By Michael McNulty
The steady plucking of an electric guitar explodes into the title theme, “Django, have you always been alone,” croons Luis Bacalov as a man in a heavy coat and black Stetson walks away from the screen dragging a heavy, muddied coffin along the ground and so opens Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western classic, Django.
It goes without saying that if there was no Django there would be no Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino spoke openly about the influence of Corbucci’s film on his. So let’s go back and look at where it all began. Corbucci, like many Italian directors, cut his teeth in the filmmaking world working on standard studio fare of the likes of epics and comedies. He didn’t direct his first Western until 1963, Red Pastures, followed later by Minnesota Clay and Johnny Oro (both made before Django, but released after).
Upon release Django was a massive success in Italy and transformed then unknown 23 year old, Franco Nero (who played the title role), into a big box office attraction. However, the film was also controversial in, what was deemed, its exploitative and excessive use of violence and banned from release in the UK and never finding a distributor in the US.
Although the story was conceived by Sergio and his brother Bruno (writing credits also include Franco Rossetti and Piero Vivarelli), the plot throws back to Sergio Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars (which throws back to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – it’s a bit like Russian nesting dolls). Django (Franco Nero) pits two feuding gangs against each other, Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and his band of quasi Ku Klux Klan racists and the boisterous, sadistic General Hugo (José Bódalo) and his army of Mexican bandits, in a rundown town, he has plans of his own and a score to settle. It standard stuff, but really that’s not the point here, because Corbucci’s film reimagines and subverts the genre, turning it into a gloriously blood soaked, mud caked beast of its own.
Corbucci’s west is a veritable wasteland, a torn up, muddy world that feels narrow and tight. The rundown town, populated solely by Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez) and his small stable of prostitutes, seems to exist as if suspended in its own nightmarish reality, serving more as a representation of Django’s warped psychological state.
Unlike the heroes commonly associated with the west, Django is void of morality. He is no hero, but a tortured remnant of the civil war, dressed in a battered Union uniform. He does not ride into town bringing with him the promise of order and instead walks in (he is never on a horse throughout the film), dragging a heavy coffin which when first considered could hint at the symbolic weight he carries as a result of the murder of his wife, but later proves to simply to be a functional case in which to carry a heavy machine gun.
The film plays out almost episodically and its surreal nature is heightened by the explosive violence. Here Corbucci knows no bounds and the bloody excess is frighteningly shocking. In one scene Major Jackson and his cronies, who sport red Klan masks that stick out against the bleak landscape, use captured Mexicans as clay pigeons, releasing them from a holding pen before gunning them down.
In another, the sweaty, corpulent General Hugo cuts off a priest’s, who is a Jackson sympathizer, ear and makes him eat it, before unloading a round of bullets into his back. There is no God in this country, a truth that is revisited in the final showdown.
To top it all off there is Franco Nero, who for many may appear to be a reimagining of Clint Eastwood’s a Man with No Name, but don’t let those piercing blue eyes and rugged good looks sell you short on a character and performance that is entirely its own. Django is firecracker of a film, 90 minutes of blood, mud and good ol’ fashioned gun slinging.