he was supposed to sort of slip stealthily around and spy on these guys. And the commander told him no, he had to walk down the center of this road. And my father realized with horror that he was supposed to draw enemy fire and they were supposed to figure out where this fire was coming form.

So he thought back to this movie that he had seen with Cary Grant, "Gunga Din," where they're surrounded by enemies, and Cary Grant yells out, you're all under arrest. And you can actually see this on YouTube, if you go to the story on "The Daily Beast" about my father …

CONAN: And there's a link to it on our Web site at npr.org.

Ms. MASTERS: And at NPR, okay. You can see the scene of "Gunga Din" that inspired - like everything else, it's on YouTube. But - so he walked down the road and yelled in German, you know, you're all surrounded, give up, it's finished for you. And a German did pop up from behind the parapet and take a shot at him and missed. And my father shot back and missed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: And he then fell on his stomach and his gun was jamming, and he was trying desperately to reload that gun and get it cleared. And he was pretty much, you know, thinking that all of his training had gone to waste and he was done for. And he then heard a noise behind him and his troop was charging ahead. And you know, the conclusion of that story is that the couple of Germans in a ditch were shot by one of the British soldiers.

And when they went over to take a look at them, they saw these extraordinarily young - one of them was 15 years old, the other was 17. And they were sort of appalled that they had shot kids that young. Of course they had to. And the British soldier asked my father how he would say in German that he's sorry for having shot them.

CONAN: Which is, in many ways, the point of your story in "The Daily Beast," which is that your father and the other men like him that returned to Europe after escaping European - the oppression of the Nazis, were soldiers, and they were men, and they were not out there to collect scalps.

Ms. MASTERS: No. Several of these guys, of course, are still alive - Peter Terry, Tony Firth, Manfred Ganz, who went back to his German name, was extraordinarily courageous. He's this guy who, as I recount in the piece, as the war was winding down got a Jeep, heard his parents were still alive in concentration camp, and literally drove across occupied Europe, partly held by Germans, partly held by Russians, very chaotic and dangerous, and found his parents in the camps and gave them food and you know, obviously great encouragement, these emaciated people.

So these guys are around and they do feel - and for the most part, you know, just extremely proud of having served and proud of having served in a way that was very civilized, given that it was war, that they were not looking to exact vengeance on these guys. They said for the most part the prisoners that they took and interrogated were dispirited and kind of pathetic at that point in the war.

CONAN: We're talking with Kim Masters, author of "My Father, The Inglorious Basterd," for The Daily Beast.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And then there's this movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: Yes, that was the kick-off point for my writing this story, the Quentin Tarantino movie, which is about an American troop of Jewish commandos who are exhorted to scalp Nazis by their commander, Brad Pitt, and to carve swastikas in their heads and bludgeon them with baseball bats, and do the sort of thing that these commandos, the real commandos never - they were really, you know, horrified at that kind of thing.

My father told the story in his book about a friend of his who was ordered to shoot two prisoners by an officer because they had no one to guard these prisoners and they couldn't let them escape. And my father was just horrified, the guy who had to do the shooting was horrified. My father says in his memoir that he prefers to think he would have shot the officer rather than shoot these two prisoners. So that's the kind of standard that they held themselves to.

And the stories of abuse were very, very rare, you know? And I think that you could say they didn't want to tell them, but I believe they genuinely did not commit atrocities as a general rule and that were very elite and highly trained troops.

CONAN: And that among the things they are proud of also is that they went back as proud Jews, refuting, rebutting the image of the Jews being like sheep rounded to the concentration camps.

Ms. MASTERS: That was my father's main point when he wrote this memoir, "Striking Back," is that he didn't want people to believe that all Jews were herded like lambs to the slaughter, as he used to say, and that these Jews were fortunate to have an opportunity to fight back and were extraordinarily courageous. I mean, Peter Terry, who is in this article I wrote, was severely injured in D-Day, was in the hospital for seven months. These guys were brave fighters.

CONAN: And let's go back to the present day. They have not seen this film - or at least as of the writing of your piece they had not - but were a little appalled at the depiction of what, quote, "they," unquote, were supposed to have done. There's also an interesting story that you told us that the company that made this movie didn't want you to write this story.

Ms. MASTERS: No, they weren't, they weren't, you know, the Weinstein Company is very nervous, because they are in financial difficulty and many people - many observers in the Hollywood think that this film was - is critical to their survival and its performance. So they didn't want anything that might cast it in a negative light, and they've put a lot of pressure and, you know, the producer said to me that he would want these guys to see the movie and he would really feel that we shouldn't damage the movie.

You know, I said to him, maybe, maybe you should have waited a little while, because, you know, they're still around, they can still tell the story. If you'd waited five, 10 years, maybe they wouldn't be. These guys are all in their late 80s or even 90s and, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: But for them, this is not something that happened that's a fantasy. That this isn't like, you know, doing something that happened in the Middle Ages or, you know, 100 years ago. This is their lives and this is their story that they're very proud of and they certainly don't appreciate this portrayal.

CONAN: And they did know the real story because at one point there had been some discussion of, well, optioning your father's book.

Ms. MASTERS: Yeah. Ironically, the Weinstein brothers talked about - went quite far down the road toward optioning my father's book. And ultimately the deal -even though it had been announced, it didn't really materialize.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: And then they ended up making this movie instead. And, you know, Harvey Weinstein is a Jew and a guy who supports Jewish causes. He has support from the Anti-Defamation League. They say this movie is some kind of - a sort of a fable or an allegory. And certainly, Neal, if you see the movie, you cannot take it seriously, I hope…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: …and think that this stuff really happened. But what's bothering me as I wrote this piece was that several people, sophisticated people, including a very sophisticated Hollywood producer, asked me if "Inglourious Basterds" was based on a true story. And of course it's - you could say there is a true story, but it's the opposite of based on that story. It's the diametric opposite of what the true story is.

CONAN: And I - there are so many movies made that, you know, based on a real story - and you know the facts are significantly altered in important respects. And they have to be the fit a scenario. And Quentin Tarantino has made some wonderful movies and people say he's an auteur - I'm leaving you with 30 seconds, Kim, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASTERS: Well, he's gotten wildly mixed reviews on this one. And you know, it's performed quite well, so clearly people find it entertaining. I guess I just hope that people understand that this is complete fantasy. I think David Denby in The New Yorker called it a nut-brain fable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kim Masters, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. MASTERS: Thank you.

CONAN: We have a link to Kim Masters' article, "My Father: The Inglorious Basterd," at our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kim is also the host of THE BUSINESS, a public radio show about the business of entertainment, produced by KCRW.

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