Monday, 18 June 2012

Django (1966)


Although Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) became the pin up poster boy of the spaghetti western cycle, it is arguably Sergio Corbucci’s Django which wielded the greatest influence on European westerns. The central character went on to feature in well over fifty spin offs, the vast majority of which, were unofficial. The success of the film in West Germany led too Italian actor Franco Nero forever being associated with the role, and almost every western he appeared in thereafter was promoted in West Germany as a Django picture. The reason its vast influence remains largely unrecognised, is that unlike Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, Django was not a commercial success in the United States. The influence of A Fistful of Dollars was not immediate; indeed most of the Euro-westerns released in the wake of Leone’s film were actually quite traditional. It is conceivable that this might have remained the case were it not for Sergio Corbucci who had clearly paid attention to the exaggerated style, cynicism, revisionism, and mythical anti-heroism that formed the basis of Leone’s westerns. Corbucci’s major innovation was to take these elements (minus the exaggerated stylisations) and push them to the extreme. If A Fistful of Dollars was pessimistic then Django had to be nihilistic. If the landscape seen in A Fistful of Dollars was dusty, dry, and sun baked then the landscape in Django had to be wet, muddy, and grey. The influence of A Fistful of Dollars can be felt in Django, yet at the same time Django is everything that A Fistful of Dollars is not.

The film signifies its offbeat and surrealist intent instantly with a credits sequence that sees the titular gunslinger dragging a coffin through an inhospitably barren landscape. The rain lashes down incessantly and the oozing muddy terrain provides a further obstacle to this horseless stranger; this grim vista is lessened somewhat however by the strident beauty of Luis Bacalov’s unforgettable theme song. The exteriors were all shot in Madrid, and the expert eye of cinematographer Enzo Barboni imbues the locations with a threatening bleakness. The first indication we get of Django’s almost supernatural ability to deal death is when he saves Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from the prospect of being burned alive by a group of red-hooded cutthroats in the employ of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). Though it has to be noted that while Django acts with customary cold bloodedness in the elimination of Jackson’s men, he stands idly by and watches from a distance as, just a few minutes before, Maria is subjected to a brutal whipping at the hands of a trio of sadistic Mexicans. This gives us our first indication of Django’s sympathies and his attitude to women. He makes it clear to the thankful Maria that his actions were entirely selfish, and develops a thread which runs throughout the film about challenges to conceptions of morality, ideals and beliefs. In the midst of this debate Django stands as a somewhat contradictory figure. His quest is purely one of revenge, but this doesn’t stop him from trying to become rich for example, or from callously using people who show sympathy to his cause. This builds a high degree of uncertainty; at no point in the proceedings does Django become a trustworthy protagonist.

The emotionless and implacable performance of Franco Nero only adds to this; the screenplay by Sergio and Bruno Corbucci is particularly evasive with regard to Django’s past, he fought in the Civil War, but this devastating conflict remains something of a vague backdrop, never referred to by Django, but utilised by the evil Major Jackson in order to continue his own personal war, and to facilitate his racial and class prejudices. A scene in which he and his grinning cohorts use a group of Hispanic peasants as target practice is emblematic of his attitude. Unfortunately he has even less character development than Django, and such moments of empty sadism render his character absurd. His red-hooded Klan-like followers contribute to an effective statement on racial prejudice, but for a Corbucci film Django is unusually light on political allegory. What it does have though is an unusual amount of imaginative and graphic violence. The keynote sequence sees Django open his coffin to reveal a huge machine gun, with which he lays waste to Jackson’s men amid the mud and decay of an unnamed border town. A duplicitous padre has his ear cut off and fed to him, and most painfully Django has his hands pulped for deceiving the Mexican bandits out of their gold; speaking of which the subplot involving Django teaming up with the Mexican’s and raiding a nearby military base for a huge cache of gold doesn’t quite fit the material. This plot development undoes the carefully constructed brooding intensity of the opening third of the film, and is a concession to the generic conventions of the traditional western that I found most unwelcome.

