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Django Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 15, 2010

    Django Review

    “If you're a coffin maker, you sure did pick a good town to settle.”

    When Sergio Leone took the reins of the Western and drove it in a seriously unorthodox direction that spiralled the iconoclastic imagery and themes of the genre into realms that Hollywood could never have dreamed of, he unlocked the coffin-lid to a whole barrage of cool Spaghetti violence and heroic amorality. Sergio Corbucci was one of the first of a slew of now notorious Italian directors who galloped gratefully along with the stampede that Leone started. And his classic exploitation flick, Django, starring the soon-to-be hotter-than-hot Franco Nero in the title role of the Civil War veteran and conniving, vengeance-fuelled gunslinger, well and truly put the European slant on America's now-dulled cinematic treasure into the spotlight of public fascination. Tinseltown's oaters had run out of both imagination and steam by this point, with only those that took on-board the Italian angle of corrupted good guys and uber-violence, the awesome Duel At Diablo, or The Professionals, for instance, making any sort of mark on home audiences before the likes of The Wild Bunch changed things all over again. The operatic sensibilities of Leone were a height that Corbucci wasn't aiming for, however inspired by the other Sergio he was.

    Instead of delving deep into the cruel and tormented psyches of his characters, Corbucci opted for the more comic-book approach. He took the ambiguity and moral shading of Eastwood's poncho-wearing stranger and adapted it to an almost stranglehold on Nero's wickedly hip avenger. Wandering into the story of a town blighted by two veritable tribes of madmen - Eduardo Fajardo's bigoted Major Jackson and his racist army of red-sashed killers, and Jose Bodalo's rather more conventional horde of Mexican bandits - Django cuts a supremely surreal image. Wearing the always trendy uniform of a US Cavalryman - that yellow stripe down the blue pants! - and wearing whatever stubble had been collected from the stony sand after having blown off Eastwood's face, the horseless Django would be an eye-catching sight already, but this guy is hauling a coffin behind him as well! What is he ... some kind of whiskey-sodden vampire?

    It is a tremendous image already, made all the more immediately memorable with some startling zooms to him standing on a truly scruffy looking ridge overlooking a deranged execution with a warped indifference. Django is a man on a mission. Who, or what, is in the coffin? And why does he keep leaving the devoutly eeee-villlll Major Jackson alive when we all know that he is here to waste the seedy sonofabitch?

    It is great stuff, and so far removed from anything that the genre has previously broken-in that Leone's interpretations of the Old West look positively made of Star Spangled Apple Pie by comparison.

    Asides from the gorgeous Loredana Nusciak, who plays Maria, the runaway vixen who Django saves from the flames, the women in the town seem purely composed of bored/frightened whores who are resigned to a life of pleasuring either side when they come calling, or just stagnating in the damp loneliness of this blighted shell of a place. And apart from the squat oaf who runs the joint, Angel Alvarez's Nathaniel, there doesn't seem to be anybody else around ... until Django shows up with a world of hate and hurt in his wake. Oh, but there's the odd Mexican family out on the outskirts, isn't there? The kind that Jackson likes to corral, beat up and then take pot-shots at as they run for their lives in a sadistic shooting gallery. Nope, this isn't the sort of place that you want to visit any time soon. There are devils on either side of it.

    We'd better bring this dog to the General. I have a hunch he'll want him alive.”

    The visual look of Django is exceptionally weird. We're used to the Spanish vogue of Almeria, of course, but the overcast, dreary sodden mud-bath of this and then the even weirder looking (and just plain weirder all round) Django Kill from Guilliano Questi and starring Tomas Milian in the lead role, seem determined to push their European ambience over the top of their stories like a blanket of industrial inclemency. Django was shot just outside of Madrid, but with a fair chunk of footage lensed back in the studios of Rome. Out of the entire displaced genre, this one looks perhaps the most “foreign”, but this aspect definitely adds to the gloriously out-of-whack limbo-locked aura of Django's oddball world. The characters, themselves, are just as distinctive. Fingerless gloves are definitely “in” for the good guys ... well, by that I mean the slightly better guys ... and red scarves and hoods are de rigour for the platoon of white supremacists. Of course, this red scarf motif harkens back to the genuine cowboy fashions of the period - given a vibrant rekindling in Kurt Russell's Tombstone as well - but it also comes across a purely fascist statement of conformity too, especially with this malicious anti-Mexican mob.

    “You have to be very brave to talk to Ringo like that. Brave ... or reckless.”

    Nero aims for stardom and, on his performance here, nails it dead centre. It is all too easy to cite his turn in Django as merely a cod Clint Eastwood, but there are a fair few differences. Chiefly amongst these is his willingness to run round like a mad thing. During the gold robbery, Django is sprinting here, there and everywhere. It seems that where Clint only has to stand and stare, Franco realises that he is going to have to come up with something a little bit more dazzling and strenuous if he is to make his warrior of the wasteland a breed apart. Check out his neat over-the-shoulder shooting in his first confrontation with Jackson. And he looks remarkably younger than Eastwood as well. Okay, in the shadow of his hat's brim and beneath all that designer stubble, there is little to tell them apart, but once that hat comes off Nero settles back into something akin to teen-idol mode, suddenly appearing the full eleven years younger than Eastwood that he is. Strangely enough, I feel that his youthfulness actually plays against the character. We can believe that Clint's stranger has been around the dusty block a few times, even without those craggy features, the squint puts years of experience on him. Nero, on the other hand, can't avoid that fresh-faced, puppyish innocence, despite the scratchy, unshaven look. The piercing baby-blues cut through Corbucci's grim domain like lasers. Put him back in his hat and then, with his Northern Army greatcoat flung across him, he becomes the Yankee equivalent of Jonah Hex.

