While Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West have always been the most famous Spaghetti Westerns in the United States, they are but four of an obscenely long list of Italian-Spanish-West German co-productions made of westerns, usually directed by Italians (hence “spaghetti”), that were far more popular in Europe than they ever were over here. If any one director could be said to rival Leone’s notoriety in the States, it’s another Sergio – Sergio Corbucci.
Corbucci made nearly 10 times as many films as did Leone in a variety of different genres. He’s a favorite filmmaker of mine, and already in this column I’ve written about his less-than-great Navajo Joe and his amazing but bleak The Great Silence. But today I’m going to talk about what is easily his most famous film, due in no small part to it being directly name-checked by Quentin Tarantino; 1966’s Django.
More or less the same story as Leone’s game-changing A Fistful of Dollars from 1964, Django is a much darker, dirtier, more violent film and one that pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in cinemas. While Eastwood’s Man with a Name but No Name for Marketing Purposes killed quite a lot of people, Franco Nero’s Django positively mowed people down and with a lot less of a twinkle in his eye. Nero was a lot younger than Eastwood and was chosen for the role because of his good looks and piercing blue eyes. He scruffed up in order to not be so baby-faced. Really, this is the most innocent part of the movie.
Django begins with our hero trudging through the gross, muddy landscape, dragging a coffin behind him. Quite a stark image to open on, especially when coupled with Luis Bacalov’s opening theme, sung in a very melodramatic style, which tells us just how sad Django is because he lost his woman. The setting is incredibly overcast and, it bears repeating again, incredibly muddy. Django’s Union Soldier blue pants and snappy black boots are soiled as soon as we begin. After the song, Django comes across a woman, Maria (Loredana Nusciak) we’ll soon find out, tied to a tree with some rough-looking Mexican banditos laughing and whipping her back. Django sees this happen and suddenly, all of the banditos fall to the ground dead in a quick BANG of gunfire. But it wasn’t Django; another group of men, this time white guys wearing red masks (a visual precursor to the Ku Klux Klan) walk up and begin threatening to do even worse things to Maria. Finally, Django trudges over and, after a brief exchange where we see how awesome he is, the racists are all dead by Django’s gun.
Just from that opening, we learn two very important things about our main character: he doesn’t care if a woman is getting hurt, something that traditional American western heroes would never stand for, and he kills the people he wants to kill, when he wants to kill them. It is soon learned that the red-hoods are all the henchmen of a Southern Gentleman (read: HUGE racist), Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), against whom Django has a grudge. Maria and Django, still dragging the coffin, head to the ghostiest of ghost towns you’ve ever seen in a movie. The only sign of life in the whole thing is a saloon with professional women and a bartender. The saloon only exists to supply Major Jackson’s men with liquor and women when they’re in town, and Mexican General Hugo (Jose Bodalo) and his men when they’re in town.
Django picks a fight with Jackson’s men and tells the old Civil War bastard to bring all the men he has left if he’s going to try to take him on again, leading to one of the tensest standoffs and most explosively awesome moments of violence in the whole of western cinema. It all involves what may or may not be in that coffin Django keeps with him at all times. After Django emerges victorious, General Hugo and his men come in to town and Django begins the next part of his scheme: to convince Hugo to steal from a weapon shipment in order to then steal gold which Django in turn intends to steal out from under their noses as Major Jackson’s men come back to fight the Mexicans. This plan doesn’t go quite the way he hopes, though, leading to a pretty dour but ultimately satisfying ending, in which literally only two characters in the whole film aren’t dead.
There are lots of very famous imagery in Django, including the coffin and the masked men walking into the ghost town, but also some infamous scenes of violence. One such example is when the corrupt religious man, who is part of the red hoods, gets his ear cut off and stuffed into his mouth for being a coward. The effect isn’t the best (you can still see the man’s actual ear underneath the pile of red paint they used for blood) but it’s a shocking thing to see depicted in a movie like this, in 1966, inflicted on a religious figure. That scene was taken for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, of course. And to further prove how bad the racist red hoods are, we have a scene in which Major Jackson, in between eating fine food and drinking wine, has Mexican peasants released from a pen and told to run up a hill, just so he and his friends can have target practice. Real nice guy, that Jackson.
Django is certainly one of the better Spaghetti Westerns, and one of my favorite Corbuccis, but it’s also one of the most important in the whole genre. So astoundingly popular was Django that just having the name “Django” in the title of your cheaper, crappier knock-off film meant it too would probably do very well. A whole string of unofficial sequels followed, with “Django” (who often wasn’t even called that within the movie itself) played by other Euro-western figures like Anthony Steffen, Terence Hill, George Eastman, Tomas Milian, and even Lee Van Cleef one time. There was only ever one official sequel, starring Nero, made in 1987. It’s terrible.
If you’re going to watch one of these non-Leone Spaghetti Westerns, Django is an excellent place to start. It’s got all the action you could hope for, some really excellent imagery and shots, and is notable for just how violent and dark (it feels, at times, like you’re watching a zombie movie) it is. I would, however, recommend watching the lovely Italian-language track because the English-language dub is particularly awful, as you can see from the trailer above. It’s like they didn’t even try to make the sentences make sense. But, if laughing at bad dubbing is your thing, then you’ll have double the good time.
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Evidently, the El Rey Network will be showing a Django marathon on the 31st of January consisting of this very film, followed by another movie I reviewed, Django Kill…If You Live Shoot!, and another Franco Nero western, Keoma. That begins at 2:00pm ET, January 31st, on the El Rey Network.