Director: Sergio Corbucci
Writers: Sergio Corbucci (Story/Screenplay/Dialogue), Bruno Corbucci (Story/Screenplay/Dialogue), Franco Rossetti (Collaborating Writer), José Gutiérrez Maesso (Collaborating Writer), Piero Vivarelli (Collaborating Writer)
Cast: Franco Nero, José Bódalo, Loredana Nusciak
Running time: 87 minutes
Django, an outlaw gunslinger who drags with him a wooden coffin, arrives in a small town run by two rival gangs; an army of Mexican bandits and a division of the KKK. A barrage of violence soon erupts between all three as revenge, gold, and betrayal are all thrown into the mix.
With only one official sequel, (Django Strikes Again, made 20 years later), it’s estimated that there are a staggering 70 unofficial sequels bearing the Django character, not to mention the highly anticipated Tarantino effort, Django Unchained, soon to be released this winter. However, many of these so called sequels were renamed throughout France and Germany from original films, and some, of course, were simply unofficial sequels from the get-go, so it’s difficult to accurately judge just how many do exist. It is, however, clearly evident from this just how much of an impact the original Django had in Europe, and what it represented for the spaghetti western, proving that the character of Django is indeed one of Italy’s most prevalent anti-heroes ever to be put to film.
Dressed in black, chomping on a cigar and dragging a coffin through the damp, muddy exteriors of the west (as opposed to the dry and dusty landscapes we are so used to seeing), it’s evident from his introduction that Django (Franco Nero) is a character brooding with grief, anger and vengeance. He brings with him the overbearing imagery of death; through the loss of his murdered wife, he is a grieving man seeking vengeance and closure for the woman he once loved. The coffin is of course an obvious physical symbol of death, but throughout, when asked what or whom is inside (despite finding out later on), he replies simply: “Django”. This illustrates the magnitude of depth this character possesses, as if the man that walks alongside the coffin is the soulless ghost of the man inside; the man he once was, but can no longer be. Django is a lost soul who needs completion.
The aesthetic of Django, therefore, very much resonates with the theme of death that surrounds our character. The constant howling of the wind can be heard throughout the often de-saturated colour palate of grey cloudy skies, creating a chill to each scene, rather than the hot and sticky aesthetic applied to other films such as the Dollars Trilogy. The red hoods of Major Jackson’s (Eduardo Fajardo), gang of KKK affiliates stand out as danger signals, and the use of colour in Django is an important element. In various scenes, colour illustrates racial prejudice; the major doesn’t like Django (a man dressed in black), prefers the women of the whorehouse to wear green, and “his favourite colour is red.” The KKK despise Mexicans, and when the Major falls face-first in brown mud one can assume that this is Corbucci’s comedic attempt to comment on the stupidity of racism.
In the film’s first moments, Django watches from afar as a woman, later known as Maria (Loredana Nusciak), is captured, tied up and lashed by Mexican bandits after an attempted escape from the general who has kept her for his own ‘personal use’. However, these Mexicans are suddenly gunned down by five members of the KKK dressed in red hoods and scarves, who have arrived at the scene to punish Maria for running off in the first place. They threaten to burn her, as opposed to just treat her to a lashing; a threat that sees Django kindly step in and calm the situation with his lightning-fast gun-slinging skills, before taking Maria with him. The scene not only establishes the despicable values that the two gangs have towards women and against each other (which Django inevitably gets in the middle of later on), but it also establishes an immediate empathy for Maria, creating a bond between the gunslinger and the desperate female that will eventually grow stronger as the film progresses. This friendship ultimately takes away the ‘ghost’ that Django has become, and gives his life a purpose.
The film’s climax, set in a cemetery, resonates far more meaningfully here than in, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and whilst ending a traditional ‘spaghetti’ western amongst visuals of the dead is a reminder of what will eventually come, in Django, it also represents the possibilities of life, or, more to the point, Django’s new life to come. As Django hides behind a gravestone, propping up his gun with two broken hands (smashed by the butt of a Mexican’s rifle), his need to fight has for the first time become meaningful. He’s learnt that wealth and vengeance cannot fix the past, but, in fact, simply surviving the shootout with Major Jackson (the man responsible for his wife’s death) in the film’s climatic moments has the power to create a new life with Maria. Therefore, the scene is particularly important and ties up Django’s underlying themes poignantly.
However, despite the film’s deep central character and its obvious themes of racism and prejudice that brood amongst Django’s roots, on the surface lies a tightly executed and consistently exciting spaghetti western that challenges the existing genre, turning standard conventions into its own (to have our hero not entering on horseback was almost unheard of for the genre). Whilst other films feel slower in pace, taking their time to display their often far larger scopes, Django remains condensed. It doesn’t have that ‘wide’ feel of most westerns and it was one of only a few to be shot in 4:3 aspect ratio; it’s not about the landscapes here, it’s about the man himself.
Django is edgier in tone, more rough around the edges, than other westerns that come before. At times, it features examples of violence that are particularly relentless for 1966; not until Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) would we see anything close to some of the brutality depicted here, and even in Peckinpah’s notoriously-violent western, we never see such scenes as a man’s ear being cut and severed, before being fed to him to eat (an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs, perhaps?). We also have explosions and a multitude of rampant shoot-out scenes in which Django obliterates everything and everyone in his path, chewing up the scenery with his machine gun cannon, which, as we later find out, is what he hides in the coffin (Rodriguez clearly borrows this with El Mariachi & Desperado, swapping the coffin for a guitar case). It may seem extravagant and over the top at times, but it’s in there to mirror Django’s rage. It conveys that perfectly, plastering it on screen with a great magnitude of debris to go with it.
What’s more, Django’s narrative always flows smoothly; it never lags or plods, and remains focused throughout. Intertwined between the action is the tension-filled chemistry between Django and the two gangs, as well as a gold heist that plays out particularly well as Django tries to double-cross the Mexicans who assist him. All these elements play wonderfully against Django’s own thematic motives, creativing a lavish spectacle that we, as an audience, can only lap up.
The film’s performances are solid throughout, and Nero plays the titular role with a combination of grit and grace, possessing a visual presence that should easily be as iconic as Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’. Meanwhile, Corbuci directs with an honesty and depth, and the result is a meaningful and provocative film that never overshadows its place as an exciting genre movie, but instead, enhances it. With its surprising array of deep subtext, interesting and relevant characterisation, and a well-paced narrative that always pleases, Django is a smaller, but nevertheless, important spaghetti western that shouldn’t be dismissed. While it may not be as polished as the Leone films, it nevertheless deserves to stand alongside them honourably.