Django, Prepare a Coffin Review
Time is against me on this one, folks ... so here's a super-swift, sharp-shooting look at Arrow's release on UK Blu-ray of Ferdinando Baldi's terrific Spaghetti Western, Django, Prepare a Coffin (aka Viva Django) from 1968.
"The dead are in their graves, you understand? And you ... are dead. This is your grave, mister. Dig."
Whilst escorting a gold shipment across country, Django Cassedy (Terence Hill) is double-crossed and left for dead, and his wife murdered. Five years pass and, after burying a coffin and erecting a makeshift cross bearing his own name, a recovered Django becomes a hangman-for-hire. Travelling from town to town, he stages phony executions via a secret hook and rope contraption, and recruits these "hanged men" in order to form a posse of phantoms with which to wreak his revenge upon the men who set him up - his former friend, corrupt politician David Barry (Horst Frank) and his maniacal outlaw henchman Lucas (George Eastman). All the executed men have been falsely accused, framed and incriminated by these same avaricious despots in an evil scheme to gain their land. Django and his squadron of ghost riders, aided (well ... almost) by the local telegrapher, Horace (Pinuccio Ardia), seek to turn the tables and destroy Barry’s little empire.
Cackling bad guys and defiant champions, bugaboo dubbing, volatile scenarios and some unintentional humour ensue. The landscape is about as Western as my back garden, and the story is as much fun as it is unlikely. You know what makes a successful Spaghetti ... and this one more than delivers.
Many actors have gone by the name of Django, cashing-in on the rip-roaring and controversial success of the character made famous by Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci’s notorious, mud-caked, ear-severing, machine-gunning lollop through the amoral insanity of the Euro-oater, but you can count the bonafide entries in this seemingly never-ending series on the fingers of a man whose hands have been stomped flat beneath horses’ hooves and rifle-butts. Baldi’s film, however, has the rare distinction of being created as a full-on sequel to the original post Civil War avenger. The success of the trendsetting 1966 film ensured that the iconic figure ply his deadly trade across the big screen again, and Nero was contracted for one more adventure as Django after appearing in Baldi’s own Texas Addio, alsoreleased in 1966. But with him courting international fame and fortune as Sir Lancelot in the bizarre, yet fabulous musical extravaganza of Joshua Logan’s Camelot (for which he was ultimately dubbed by a man whose voice sounded almost identical to his own!), and therefore unavailable to drag that coffin any further for the time being, it became necessary to find someone else who could fill his boots. And his uber-cool Union rain-poncho.
Baldi, already a veteran of the genre, turned to Mario Girotti, whom he’d worked with on the 1967 musical Western Little Rita in the West, realising that his looks and personality would be a natural evolution of Nero’s taciturn, double-dealing Yojimbo descendant. Indeed, Hill plays Django in Rita as well, albeit an incarnation (replete with coffin and damaged hands) that becomes rehabilitated after falling in love with the titular Rita, played by pop idol, Rita Pavone! There was much made about Hill’s resemblance to Franco Nero at the time of the film’s production and its subsequent release. He has the same piercing blue eyes and the same stubble, and semi kitted-out in the accoutrements of Django’s fantastical Civil War paraphernalia, he was certainly more than merely a costumed stand-in masquerading in the role. Especially when a coffin and a cunningly housed machine-gun are brought into play for that vital ingredient of a shootout in a cemetery. But watching the film nowadays, I am particularly struck by how much he looks like a young Sam Neill.
Baldi and Django producer Manolo Bolognini brought back screenwriter Franco Rossetti and cinematographer Enzo Barboni from the first film to work similar magic and, just like For A Few Dollars More roughly advanced upon Clint’s Man with No Name persona in A Fistful of Dollars, the Northern angel of death was reborn in the same mould and roughly the same clothes ... yet still different in some key ways.
Although the story is not that removed from what has gone before – Django still has to play a dangerous game between factions, and he will ultimately go through hell for the sake of justice - Hill makes for a much “nicer” desperado than Nero, who was altogether colder, more brooding and haunted. He doesn’t hesitate when it comes to the killing, and he has a lean and calculating mind in terms of vengeful plotting, and diabolical patience. But he is far more laidback and jovial than Nero’s archetypal antihero could ever be. Part of the reason for this was down to his already established credentials as a screen heartthrob – and Baldi was not going to completely eschew such potential ker-ching by thoroughly shedding his leading man’s innate charisma with the youth market. But Hill was also known for his comedy and this, too, was something that could be uniquely suited to the grandiose, anything goes attitude of the Spaghetti, as would be the case with his subsequent Trinity pictures and his long-standing double-act with the bear-like Bud Spencer. He embodies the baton-changing persona of the always-avenging Django – everyone who ever took on the mantel, whether legitimately or, more frequently, not, was out for revenge in some degree, whether personal or by proxy – with suitably hard-bitten resolve, yet he is able to bring a surprising degree of warmth and personality to the role as well. An early scene involving Horace’s yappy parrot actually belabours this point to the point of tedium. Everything little thing that the bird does as it is perched on his shoulder elicits some overegged reaction from Hill.
Some would decry his vaguely nebulous performance, but I would suggest that this is perfectly in keeping with a drifter who is supposed to be a man of mystery.
Horst Frank would make something of a career out of playing Spaghetti-baddies. He would portray an evil uncle in Castellari’s Shakespearean tip-of-the-Stetson, Johnny Hamlet, and he would go up against Lee Van Cleef in The Big Showdown. His strong Aryan looks are striking against the run-down and sloppy backdrop and his heartless demeanour always burns through, no matter how bogusly sympathetic he might attempt to come across. His mean streak runs as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is inconceivable that he could play a good guy.