Although Django borrows the hackneyed narrative device of Yojimbo (1961) in which a man finds himself at the centre of two feuding factions, it is always made abundantly clear that Django exists in total opposition to Major Jackson. The town that forms the locus of these events is a remarkably downtrodden, desperate and desolate space; it is populated almost exclusively by prostitutes, and they are as clapped out and decaying as the rotting timbers of the saloon building. The filmmakers create a wasteland that might seem more at a home in a post-apocalyptic science-fiction film, and it’s only appropriate that the enigmatic figure of Django has an almost mythical quality about him. His dark heart, which beats only to exact revenge for the murder of his wife, matches the harsh and avaricious cynicism that lurks in every corner of this iniquitous world. Django is the first Euro-Western that contains no hope, no mercy, no trust, and no aspiration. It is the films attitude to humanity that wielded the greatest influence on the genre, and it is entirely appropriate that the film ends in a cemetery with Django achieving that for which he lives for.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. what a difficult film to write on! great job - particularly enjoyed the contradiction you observe betwixt Leone and Corbucci - how are these requested reviews working out for you Shaun?

  2. Hi there Mike - thanks for the kind words;

    Yeah not too bad, I've written three so far; LADYHAWKE, PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and this one. So far so good, in a way its nice having a couple of reviews decided for me, my problem is deciding what to actually write about, this remedies that slightly.

  3. Only just started getting into spaghetti westerns a year or so ago. Really enjoyed this, it's a much more bleak and dangerous than Leone's Dollars trilogy. Love the esthetic of using a mud (rather than dust) ridden town. Good write up.

    If you get a chance check out Django the Bastard - it's an interesting (if rather unrelated) spin off. Avoid Django Strikes Again though - despite bringing back Nero it's a horribly leaden (not to mention distractingly anachronistic) movie.

  4. Intriguing write up, Shaun. The dubbed version of this one is awful, one of the worst I've ever heard and the so far only time I've preferred a subbed version of an Italian version over the dubbed one. The subbed one also reveals more details that the English one does not.

  5. Agree re. the recommendation with Django il Bastardo - Luciano Rossi is brilliant as a demented bad guy. as ever.

  6. @ Jack - I hope you're enjoying your journey into the hard bitten cynicism and violence of the Spaghetti West. Unfortunately, and I'm sure you've had experience of this, some of the most intriguing and interesting titles remain tremendously difficult to get hold of. The only other DJANGO related picture I've seen is DJANGO KILL..IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! featuring Tomas Milian and Ray Lovelock, I reviewed it last year, and really enjoyed it. I shall keep a keen eye out for DJANGO THE BASTARD...many thanks!

    @ Brian - Yeah DJANGO suffers from legendary bad dubbing, but I refrained from writing about it in the review, so I'm glad you brought it. I always watch a film in its original languge if the option is available to me.

  7. Sounds awesome, I will be seeing and reviewing this one soon, as I was reading your review, images from Robert Rodriguez's Desperado and Clint Eastwood's nameless character movie came to mind...can't wait to see this one!

  8. I prefer the dubbed versions of these since these take place during an era of American history. Subbed is sometimes the only way to see one of them though. I must be in the minority regarding DJANGO THE BASTARD. Intriguing premise but lousy execution. The plot inspired HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER though so thats something.

  9. @ Franco - If you like Euro-Westerns you'll like DJANGO, for me this is a more influential film on the actual cycle than the DOLLARS pictures, whose main importance was their commercial success..though it has to be noted that the title character is to a certain extent modelled on Eastwood's 'Man With No Name'.

    @ Brian - You raise an interesting point about the geographical and historical settings of the Euro-Westerns, but I have to confess it's never really bothered me when they are subtitled. Despite the best dubbing efforts they are so obviously European movies, and exist in an alternate Euro-styled America that is often quite surreal and bizarre....sometimes the inclusion of subtitles completes this odd surreal flavour and adds to the enjoyment.

  10. Saw it and loved it; I forgot to mention the theme song on my review, but it was a truly awesome one. I love it when films do their own theme song, and this one was a especially great one. You were right, it was extremely atmospheric, I read that this was so because they filmed it during winter time, and it was raining a lot, but the director loved it, so they left the muddy, wet landscape.

  11. I'm glad you enjoyed it Franco! - I didn't know you'd reviewed it, I've been out of the loop over the last 3 or 4 weeks. I'll get myself over to TFC post haste to have a read. I think Luis Bacalov exceeded expectations with his musical contribution to DJANGO, it really is a very good soundtrack. And it's not just a simple imitation of Ennio Morricone either. It really is the mud that makes DJANGO!


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