Django Review

Django is a very important film. I’m speaking relatively, of course, but it was one of the two most successful ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ at the Italian box office – the other being The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - and it kicked off a series of pseudo-sequels and rip-offs which kept the Italian film industry busy for the best part of ten years. In its own way, it’s just as important as A Fistful of Dollars domestically, although it had nothing like the success of Leone’s films internationally. However, it’s gained a huge cult following, possibly because it was originally banned by the BBFC and didn’t get a widespread showing in the UK until Alex Cox’s TV series ‘Moviedrome’ featured it in the early 1990s.

In his discussion of the film in “Spaghetti Westerns”, a book to which I am deeply endebted for my introduction to the genre, Professor Christopher Frayling identifies the film as belonging to a variant of what Sergio Leone called the ‘Servant of Two Masters’ plot. A stranger named Django (Nero) rides into a weirdly under populated town and finds himself in the midst of a battle – called here a “private war” – between two groups with conflicting interests – in this case a group of rebellious Southerners who are beholden to Major Jackson, a fanatical racist who has turned them into a paramilitary arm of the Ku Klux Klan, and a group of Mexican bandidos who are only interested in stealing gold and raping ‘Gringo’ women. However, in the Leone plot, the hero sells his services to both sides before watching them destroy each other and then stepping in to fight the leader of the stronger group. In Django, it’s notable that the hero doesn’t make any attempt to serve the KKK and, instead, joins forces with the Mexicans for purely financial motives. However, the plot then returns to the Leone style as the Mexicans double-cross and then mutilate Django before he returns to wreak vengeance on both sides. Django himself is a man who is haunted by the past - his wife was killed while he was unable to protect her – but, surprisingly, we never get a flashback in which this is explicitly portrayed.

The use of the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as context gives Django a much more realistic feeling than you find in many Italian westerns. Although the locations are clearly a long way away from the Americas, there’s a sense of historical background which adds a good deal of credibility. The shadow of the Civil War hangs over the film much as it looms over many American westerns – it is implied that Django has been fighting in the War when he says about the death of his wife, “I was far away... too far away” - and the notion of a divided society is well used in the scenes where Major Jackson is finding new enemies among the Mexicans to go with the blacks and Yankees he already hates. Indeed, there’s a subtext of anti-prejudice here just as there is in Sergio Corbucci’s later The Great Silence and the moment when Major Jackson plays turkey shoot with unarmed Mexican prisoners is a powerful reminder of the endemic racial (and possibly class) hatred which plagued the American south for many years after the end of the war. It also works in narrative terms since Jackson is a marvellously cold-hearted villain, superficial refinement and a quiet tone barely covering natural born thuggery. However, I’d hesitate to describe the film as anti-racist – unlike The Great Silence - given the hopelessly stereotypical portrayal of Mexican bandits straight out of a comic book. This works for the schematic plot structure as described above however and it does at least mean that both the KKK and the Mexicans are memorably nasty adversaries. The film does occasionally edge towards the misanthropic but certainly not as much as some later Spaghettis such as Django Kill. Surprisingly, there is no reference to the Mexican Revolution. Although 1966 is a little before the political Spaghetti became the norm, it is the year that Damiano Damiani made the extraordinarily radical A Bullet For The General. In Django, however, as in the Leone ‘Dollars’ films, politics per se are notable by their absence. In his later films, notably A Professional Gun and the excellent Companeros, Corbucci would exploit a much more politicised narrative line.

In some ways, what’s most interesting about Django is how it elevates the title character to the role of virtually unkillable Messiah. Indeed, one of the (unintended) sequels Django Kill explicitly portrays him as a resurrected avenger, clawing his way out of the soil to bring judgement to all – during which he is, with breathtaking lack of subtlety, crucified and, er, attacked by vampire bats. But that’s another film. In the original, and best, Django, Franco Nero portrays the character as a quiet, calculating bringer of instant justice, thanks to his coffin – a constant companion that contains a machine gun. He’s not a particularly willing saviour but he seems to identify himself with the underdogs, notably Maria, a whore who is being whipped by the Mexicans and is subsequently threatened with death by the Klan, who regard her as ‘tainted’. But, in the classic manner, Django suffers unspeakable torture – his hands are crushed under horses’ hooves – but returns to wreak vengeance on his enemies, resting his trusty machine gun on a headstone shaped as a crucifix. In this regard, the film seems to have been an influence on a number of key Westerns, notably the marvellously gothic High Plains Drifter. The presentation of Django as some kind of heaven-sent angel of death is compounded when he states of one of the characters, “His time hasn’t come yet”. He is quite willing to act as deux-ex-machina too, as when he’s more than happy to let the Mexicans deal with the false preacher in a particularly nasty manner. Compared to the Man With No Name, Django is relatively garrulous and he has a soft, tender side too – there’s a beautifully gentle scene between him and Maria in which he explains how glad he is to make her feel like “a real woman.”

