After hearing about the leaked title for Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, I decided to check out the originator of the film title, the original Django. Obviously Tarantino has been aching to make his version of a spaghetti western for quite some time. In fact, he has wanted to make a spaghetti western so badly that when it came time for him to make his WWII film, Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino made a spaghetti western on accident.
Django stands out as an early spaghetti western that helped establish the tone and themes of the genre. In fact the film became so popular that studios started slapping the name Django onto all of their westerns, which resulted in hundreds of unofficial sequels that really had nothing to do with the original Django. Franco Nero inhabits the iconic titular character who manages to match Clint Eastwood’s disquietingly monosyllabic man-with-no-name character. The plot borrows elements from A Fist Full of Dollars (which in turn borrowed elements for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which in turn borrowed elements from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest). I won’t hold the fact that Django is a twice told tale against it, since most of these films trade in homage and bricolage anyway and because director Sergio Corbucci brings an economic style that marks the film has wholly his own.
Early in the movie, the titular hero, Django, who appears to drag a coffin with him wherever he goes, saves a woman, Maria, from being flogged to death at the hands of an unruly mob. He brings her back with him to a nearby town that is nearly abandoned except, naturally, for a whorehouse, which happens to employ Maria. The residents of the town have been trapped between two warring factions, a rogue contingent of the Mexican army and a gang of Southern white supremacists. Django appears disinterested in these small town politics at first—a position reinforced by Nero’s minimalist performance—but we eventually come to understand that Django carries around more baggage than that old coffin.
As for what is inside the coffin, I won’t ruin the surprise, although the trope has been borrowed often, specifically in the space-western anime, Trigun, that you likely have a good guess already. I will say, however, that the item in question becomes an all purpose device, serving as means for Django to carve a way out of a corner he has trapped himself in and, later on, as a macguffin to drive the plot forward. Of the two gangs, the ex-Confederate, white supremacists are the most menacing. These men wear red, pointed hoods that are obviously reminiscent of the KKK and capture and release Mexican farmers so that they can shoot them down like pheasants. Naturally, they don’t take kindly to the Django’s Union uniform.
The film itself is decidedly low rent. We are told that the town Django stumbles into is deserted because of the warring gangs, but most audiences know that the town is deserted because extras cost money. Unlike some of Sergio Leone’s westerns, Django doesn’t transcend the genre (it’s less Raiders of the Lost Ark and more The Rocketeer). At times the commanding score by Luis Bacalov appears to be the only thing keeping the flimsy sets standing. And yet it’s impossible to hold all of the films B-movie trappings against it, and not only because the filmmakers do a tremendous job with so little. One of the joys of the spaghetti western is that the genre has been emptied out. All of the weight of American myth, the trappings of manifest destiny, the world wearied job of nation building, have been dropped in favor of the truly essential elements of the genre, and then the filmmakers proceeded to push these elements to the breaking point. Unlike John Wayne and John Ford who became responsible for galvanizing the country around symbols of America, Carbucci and Leone had no such responsibilities. They saw the western genre for what it was: a fiction. They have not lied to themselves that these stories are anything other than movies removed by centuries, an ocean, and a few tropes from their source material. Spaghetti westerns are less concerned with the American west than they are with American movies.
I suppose this is why spaghetti westerns have captured the imagination of contemporary filmmakers like Tarantino, Takeshi Miike, and Jee-Woon Kim. Spaghetti westerns are movies about movies, the sort of meta-narratives that appeal to film nerds who have consumed the entire repertoire of whole directors. It is also the reason why Django feels light footed, making its way from scene to scene without the burden of history. It is also why, as much as I love some of the work by Ford and Hawks, when it comes to stories about stoic men with a fast draw, I’ll take Leone, Carbucci, Eastwood, and Nero every time.
Oh, and the film has one hell of a theme song: