You can’t read a review for Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained at the moment without mention of the two films that have supposedly influenced it more than any other: Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western Django. I had the opportunity to watch the latter of these two today, and thought it might be a good idea to check it out before seeing Tarantino’s latest.
Tarantino certainly isn’t the first director to be influenced by Corbucci. For starters the Django moniker was used in over hundred sequels, none of which are a match for the original by the sounds of things, and all of which were unofficial. (Django Kill seems to have attracted cult status in the ensuing decades and I’ve made a mental note to watch it if I ever get the chance. I expect QT has sat through most of the Django films, if not all of them. Five times.) Four Django films appeared in 1966, the same year as the original’s release; Corbucci and star Franco Nero only returned for 1987’s Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno (Django Strikes Again).
George Lucas famously mined the spaghetti western genre for ideas, and you can see references in his Star Wars films to Django both in the name Jango Fett (used in his later trilogy) and the clothing worn by Han Solo in Episode IV: A New Hope. Step forward Brian De Palma, too, who surely must have had Django in mind when constructing Scarface‘s epic ‘say hello to my little friend’ finale, which echoes a brilliant one-man-stand scene in Corbucci’s film. Robert Rodriguez has also found himself under the influence of Django‘s charms, and there’s even a nod to the character in the manga hit Fist Of The North Star.
But is it any good? Well, perhaps that’s not the point. Straight away I ought to mention that Django isn’t in the same class as Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, although Nero’s character does exude the same cool, distant loner vibe as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (though tellingly Django came out two years after A Fistful of Dollars, which had been a huge success in Italy). It doesn’t help that the plot is reasonably similar to the first film in Leone’s trilogy, either. Holed up in a border town, Django quickly finds himself caught up in the middle of the Mexicans and the local Americans (in the form of a racist lynch mob similar to the Klu Klux Klan, led by the ruthless Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo)), and tries to outwit both while making off with local prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak).
The dubbing’s terrible, due to poor performances by the American voiceover actors, and the deaths are vastly over the top, but it all ends up being part of the charm. Why simply fall to the floor when you get shot when you could, in fact, stumble backwards, spin round, trip on a rock, throw yourself up in the air and come crashing down in some quicksand? At one point a character is shot three times by a shotgun, but gets back up three times, brandishes a sword, and finally realises the ridiculousness of his actions. He decides to fall glassy-eyed at long last, with some semblance of dignity rescued. Django is great fun, with characters dropping to the ground seconds before they’re actually shot, and several set-pieces where the sharpshooting hero is vastly outnumbered but manages to outwit his opponents with a ludicrously-fast trigger finger and the odd moment of ingenuity. You can see why, despite its faults, so many directors have turned to it for inspiration.
With its put-upon bar owner, slimy padre and monosyllabic anti-hero, Django is a mass of frontier cliches, but it simply doesn’t matter. Everything that’s good about the western is here, and to cap it all there’s an extra level of bloody violence that caused the film to be banned in the UK on release. Many of Corbucci’s films contained scenes of mutilation, and here Django’s hands are broken in a brutal fashion.
When the film premiered on TV in the UK in 1993, the filmmaker and presenter Alex Cox pointed out that the name Django was “a sick joke on the part of Corbucci and his screenwriter-brother Bruno”; it seems to make reference to jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who was able to play the guitar despite having several fingers paralyzed on his left hand. Reinhardt, like the titular character in Corbucci’s film, was able to overcome this disability.
Corbucci chose to shoot in the 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the spaghetti western norm of widescreen Techniscope. His frames are tightly packed, filled with characters and, on occasion, set up spectacularly. He makes great use of the silhouettes of posts, grave markings and buildings that form the muddy border town in the film, forming strange criss-cross slashes and patterns across the screen. At times it’s a visual treat, and you can see why Quentin Tarantino would hold the film so dearly to his heart.
Django isn’t subtle: the climactic shootout takes place at the grave of the woman he once lost (yadda yadda) at the hands of arch-enemy Jackson, there’s little in the way of character development, and the plot simply gets in the way of the action. But this is a prime example of a spaghetti western: bloody, frenetic, bright and colourful, and containing a flawed hero that stands up to a larger, oppressive evil foe. It is dirty, mean, lean and – actually for the mid-60s – quite a brave film in its approach, on occasion, to violence. It’s simple fun and its cheaply-made thrills are worth watching, whether you’ve seen Tarantino’s Django Unchained or not.
Directed by: Sergio Corbucci
Written by: José Gutiérrez Maesso, Piero Vivarelli
Starring: Franco Nero, Loredana Nusciak
Running Time: 97 Minutes