Big George Eastman, all 6’ 9” of him (that’s SIX FEET NINE!), makes for a fine villain in Lucas – the arrogant, hot-headed muscle to Barry’s more devious backstabbing politico. Eastman would go on to achieve even more notoriety as the truly despicable and wholly menacing bogeymen found in the celebrated Video Nasties Anthropophagus Beast and Absurd, which he also wrote. He doesn’t exactly haul anybody’s entrails out, chow down upon a freshly plucked foetus, or slice someone’s noggin apart with a bandsaw in this early outing, but that gleam of wanton wickedness in his eyes is unmistakable. Surprisingly, he is actually almost good-looking enough to have been heroic … but then he grins, revealing some inner core of ragged insanity, and spoils it all. Swarthy and gypsy-like, he could just as easily portray some roguish pirate – dashing enough to lure the unsuspecting in too close, and then, with a blood-curdling leer, chop them into small pieces. I suppose you could even lend him Horace’s parrot! And yet, despite this imposing height, he is not that good at maintaining his balance during the action. One skull-rattling slap that he issues to a crony almost sees him topple over, himself, and the big guy makes a critical blunder on the stairs during what is literally a “fire-fight”. Eastman (aka Luigi Montefiori) also penned the ace Keoma for Franco Nero, one of my favourite Spaghettis – Blu-ray reviewed previously.
A staple of the Spaghetti Western and, interestingly, most of Clint Eastwood’s serious filmography as a direct consequence of his characters’ plights at the hands of Sergio Leone, is the capture and vicious beating down of the hero … almost to the point of death. I’ve discussed this element many times before, and its Messianic leanings of the good guy having to be mercilessly downtrodden in order to attain a sort of quasi spiritual redemption enabling him to commit almost divinely righteous justice, but it is worth saying that Django suffers terribly at the fists, boots and even a pitchfork of his foes here ... even by the genre’s already eye-popping standards. Hill carries off this brutal chapter with some wince-inducing conviction as well, spinning around his straw-strewn torture-chamber with operatic agony. Spaghetti thugs are invariably gurning sadists, but this crew really go to town on the guy with considered meanness. A visual reference is made to Nero’s hands getting mashed in Corbucci’s original, but the thudding impact of boots into this incarnation’s vulnerable ribs and kidneys actually feel damned painful indeed. And watch for the way that Hill holds his face after several teeth-shattering blows have left him reeling – it all just seems that much crueller, and ghastly.
In many ways, Baldi’s film is one of the most simplistic and generic of the legion of Djangos. The original played along racist, cultist lines, dabbling about with weird metaphors for the Civil War and a lot of the following pseudo interpretations courted wacky surrealism (Questi’s Django Kill) and jagged, haunting obsession (Garrone’s Django the Bastard). This is played in a far more jovial manner despite the carnage, and the action is very comic-book in tone, very episodic.
The theme of wronged men seemingly rising from their graves to exact revenge upon their persecutors is a fine touch, albeit one that isn’t particularly embellished with anything other than passing, in-the-moment flair. But the idea, something that was quite prevalent throughout the whole of Italian Cinema during this period, with Mario Bava regularly allowing the deceased to wreak havoc among the living, certainly caught on with Clint Eastwood, whose own High Plains Drifter, and then Pale Rider, later elaborated upon with genuine lashings of the supernatural. Whilst not gothic in any way, unlike Antonio Margheriti’s And God Said To Cain, and not boasting any authentic ghosts as in Django the Bastard, in which our boy really has come back from the beyond, Baldi’s film surely benefits from this first act device. The sight of these “hanged men” rampaging around the ranches of those who falsely condemned them, even sans anything remotely other-worldly besides their bizarre reappearance eliciting terror in those with a guilty conscience, and causing fiery bedlam is directed with wild aplomb. Baldi previously helmed Texas Addio, which was otherwise quite a mundane and pedestrian story, with vigour, and he stages his action scenes here with speed and aggression. The flaming saloon set-piece is a thunderous sequence of mass murder, taking place amidst appropriately hellish imagery. There are quite a few people plunging from speeding horses in the time-honoured style of the American Western, though Baldi can put a different spin on such clichés. The finale, set amongst the graves is steeped in slow build-up. We all know what is coming and, perhaps inevitably, it is all over too quickly once the charade is over. But then even the great Sergio Leone would deliberately imbalance the pay-off in this way, also. For me, it works just fine ... but there will be those apt to shrugging their shoulders and sniffing, “Huh? Is that it?”
Of course, there is another vital element that bolsters all the best Spaghetti Westerns. The score. And Baldi’s Django has got an absolute belter, thanks to composer Gianfranco Riverberi. Its title song, You’d Better Smile, is 60’s dynamite that is instantly toe-tapping with its tom-toms and guitars going hell-for-leather, and its fantastic lyrics searingly crooned with warblingly intense nobility by Nicola Di Bari. It’s just fabulous stuff. But then there is the ominous, yet catchy slow deguello for strong bass-line, trumpet and choir that appears as a secondary theme throughout. This was famously sampled in 2006 by Danger Mouse and Cee Lo Green (Gnarls Barkley) as backing for their massive hit Crazy. The score definitely adds another dimension to the pasta-caper.
Django, Prepare a Coffinis worthy of greater discussion, and I may yet find the opportunity to revisit this brutal classic of comeuppance, Spaghetti-style. But, for now, let me just say that it comes highly recommended.
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