Monday, 2 May 2011

Retrospective: Django (1966)


On Saturday, it was revealed that Quentin Tarantino's much anticipated Spaghetti Western will be Django Unchained, inspired by the Django series that started in 1966 and launched the career of star Franco Nero, with whom Tarantino is reportedly collaborating alongside Christoph Waltz. For those who haven't heard of or seen it, consider this article your 101 on all things Django, so that you may go forth and dazzle your film geek friends... before running off to buy the DVD of this great among the Spaghetti Westerns.

Among genre aficionados, director Sergio Corbucci is known as 'the other Sergio'. What sounds like a slur actually references two careers that mirrored each other closely, albeit with Leone going on to mainstream success and widespread acclaim while Corbucci remained the cult favourite. A Fistful Of Dollars is often cited as the film that kicked off the spaghetti western boom in 1964, but like many great inventions, Corbucci and Leone had the same idea at the same time, specifically to relocate Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo to an Old West setting. (Ironically, Yojimbo was itself a Japanese relocation of Dashiell Hammett's American novel Red Harvest). Leone got his film into cinemas first and claimed the glory for establishing a new tone and look for the genre - as well as walking straight into a lawsuit by Yojimbo's producers - but Django, released two years later in 1966, went on to have no less significant long-term impact.
 
Corbucci's film is the trashier cousin to Leone's gritty but artistic approach to the Western. If Fistful's most notable contribution to the genre was blurring moral boundaries between the good and bad guys, Django operated in a similar grey area but amped up the violence and sadism to levels that saw it banned in several countries, including the UK. Leone's West is a place of gangs, thieves and outlaws battling for supremacy, but handled with an ironic and artistic touch. Corbucci has no such restraints: his West is a filthy, cruel place where there is no victory without suffering and the weak are mercilessly sent to the slaughter by the strong (no more horrifyingly realised than in his later film The Great Silence). When Leone's characters dance with death, it is presented in elegant and meaningful images. In Django, death is no more than the zero-sum game of one man's continued existence at another's cost, a brutal spectacle that ultimately signifies nothing. Corbucci's cynical approach to on-screen violence remains his most tangible legacy outside his cult fanbase, with which later revisionist Westerns (arguably including Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) share more in common than Leone.


That isn't to say Corbucci is a director without nuance: his opening image of Django is a perfect symbol of the burden of death weighing on the shoulders of the people populating the film. After inviting audiences to speculate as to what is in the coffin that Django drags behind him, Corbucci reverses expectations at the big reveal in one of the film's most notorious sequences. The man who once seemed unable to escape death instead becomes its harbinger. Leone's protagonists may be closer to their antagonists than in the films of John Wayne, say, but Corbucci takes it a step further, suggesting that they are one and the same. His 'heroes' are delineated for being more successful bad guys than the others. Django has a little more respect for women than most, but treats the wanton taking of life with an indifference that few villains could match.

Though life and death may be meaningless in Corbucci's world, in contrast to Leone's determinedly apolitical landscapes, Django is a film very much the result of a political mindset prevalent in Italy at the time, causing some critics to deride it as 'anti-American'. The lust for money and power that is the downfall of the film's main characters has a strong stench of Marxism about it. Django, as a weapons trafficker, is a character whose existence is defined by capitalism, yet is repeatedly betrayed by his greedy impulses: it is hinted that his trade left him too far away to defend his wife (whose murder becomes his motivation in the film), while he later almost dies after diving into quicksand to recover stolen loot. It is telling of how little stock Corbucci puts in the concepts of heroes and villains that Django's protagonist appears to represent ideals that the director seems to despise.

Anti-American accusations were no doubt further fuelled by the decision to portray one of the gangs in dress identical to that of the KKK. In a post-Civil War setting, the image has a ferocious potency: the South may have been defeated, but through Corbucci's camera, the new rulers of the land are no more tolerant of strangers than the old ones. The ruling class, represented as Civil War military survivors, are sadistic and corrupt, while the working poor are the ones who suffer worst for the battles between them, such as the gravedigger who doesn't get paid for his extensive labour or the prostitute whom Django takes it upon himself to save. If you're looking for a second interpretation of the film, the prostitute is named María and it has been speculated that Django himself is an analogue for Christ. Religion certainly doesn't get a clear ride from the film: a priest is revealed as a spy (make your own reading of that) and subject to a fate that Tarantino borrowed in less graphic form for Reservoir Dogs. Having later made a cameo in Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django and now reportedly called upon Nero for his latest production, there can surely be no doubt as to how much of an influence Corbucci's film has had on Tarantino's work.


Yet for all the analysis and potential readings that can be made of Django, its success in becoming the most (in)famous of the Spaghetti Westerns outside Leone's oeuvre is down to it being, pure and simple, an enormously exciting and engaging film. For Leone fans, Corbucci's work represents the grimier side to the Italian West. What it lacks in the grace and cinematic scope of the Man With No Name trilogy, it makes up for in raw exploitation viscerality, a case in point being Django's final showdown in the cemetary contrasted against the climax to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. For those who find Leone's pace too measured (blasphemy!), Django is a more action-packed entry point into the genre. 

Star Franco Nero's physical similarities to Clint Eastwood betray the fact that he is playing a very different character. No Name is a neutral figure in emotional and political terms, where Django is revealed as more tragic and of a distinct political persuasion, with Nero giving a terrific performance sadly undermined in the English version by an horrific dub - as usual, there's no reason not to stick with the subtitled Italian original. Meanwhile, as Corbucci is to Leone, so too is Luis Bacalov's score to the work of Ennio Morricone: broader and less experimental, but with a dark and melancholy heart beating beneath its trashy exterior. Django is a fascinating parallel take on the same Yojimbo source material by two directors with much in common, yet producing films often in direct contrast to one another.

When I say Sergio Corbucci is the second best Spaghetti Western director who ever lived, it's a statement that has to be suffixed with the fact that Sergio Leone is, in my estimation, the greatest director who ever lived: no-one mocks Jesus for being second best to God, after all. Corbucci is the greatest kind of B-movie director, who combines the exploitation delight for violence and quick-fire thrills with a marked directorial signature and intelligence. Although it's a toss up between Django and the Klaus Kinski-starring The Great Silence for his masterpiece, don't overlook Navajo Joe (starring a young Burt Reynolds), The Hellbenders, The Mercenary or Compañeros either. Just make sure you don't end up watching any of the myriad Django films that followed (until Tarantino's is released, of course!), which stole the name to cash in on the popularity of Corbucci's film but bear no ressemblance to it whatsoever and are uniformly dire, even the 'official' sequel Django Rides Again, which stars Franco Nero but is more a lousy Rambo knock-off than proper Western.

(I originally wrote a version of this article as part of Flixist's Cult Club series of features)

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