Initial release: April 6, 1966
Director: Sergio Corbucci
When it comes to so-called spaghetti westerns (a term that in recent years has rightly been called out as silly,) the genre’s fame can really be traced to two Sergios, and one Akira. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars came out in 1964 to critical acclaim; it was so similar to Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic Yojimbo that Kurosawa sued — and won. But then there’s the other Sergio — Corbucci, that is. Django, Corbucci’s 1966 entry into the burgeoning Italowestern genre, showed the world a different side of Italy’s darker, more morally ambiguous take on what was originally fundamentally an American genre. It was also another ripoff of Yojimbo. Why did Kurosawa sue one and not the other? Perhaps he felt the cat was already out of the bag and he’d made his feelings known. Or perhaps he thought Django wasn’t as similar. Whatever the case, Corbucci’s take is grim and filthy, possessed of a twisted sense of humor; it doesn’t have the same kind of sweeping dramatic flair of Leone’s films but instead emphasizes the stuff that really matters in westerns. (This isn’t to say that Leone doesn’t do that; rather, it’s that they have differing visions.)
Django opens with a theme song that will be familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino; it’s a hell of a way to open your film, and has definitely inspired imitators (see And God Said to Cain for a really good example.) The image of a lone gunslinger dragging a coffin behind him is a striking one, the kind of identifying quirk that sets Django apart from a legion of other gunfighting heroes. He soon situates himself in the middle of a war between a group of Mexican revolutionaries and a gang of red-scarved proto-Klansmen, run by the ex-Confederate officer that Django is looking for, and manipulates both sides for his own ends.
Django draws a lot of his personality from the Samurai with No Name of Yojimbo and Sanjuro. He exudes a kind of nihilistic sass that alienates him from most people who might otherwise be allies; he’s only ever actually nice to the female characters, at worst merely polite as he includes them in his schemes. Unlike the taciturn heroes of other westerns (particularly the ones Clint Eastwood plays) Django is almost faster with a quip or an insult than he is with his gun. And he’s pretty darn fast with that thing. A lot of his behavior is puzzling, even for an anti-hero. In one sequence, he talks the leader of the revolutionaries into staging a raid on a Mexican army fort to steal gold that is stored there, resulting in the deaths of many (relatively) innocent soldiers. (Another question that the film doesn’t answer is why Django’s nemesis, Major Jackson, would be at the fort, given his racist attitudes towards Mexicans. My guess is that he was being used as a proxy by the Mexican government against one of the many insurgencies that wracked Mexico throughout the early 1870s.)
Django is kind of a crazy movie in general. It’s more of a feeling, or a vibe, than anything coherent; when Django opens up that coffin and reveals the enormous rotary cannon that he then uses to mow down the majority of the red-sacked Klansmen, it’s in the middle of the film, rather than the film’s climax. It only gets crazier from there, from the raid on the fort to Django having a knock-down drag-out fight with a revolutionary who got abusive with one of the brothel girls (and it’s not the only such fight: some of the girls actually straight up fight in the muddy street at one point in the film.) Mud plays a low-key but important role in the film; rather than the dusty streets of your typical western town, the film was shot in late 1965 on Italy’s west centeral coast after there’d been some serious rain; the streets are muddy and filthy. Interestingly enough, Corbucci had originally wanted a snowy setting, anticipating his later film The Great Silence, which alongside Django and The Specialists forms an unofficial trilogy of cynical, violent westerns called the “Mud and Blood” trilogy. A key scene late in the film has Django trying — and failing — to rescue his gold-filled coffin out of a mudpit. In the film’s final scene, the already emotionally broken man is left physically broken, his hands shattered by the revolutionaries in retaliation for his actions, and with Major Jackson seeking him out. Leaning on the headstone of his wife’s grave, he is naturally a figure of mud and blood, trying to take the trigger guard off his pistol in preparation for Jackson’s arrival. This isn’t a symbolic resurrection; this is a broken man doing whatever it takes to achieve his goal, because he has nothing else.
Django is one of the classics of the genre, and for good reason. It’s not the bloody drama of a Leone film or the sweeping splendor of a John Ford film; it’s simple, unpretentious pulp, with a hero who’s as funny as he is unlikeable. It was filmed on the cheap, shot in a hurry, badly dubbed (seriously, it’s 90s anime quality) and produced with an increasingly bloodthirsty American audience in mind. To that end it’s a success, and what a success: dozens of unofficial sequels and spinoffs were produced, some featuring Django as played by another actor, others not even relating to Django except through the title. Quentin Tarantino would of course pay homage to Django and its mountain of ripoffs with his own film, Django Unchained; go here to see my review of it. Ultimately while there are plenty of other, better (if lesser-known) Eurowesterns (Cemetery Without Crosses will likely linger with me for a long time,) it’s worth remembering that Django paved the way for them with that coffin of his.