Taking advantage of Tarantino.
The Digital Fix has previously reviewed Django in an in-depth fashion here. Readers may wish to take a look at that piece in conjunction with this one.
When Quentin Tarantino announced the title of his latest project back in May 2011, one thing was inevitable: come release date, there would be cash-in DVDs. And so it is, just as Django Unchained settles itself into British cinemas, that we find a pair of discs hoping for their share of the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, the original Django from 1966 is among them – here making its UK debut in the Blu-ray format – and it is joined by the little-seen Django, Prepare a Coffin, which emerged two years later and has recently been described by Tim Lucas as “the only true sequel”.
Lucas’ claim can be debated – not least because original star Franco Nero got back in the saddle for Django 2: Il grande ritorno in 1987 – but he makes a good point. In the wake of Django’s spectacular performance at the Italian box office (in Spaghetti Western terms only The Good, the Bad and the Ugly did better) the next few years saw deluge of unofficial imitations, spin-offs and knock-offs, many of which were retrofitted to include the man. Giulio Questi’s wonderfully odd Django Kill, for example, belongs to the ‘franchise’ in name only; the original title was If You Live Shoot, but that was deemed to have less of a chance when it came to bums on seats. Indeed, producers simply wanted a slice of the pie, although in doing so they only added to Django’s stature as the Spaghetti Western’s second most famous anti-hero after Clint’s ‘The Man with No Name’. More than thirty movies now bear his name, including Takashi Miike’s Japanese spin Sukiyaki Western Django and, of course, Tarantino’s latest where he is reimagined as an African slave.
Django invited such a legacy thanks to his minimalism. He speaks little, preferring the violence he dishes out to do the talking, and comes with only the hint of a backstory. (He fought for the North in the American Civil War during which time his wife was murdered.) Even the plotting is borrowed: a ‘servant to two masters’ tales previously seen in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars that was, in turn, taken from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, itself inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, Red Harvest. In other words, he’s something of a blank slate, the kind that can easily be resurrected for future movies with minimal fuss or effort. Yet whilst most of the ‘sequels’ translated this into two-dimensional characterisation and paper-thin plots, the original Django is far from lightweight. After all, it made Franco Nero into a star.
Within a year of Django’s initial release, Nero found himself cast as Lancelot in Warner Brothers’ big screen adaptation of Camelot, which, for all its faults, is certainly among the prettiest of Hollywood musicals. Interestingly, the Italian star fitted right in – he may not have looked quite so dainty as Richard Harris’ King Arthur (who comes with the tidiest of beards and a ridiculous amount of eyeliner), but his status as handsome leading man is never in doubt. Django attempts to mask this as much as possible by making its central figure perpetually dirty and unshaven and yet still some those qualities (particularly the eyes) shine through. There is a sense, perhaps, that Django was once a clean-cut, happily married young man only for the Civil War to change him irrevocably.
Director (and co-writer) Sergio Corbucci enhances this sensation by placing those eyes in the bleakest of landscapes. Spaghetti Westerns rarely looked like traditional Westerns thanks to their being shot in Italian quarries or Spanish deserts, yet Django seems even further removed. Its opening shot is of Nero dragging a coffin through mud which tells you everything you need to know. This place is unforgiving and so too, as we immediately find out, is the violence. The initial recipient is a prostitute being horsewhipped and before the picture is through we’ll have seen multiple bodies pile up, not to mention a force-fed severed ear and a particularly nasty bout of finger crushing. Indeed, the violence is such that the BBFC initially refused a certificate in the 1960s; it was only when the film screened as part of the 1993 season of Moviedrome (and soon after appeared on VHS) that it received any kind of widespread exposure to British audiences.
Of course, it was the excess and the sheer bleakness of it all which proved so winning elsewhere –understandably so as Django stills packs a punch to this day – and led to all of those cash-ins and imitations. Even those which opted not to put the name in their title oftentimes found themselves under its influence which is why, a few years later, the makers of They Call Me Trinity decided upon a change in tact. Whilst Alex Cox traces a route from Django to the one-liners of Arnie and his ilk during the on-disc introduction, it’s safe to say that the 1966 picture wasn’t really comedy. They Call Me Trinity, on the other hand, was clearly aiming to combine laughs with the Spaghetti Western and in doing so firmly established the long-running comic partnership of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. They co-starred in 17 pictures in all, eventually moving out in other genres whilst maintain the comedy. As such they’re nowadays associated with lightweight movies (typical titles: Watch Out, We’re Mad and I’m for the Hippopotamus) which makes Hill’s appearance in Django, Prepare a Coffin all the more surprising. His Westerns were the antidote to Django and yet here he is playing that very role.
