by Steve Habrat
After the success of Sergio Leone’s violent 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, a whole slew of Italian directors scrambled to emulate Leone’s reinvention of the western. While many of the spaghetti westerns that were made in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars were overlooked or forgotten, some managed to recruit a following and for good reason. In 1966, director Sergio Corbucci released Django, which really sent Europe into a western frenzy and at the time happened to be the most violent film every made. By today’s standards, Django is rather tame aside from a certain scene featuring a man having his ear sliced off and then fed to him, but it still manages to get the adrenaline following for an hour and a half. Along with Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), Django stands as a shining example of the spaghetti western and one of the more fun exploitation films out there. It does have some shoddy craftsmanship in places (the dubbing leaves a lot to be desired, the cinematography is so grainy that the picture almost flashes at certain points, the music is a bit cheesy in places) but you can honestly say you’ve never seen a western quite like it. If the reckless violence and bad attitude don’t lure you in, wait until you get a load of Franco Nero’s brooding gunslinger Django, a nasty piece of work that tugs a mud-caked coffin behind him that conceals one hell of a deadly weapon. He almost looks like he stepped out of the coolest comic book you’ve never read.
After saving a prostitute named Maria (Played by Loredana Nusciak) from two bloodthirsty gangs, former Union soldier turned gun-slinging drifter Django (Played by Franco Nero) takes Maria under his wing and leads her to a nearby border town that is largely abandoned. Behind him, Django drags a mysterious coffin that he never lets out of his sight. Django and Maria take shelter at the town brothel, which happens to be the haunt of the two gangs that Django saved Maria from. It turns out that the two gangs, one being a KKK style cult led by Major Jackson (Played by Eduardo Fajardo) and the other being a trigger-happy gang of Mexican banditos led by General Hugo Rodriguez (Played by José Bódalo), are locked in a battle for the dying town and Django has unfinished business with the heads of both gangs. After a nasty confrontation with Maj. Jackson’s men, Django teams up with Gen. Rodriguez for a robbery that will make both Django and Gen. Rodriguez very wealthy men. Little does Gen. Rodriguez know that Django has plans of his own and that Maj. Jackson is responsible for the death of Django’s wife.
Quick to get into the savage gun battles, fistfights, and staring contests, Django is certainly a different breed of western, even when compared to Leone’s patient and thoughtful work. Corbucci doesn’t appear to have anything deeper on his mind and he is more concerned with getting to the next brutal confrontation between Django and anyone dumb enough to make him angry. Is there really anything wrong with this? No, not really. The film consistently keeps you glued to the action and you just can’t wait to see what is hidden inside Django’s coffin of death. In between the bloody showdowns, Corbucci builds a menacing and slightly creepy atmosphere in the confines of the ghost town and the local graveyard where most of the action takes place. The streets are muddy, the buildings collapsing, and the fences twisted beyond repair as storm clouds loom in the distance. It is the type of place that is so rough and tough, even the prostitutes get into muddy brawls in the streets. The graveyard is just as worse for wear, a dusty wasteland where jagged graves and dead trees barely stand against the howling winds and walls of dust. It certain is a grimy and vaguely apocalyptic vision where there are no heroes to make things right, just those looking out for number one and those who want to kill everyone in sight. Hell, these guys are so vicious; they don’t even flinch when they gun down the kindly bartender Nathaniel (Played by Ángel Álvarez).
While no one in Django gives an A-list performance, the players are all very memorable mostly because their characters are so colorful. Nero is the one in charge here as Django, a stone cold gunslinger who has hidden his heavy heart behind a brick wall. He has little use for Maria, who he saves from certain death and then largely ignores (Yeah, I haven’t quite figured that one out either.). He spends most of his time sitting in the brothel, sipping a glass of whiskey and waiting for Maj. Jackson to show up and pick a fight. Naturally he does and Django kills a shocking number of his men in the span of maybe five minutes. We don’t learn too much about this mysterious drifter, only that he is out for blood and that he fears no man. Nusciak is quiet and haunted as Maria, a beautiful prostitute who finds herself in love with the consistently distracted Django. We learn that Fajardo’s Maj. Jackson is one wicked guy as he picks off innocent Mexicans in the muddy streets just to let off a little steam. Bódalo’s Gen. Rodriguez is a sweaty brute that is constantly being saved by Django yet is quick to dish out a little revenge despite all he owes to the heartbroken drifter. Álvarez is sweet and timid as the shaky bartender who tries so desperately to keep the peace between everyone. His fate is the only moment where the viewer’s emotions are put to work.
Despite its stunning brutality, Django was a massive hit in Italy and it inspired a huge number of unofficial sequels that all managed to work Django into their titles yet have very little in common with Corbucci’s film. There was only one official sequel, Django 2: il grande ritorno, that did star Nero but wasn’t directed by Mr. Corbucci. For fans of exploitation cinema, it may interest you that Ruggero Deodato, the man responsible for Cannibal Holocaust, served as assistant director on Django. If you’re looking to jump into the spaghetti western subgenre, Leone’s marvelous trilogy and Corbucci’s Django are great places to start. You may want to ease in with Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars to really see if this is your bowl of pasta but if you are big on action, Django will really have you on the edge of your seat. It’s also worth checking out for the super catchy theme song that plays over the dreary opening credits (Good luck getting it out of your head!). Overall, Django is flawed but it also happens to be a gritty, savage, pulpy, and highly influential ride through the Wild West. If you’re a cinema geek, western fanatic, or exploitation guru, you may want to seek this sucker out. It truly is one of a kind.
Django is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Django Unchained (2012)
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.