Although Django is a violent film, beginning with a horse-whipping and culminating with two truly horrible pieces of operatic mutilation, it’s not particularly upsetting. Compared to The Wild Bunch or even The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, it lacks the sense of spiritual pain which makes those films get to us when they depict violent death. Yet, Corbucci’s film is remarkable for its visual sense of the West, which is nothing like the arid desert in which Leone’s movies – and most subsequent Spaghettis - are played out. Corbucci was good at playing with audience expectations of Italian Westerns – you will recall that The Great Silence was set in a snow-shrouded wilderness – and Django is set in a town which resembles a mud-bath. The film which immediately springs to mind when looking at Django is Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller, where the town is similarly wintry and bleak. As in Altman’s film, however, there’s no real attempt at a naturalistic realism but there is a poetic realism which goes beyond historical accuracy. When watched in the English dub, Corbucci’s film seems oddly removed from its native genre and the sense of Django as a harbinger of spiritual justice operating within his own moral universe is somehow more potent. As with The Great Silence, no other Italian western really captures the tone of Django, no matter how many times it may have been copied.

Sergio Corbucci’s direction is typically assured – he mixes tracking shots with zooms to impressive effect - incredibly pacy and often dryly amusing; particularly in the comic sidekick Nathaniel, the barkeeper, who comments on the action. Django is one of the most exciting and fast-moving of Spaghetti Westerns and it looks wonderfully atmospheric thanks to Enzo Barboni’s gorgeous cinematography. It’s also a very operatic, expansive film and Luis Enrique Bacalov’s music picks up on this in a manner which might have impressed even Ennio Morricone (with whom he collaborated on A Bullet For The General). As a film it’s hugely impressive and certainly one of the five or six essential works in the Spaghetti sub-genre. As a phenomenon it had enormous influence, not only on the Italian Western but also – perhaps inadvertently - on American films such as The Wild Bunch which uses the machine gun to even more lethal effect. One scene is even reminiscent of a key moment in Reservoir Dogs. If you have the slightest interest in the Western genre then Django is an absolutely essential film.

The Disc

Argent Films have returned nearly a year after their premiere release The Battle Of Algiers with a disc which heralds a series of Spaghetti Western releases. Their DVD of Django has certain flaws but is generally a fairly impressive presentation.

The film is presented in an aspect ratio of anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1. According to Alex Cox, it was shot in the Academy ratio but this is presumably how it would have appeared on cinema screens and the framing looks fine to me. The colours are excellent throughout, dazzlingly so in the case of the reds. There’s also a good level of detail and contrast. The main problem is some print damage which is occasionally very obtrusive. I also noticed some artifacting in the darker scenes. However, all in all this is a good effort.

The only soundtrack on the disc is a 2 channel Mono track in English. The Italian track on the Blue Underground disc has, regrettably, not been included here. Having said this, the English soundtrack is very good indeed with richly atmospheric music.

The disc contains a few extra features, none of which are very substantial but they all have some value to fans of the film. Firstly, we get an enthusiastic and well-informed introduction to the film by Alex Cox which is very similar in style to the pieces he did for the BBC’s “Moviedrome” between 1988 and 1994. I enjoyed this piece but a full-length commentary track by Cox or someone equally enthusiastic would have been even more enjoyable. Secondly, there is a 12 minute interview with Franco Nero who comes across very well indeed. He seems genuinely affectionate towards the film and to appreciate his place in Spaghetti legend. Again, it would have been nice to hear more from him. Finally, there are trailers for Django and the other films in their Westerns Trail collection. These are the currently available Keoma and Texas Adios and the upcoming A Bullet For The General and the insane Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot.

The film is divided into 12 chapter stops and the DVD features some amusing animated menus. Sadly, no subtitles are provided at all, something which Argent need to think about for their future releases.

Django is a fine, exciting and influential film which has aged very well. Spaghetti Western collectors will no doubt already have the superior Region 1 release but if you aren’t multi-region or haven’t got around to picking up the Blue Underground release then this DVD is worth considering.

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