Released in 1968, Django, Prepare a Coffin finds Hill in his pre-comedy days. He’d been acting since the early fifties – initially in small roles and occasionally on major pictures like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard – before making his first Westerns in Germany. At this point he was still using his real name, Mario Girotti, and wouldn’t make the switch until God Forgives… I Don’t! in 1967, which was, coincidentally, both his first starring role and his first shared billing with Spencer. As such his Django comes without a trace of humour, instead satisfying the mostly silent-mostly violent criterion established by Nero. He also follows the template of having a dead wife (though flashbacks reveal that the Civil War had nothing to do it with this time, but rather a corrupt businessman) and taking a hefty beating in between dishing out his own bouts of violence. The coffin from the original movie puts in an appearance too.
To be fair, Django, Prepare a Coffin does at least provide an alternative to the Red Harvest/Yojimbo approach. In this instance Django is an executioner, except he isn’t doing quite what his bosses expect. His hangings are mock affairs with the supposed victims hidden away until our hero has enough men to raise a posse and avenge the death of his wife. All of which is competently handled by Hill and director Ferdinando Baldi (later to helm the oddball Ringo Starr Western Blindman, financed by Allen Klein) amounting to an entertaining enough picture, albeit one that certainly exists in the original’s shadow. Nevertheless those curious about the sheer number of Django movies out there could do far worse. Oh, and if some of the score sounds naggingly familiar, that’s because Gnarls Barkley used it as the basis for their world-conquering single, Crazy.
Django and Django, Prepare a Coffin have received separate releases in the UK over the past fortnight. The original movie can now be purchased in Blu-ray and DVD editions courtesy of Argent, whilst Arrow Video has inducted the ‘sequel’ into its Arrowdrome! budget range.
Whilst Django in high definition should be major news for UK buyers, unfortunately this release demonstrates the same problems as the Blue Underground disc issued in 2010. The materials appear to be in mostly excellent shape, but something has gone awry during the transition to Blu with the film suffering a similar fate to a number of Italian genre efforts in HD. The effect is somewhat strange, giving the appearance of ultra-sharp grain but the image beneath it tending towards softness – in other words, some tinkering has definitely involved. At times things look utterly superb which only proves a frustrating experience as it shows how compromised the rest of the film is. (Such problems with Italian masters have led, for example, to Arrow producing their own effort from the original negatives when it came to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters.) With that said, Django looks superior to previous home video releases, but when it comes to Blu-ray surely we expect more. The film, incidentally, is framed at a ratio of 1.66:1 despite Alex Cox’s claims in the introduction that it intended for Academy (i.e., 1.37:1 – apparently it screened in such a ratio just a BFI theatrical revival in the early nineties).
Django, Prepare a Coffin’s presentation is best described as decent if unexceptional. The film is framed at a ratio of approximately 1.75:1, anamorphically enhanced, demonstrates strong colours and minimal damage but is a tad on the soft side. There are occasional bouts of flicker and some edge enhancement, though nothing which proves distracting. Essentially, it’s just okay – neither terrible nor outstanding, but perfectly befitting of the budget price.
Impressively both films come with English and Italian soundtracks, which can differ in their emphasis and tone (and choice of language). Generally clean, they do show signs of poor synch as should be expected (Italian productions rarely recorded their soundtracks on-set, preferring instead to do so in post-production). Optional subtitles are available on both discs, with Django also offering up subtitles for the hard-of-hearing to accompany the English dub.
Extras are limited to just a trailer on Django, Prepare a Coffin, whilst Django gets a decent collection. Alex Cox is on hand for a newly-recorded 12-minute introduction that apes much of his original Moviedrome from 1993, plus we also find a new interview with Franco Nero (again 12 minutes in length) in which he talks about the production. An alternative opening sequence also finds a spot on the disc, as do two trailers plus a collection of promos for other Argent releases.
The ratings below relate to the ‘Django’ Blu-ray. ‘Django, Prepare a Coffin’ would be marked as follows: Film 6, Video 6, Audio 7, Extras 1, Overall 6
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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