Saturday, September 19, 2009


Challenge ten people at random to write a synopsis of their favourite western, and I'm betting at least eight out of the ten would start "Deke/Zeke/Jake [delete as applicable] rides into town and ..."

In Sergio Corbucci's 'Django', the eponymous anti-hero walks into town and ...

Whoa. Let's back up a moment. Django (Franco Nero) doesn't even get into town before his misadventures start. Dragging a coffin behind him, Django arrives at a rope-bridge on the outskirts of town where he witnesses a group of Mexicans flogging a woman, Maria (Loredana Nusciak). Before he can intervene, the Mexicans are gunned down by a bunch of Yankees. Rather than rescuing Maria, however, it's their intent to tie her to a cross and burn her. This time Django does intervene.

So: body count already in double figures, a heroine who's earned the disapprobation of rival factions, and an enigmatic outsider about to play those selfsame antagonists off against each other. And we're only five minutes into the movie. Our boy hasn't even opened that coffin yet ...

Once in town, Django encounters the sadistic and xenophobic Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a man who gets his kicks forcing Mexican peasants to run for their life then shooting them in the back. He commands a private army (their uniform: KKK-style face masks, only red instead of white) as well as holding a post at a nearby US cavalry fort. A bar-room altercation sees Jackson's henchmen dead. Django casually enquires how many men he's got left. Forty-eight, Jackson replies. Django casually invites him to come back with all of them. Jackson obliges.

This is where our boy opens the coffin.

So: body count now pushing three figures courtesy of an off-the-wall shoot-out that most films would have saved for the denouement, and we've still got the little matter of Mexican revolutionary General Hugo Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo), his relationship with Django, their collaboration on a daring robbery at the very same US fort Major Jackson's affiliated with, and acts of betrayal and counter-betrayal that set up a truly excruciating finale where Django, his hands broken in a retributive beating, has to go up against his erstwhile antagonist while he can't even hold a gun, let alone pull the trigger.

Made in 1966, 'Django' was a cheaply and quickly produced spaghetti western, badly dubbed and aimed squarely at the American market. It became a phenomenon, spawning at least thirty sequels (only one of which, the slightly disappointing 'Django Strikes Again', was an official, linear follow-up with Nero reprising the title role). Countless other spaghetti westerns were quickly retitled to include the name Django, even though the character makes no appearance. Takeshi Miike's recent 'Sukiyaki Western Django' sets itself up as a bizarro prequel.

It also established Corbucci as the most popular and influential director of spaghetti westerns after Sergio Leone. Both were admirers of Kurosawa and saw 'Yojimbo' at impressionable stages in their careers. It's no coincidence that their breakthrough films - 'Django' for Corbucci, 'A Fistful of Dollars' for Leone - display similarities to Kurosawa's samurai classic.

'Django', though, ups the ante on even Leone's amoral reworking of 'Yojimbo'. Django is one of the genre's most inscrutable protagonists: he announces himself as Django, but refers to what's in the coffin as Django. He even refers to wanting to bury Django. Of course it's a fucking big gun in the coffin, not a person, so is Django admitting that he's lived by the gun for so long that he's lost his humanity to it, that the gun itself is Django and he's simply the mode of transport that hauls from one town to the next, one killing to the next? He has a grudge against Major Jackson over the killing of a former girlfriend, but the backstory is never revealed. Django saves Maria, but seems to abandon her to Rodriguez later on. The only other woman he takes an interest in, he uses to stage a diversion so he can steal off with a consignment of gold.

But he's angel compared to Jackson and Rodriguez. These two set the standard for corruption. Everyone's dirty. Even the town itself is a feculent mud-hole.

Corbucci ups the ante on the violence, too. There are fist fights, whippings, emasculation, death by pick-axe, a pre-'Reservoir Dogs' bit of ear-slicing and whole swathes of extras mown down when Django cuts loose with the Gatling gun.

And yet it's more than just a cheapie exploitationer. Enzo Barboni's cinematography is exceptional, Corbucci's direction is assured (in addition to the prerequisite shoot-outs and bar-room brawls, he pulls off an extended scene of Hitchcockian tension as Django attempts to abscond with the gold), and the film is rich in ambiguous imagery. Particularly religious imagery. Crosses are everywhere, from the marquetry on the top of Django's coffin, to the burning crosses Jackson's men carry, to the headstones in the cemetery where Django's final confrontation with Jackson occurs.

There's even a striking scene of Django, broken and remorseful, kneeling before a cross.

Umm. No. Wait. He's using it to aim his gun.


Samuel Wilson said...

When I first saw Django (it was an Anchor Bay VHS) I hated it. The business with the coffin and the Gatling gun seemed utterly ridiculous in an unacceptable way. But this was at a time when I had very little experience of spaghetti westerns outside of the Leone films. With more experience has come greater tolerance for the genre's exaggerations. I have not seen Django since that first time, though I have seen The Great Silence, which did much to redeem Corbucci for me. I even like Minnesota Clay for what that's worth. I suspect that when I get around to watching Django again, I'll think better of the film.

Neil Fulwood said...

You're right: the spaghetti western genre is heavy on exaggeration. I think that's why I responded so well to 'Django'. When I first saw it, I knew nothing of spaghetti westerns beyond Leone's "Dollars" trilogy; I was more schooled in American westerns. 'Django' was a world away from the clear moral delineations of John Ford or the classicism of Anthony Mann. And I particularly loved the fact that - in a total break from just about every other western ever made - the (anti) hero didn't ride into town. He walked. Dragging a coffin behind him.