Django Unchained

Django Unchained

This month has seen the unveiling of the first trailers for Quentin Taratino’s new ‘Southern’ (as opposed to ‘Western’) titled Django Unchained. Though his oeuvre has been overrun with references to westerns, spaghetti or otherwise, for many years, this is the director’s first attempt at a proper genre piece. In the past Tarantino, regardless of what genre he was working in – from crime dramas to WWII action movies – has included visual and aural nods to westerns. His Kill Bill movies included extracts of Ennio Morricone cuts from spaghetti westerns such as Death Rides a Horse and A Professional Gun, while much of the score to Inglourious Basterds is classic Morricone from the 1960s and 70s.

As you can see from the first teaser trailer Django Unchained is shaping up to be an entertaining cinema experience for both cult cineastes and general filmgoers – a transcendent appeal that turned Inglourious Basterds into the biggest box-office hit of Tarantino’s career so far. This places him as a director who enviably can craft timeless works, with both artistic and cult appeal, which also please the masses. A second international trailer has also been released, which features even more action and dialogue from the film.  

The film’s title references the rich tradition of Italian popular cinema. The name Django refers to the gunslinger from a 1966 cult western directed by Sergio Corbucci, who dragged a coffin behind him through the mud with a machine gun hidden inside. ‘Unchained’ references Steve Reeves’ second ‘Hercules’ film Hercules Unchained. By combining the two in his title, Tarantino takes the ‘Django’ series in a new direction. In his reworking, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who throws off the shackles of oppression to team up with master pistolero and bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to track down the Brittle Brothers. Leonardo DiCaprio has been cast against type as Calvin Candie, a plantation owner.

The ‘Django’ movies are one of the longest-running Italian popular cinema trends, lasting in one form or another from the mid-1960s to now. Corbucci’s Django was essentially an unhinged remake of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, with a lone gunman caught in a trap between two gangs in a nowhere town. Corbucci’s gangs are Mexican renegades and Confederate Klansmen. Franco Nero, who played the lead, became a star as a result of the movie and tried to sell it in the US while he was making Camelot the following year, but there were no takers. It was refused a certificate in the UK in 1969, though it was popular across the world, in everywhere from Continental Europe to the Far East and South America.

Thorough its video release in the 1980s, Django has gained a considerable English language cult that survives today. The English language dubbing is atrocious (Nero didn’t dub himself, as he would in his later Corbucci westerns), but the film survives due to Enzo Barboni’s vivid cinematography, Carlo Simi’s sets and costumes and Corbucci’s comic strip verve. The Italian language print is available on DVD, with English subs, and is the best version of the film.

On its original release in Italy in 1966, the film’s popularity ensured the name Django became a great pull for cinema posters and many films were retitled, redubbed or reworked as Django movies, to cash-in on the original. Giulio Questi’s Django Kill! If You Live…Shoot! (1967) stretched the Yojimbo/Fistful plot to breaking point, taking the formula into uncharted western territory that was closer to the Gothic elegance of Poe and Bava. Tomas Milian starred as ‘The Stranger’ who fought it out with vicious townsfolk, Mexican rancheros and double-crossing gringo bandits for a haul of gold. This very violent picture was for many years the subject of a search for a ‘definitive uncut print’ (this is the version now available on DVD). With considerable irony, now we have one, it turns out that the shorter version (94 mins) is actually a better film.

Of the Django films that followed, most were entertaining, many were pure cash-ins and some were very good indeed. From a fan’s perspective, all are worth seeking out. Nero made two more westerns in 1966, with similar stories and identical plot twists: Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time and Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios. The former also goes by the titles The Brute and the Beast in the US, Colt Concert in the UK, Django the Runner in Holland and Django – His Hymnbook was a Colt in Germany. Anthony Steffen starred as Django in A Few Dollars for Django (1966 – Some Dollars for Django), but despite the title he’s a bounty hunter called Regan. In Alberto De Martino’s Django Shoots First (1966), Dutch actor Roel Bos (billed as ‘Glenn Saxson’ or ‘Saxon’ in publicity) played Glenn Garvin, known in Mexico as Django. Gianni Garko worked under the pseudonym ‘Gary Hudson’ for Romolo Guerrieri’s $10,000 Blood Money (1967). In a step up, the hero is actually called Django in this one and Nero’s co-star from the original, Loredana Nusciak, played Django’s lover. Possibly the best of the Django sequels was Django, Prepare a Coffin aka Viva Django (1968), directed with flair by Ferdinando Baldi and starring Terence Hill as the machine-gun toting avenger. Writer Franco Rossetti (from the original Django) penned it and Enzo Barboni photographed it. The climax in a graveyard played on Corbucci’s original and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Anthony Steffen again portrayed Django in Sergio Garrone’s No Room to Die (1969), which was retitled A Noose for Django. Garrone and Steffen worked together on an even better movie released later in 1969, the bluntly-titled Django the Bastard, a paranormal horror-western. Steffen co-wrote the story with Garrone under his real name Antonio De Teffé. Django, apparently a ghost, tracks down the three Confederate officers who betrayed his unit during the Civil War. Django was the only survivor and recalls the massacre in sepia-tinted flashbacks. Django the Bastard was retitled The Stranger’s Gundown and El Bastardo, and was the last of the solo Django outings, as most subsequent entries were either retitlings of unrelated films, or they teamed Django with another spaghetti western hero, Sartana – as in ‘William Redford’/Pasquale Squittieri’s Django Against Sartana (1970 – aka Django Defies Sartana) and Demofilo Fidani’s Once Damn Day at Dawn…Django Meets Sartana! (1970). Nero himself belatedly played Django again in Django Strikes Again (1987 – aka Django’s Great Return), there was the Japanese tribute Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) in which Tarantino appeared as Ringo, and now Tarantino’s own movie continues the Django line. The Internet Movie Database currently lists over 60 ‘Django’ western titles, many of them retitlings of unrelated films for either French or German audiences.

With his new film, Tarantino is again paying homage to the past and embedding references to cinema heritage past. At the beginning of the first Django Unchained trailer, that distinctive rocky, desert landscape is the iconic western location the Alabama Hills and around Lone Pine, California, which was used in dozens of westerns, such as Back Day at Black Rock, Budd Boetticher’s ‘Ranown’ series with Burt Kennedy and Randolph Scott (including The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station) and Humphrey Bogart’s gangster movie, High Sierra. Towards the end of the trailer, Django is asked by a saloon patron wearing a white hat what his name is. He answers Django: ‘The D is silent’. The guy doing the asking is Franco Nero.

There’s much more about the ‘Django’ movies in my books Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns and Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult.

There’s a chapter discussing Taratino’s Pulp Fiction in my Crime Wave: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Crime Movies.

To read about Taratino’s glorious World War II movie Inglourious Basterds, see my latest book, When Eagled Dared: The Filmgoers’ History of World War II.

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