With Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained coming to theaters in just a few weeks, it seems appropriate to share a little information about the original Django, as well as the spaghetti western genre.
As far as the uninformed and uninitiated are concerned, when it comes to spaghetti westerns, only one director made films of merit. That director, of course, was Sergio Leone, who made five westerns—four of which deserve their reputations of being among the best westerns of all time. Leone was head and shoulders the best of the filmmakers cranking out spaghetti westerns, but he was not alone (there were, after all, over 600 Eurowesterns produced), but within the rank and file of journeyman directors churning out largely forgettable crap, there were some talented filmmakers. Arguably the best of the spaghetti western directors who was not Sergio Leone was the other Sergio—Corbucci. Once Leone and his films are removed from the equation, a different stick must be used for measuring the spaghetti western. Director Sergio Corbucci’s Django is that stick.
Not as well known or respected by the mainstream as Leone (or perhaps I should say “uniformed American audiences who think they know something about film, but don’t really know jack or shit”), Corbucci was responsible for an incredible list of westerns. Corbucci directed fifteen westerns—some of which rank as the best of the genre—making him responsible for more great westerns than even Leone. In fact, one of his films is considered by some to be the greatest spaghetti western of all time (which I’ll get to later).
Corbucci had already made three other westerns when he directed Django, a film that on the surface was little more than a rip-off of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. And yet Django manages to stand on its own merits as a classic, emerging as a more pure representation of the genre. From the opening scene, with Django (Franco Nero) dragging a coffin behind him through the mud, you know you’re in for something special. Mere moments after our hero wanders into town, he’s forced to massacre the local scumbags, with the aid of the Gatling gun he carries in his coffin, and it isn’t long before more hot lead starts flying, and the bodies start piling up in one of the greatest GGM (Gatling Gun Massacres) of the genre. As it turns out, Django is in town to avenge the murder of his wife—a mission that finds him caught in the middle of bloody feud between two gangs, one of which is a bizarre KKK-type group, decked out in red hoods. There are more shoot outs, more bodies piling up, a double-cross or two, and in the end, Django must face an army—with both of his hands smashed to bloody pulps.
Although not his first western, and arguably not his best, Django is the film that established Corbucci as a force to reckoned with in the genre, and would lead him down a path that resulted in some of the best westerns to come out of Europe. Where Leone’s first two films were revisionist explorations of the American western, Corbucci’s Django was a revisionist exploration of Leone’s revisionist exploration. It almost plays as if the only westerns Corbucci had ever seen were A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. The result is a film brimming with graphic violence, and a stylized sensibility that seems to have sprung from the pages of a comic book.
Part of what makes Django such and incredible film is the star-making performance of 25-year-old Italian actor Francesco Sparanero, better known as Franco Nero. The actor’s first spaghetti western was Albert Band’s Tramplers, and he would go on to appear in films like Camelot, and director John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning. But it’s Django that catapulted him to super stardom. Like so many of the other gunslingers to appear in the Eurowesterns of the 1960s, Nero was little more than an imitation of Clint Eastwood, meant to cash in on the popularity of the American actor that had quickly come to define the anti-hero of the spaghetti western. But just as Django proved to be a worthy film in and of itself, Nero proved himself to be far more than an Eastwood imitator. Eastwood’s characters were tame by comparison to Nero’s coffin-dragging gunslinger, who was unlike any hero found in American westerns. Django would become the archetype gunslinger of the Eurowestern, brought to life by the raw charisma of Nero, which cannot be diminished, even when his voice is terribly dubbed by an American actor.
Django would prove to be one of the most popular spaghetti westerns of all time, giving birth to a sub-genre of over thirty other films, all with the name Django in the title, including Tarantino’s Django Unchained. But don’t be fooled, ’cause damn near all of the other Django films out there have nothing to do with this film, or this character. These other Django films merely bear the name in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of this movie—the originator—and serve as an example of how bad the Italian film industry was when it came to the art of the rip-off. And it wasn’t just the Italians. In Germany, the film The Shark Hunter (a.k.a. Il cacciatore di squali), starring Nero—which isn’t even a western—was released under the title Django and the Sharks.
Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.