    It's always fun to spot the familiar faces that fill out the various gangs in the gamut of Spaghetti Westerns, and many of the despicable miscreants that ally themselves with either Jackson or Hugo Rodriguez in Django served time with the ramshackle bands of killers that populated the Dollars Trilogy and beyond. Naturally there was a breed of American actor that cropped up in US oaters over and over again, Lee Van Cleef very famously having been “third villain from the left” many times before celebrity came a-calling, but somehow they were just bland and generic frontier extras who merely blended in with the woodwork and the dust. Their Italian, Spanish and Mexican counterparts, however, all have such incredible faces that you can't help but study their countenances and recognise them as they flit from film to film. There's no mistaking Jose Terron's scarred Ringo, for instance, who was the almost obscenely ugly absconder, Guy Calloway, that Van Cleef's bounty hunter guns down in the street in For A Few Dollars More. You're never going to forget that duelling banjos type of mush! And this type of familiarity actually manages to reinforce the sense that this wretchedly insane universe is a genuine environment.

    “I sure never thought I'd end up grave-digging and not even getting paid for it, either. Anyhow, it's better to be above ground doing that than below ground doing nothing.”

    The violence might seem tame compared to today's movie gristle, but when Corbucci's film first came out it became something of a cause celebre, going beyond even the hyper-stylised death-dealing that Leone was committing to the screen at the time. With an assembly line of atrocity - executions, whippings, beatings, an ear being cut off and stuffed into the unfortunate victim's mouth - Django courted censorship in various territories, even getting itself banned outright in some places. But it isn't the actual graphic violence that you see that makes the film so troublesome, it is the explicit pleasure of those who are perpetrating it that disturbs the most. As far as exploitation goes, US filmmakers still had some way to go when it came to pushing mainstream ferocity ... and a lot to learn from the Italians.

    The Spaghetti penchant for forcing the good guy to endure an episode of immense physical and psychological torment - Leone pushed Clint through some desperate spells in each instalment of the Dollars Trilogy, of course, all inspired by Kurosawa's beating of Mifune's titular swordsmith in Yojimbo (which Django is also inspired by) - and Corbucci sees fit to take this to a ghastly extreme by having Django's hands mashed to a pulp in one of the genre's most shuddering moments of horrific punishment. The violence in the film, although painfully brutal up until this point, has been quite gleefully over-the-top and almost cartoonic by comparison. Somehow, this semi-symbolic mangling of the gunslinger's hands, leaving them so pummelled and mutilated that they resemble a pair of paws that have been dipped in a bowel of Bolognese really hurts. When we see Clint take a savage beating (and, as I've pointed in a great many reviews now, this happens in a huge number of his films way beyond even what Leone inflicted upon him), we know that he will rise again, bruised and wiser and more determined to even the score. But when Django is crippled like this, there is no impression of a future healing process that we can take comfort from. And to destroy his hands is an act of highly personalised desecration akin to amputating an artist's arms.

    But, hey, listen to this ... in one of those perverse little twists of fate, after I initially wrote that last paragraph, I went on holiday with the family and, in the course of a game of footie with my son on the eve of England's first World Cup Match 2010, I managed to break two fingers on my left hand after foolishly attempting to fend off a powerhouse strike of his. For some reason, I felt considerably less able to take out any bad guys and even less “cool” than the mangled Franco Nero ... and I still had one good hand in use!

    Thus the Italian take on the Old West, spearheaded by A Fistful Of Dollars and then twisted ever more tightly and perversely over the next ten years or so, managed to make cruelty not only an audience-seducing element of raw exploitation, but a flamboyantly metaphorical stamp of European authenticity.

    “Start praying if you like, I don't mind. It's a smart thing to do when you know that death is coming for you.”

    Corbucci proves a dab hand at staging set-pieces. His opening gambit is so gleefully over-the-top and sadistic that it ranks as one of the genre's all-time greats. With poor Maria's misguided hooker getting graphically flogged by the Mexicans she really belongs to, only to be saved by Major Jackson's puritanical posse so that they, themselves, can then burn her at the stake for her slimy Latin allegiance, the scene is set for the depiction of a viciously fantastical world in which two massively opposed moral standpoints collide with successively more extreme results. When Django intervenes and saves the girl, he becomes the catalyst for change in a more overtly religious manner than was ever visualised by Clint in a Leone film, although it is definitely the Man With No Name that he is aping. Corbucci, despite a clearly evident lack of money, also delivers two big episodes of wanton destruction and death. The body-toppling machine-gun massacre actually feels as though it has it wandered in from a 1930's gangster saga, with satanic red-hooded baddies being dropped picturesquely into the squalor of the one street township. It is also designed to recall the inescapable slaughter of the mud-raked trenches of the First World War, and even, perhaps, Ramon Rojo's Gatling-gun annihilation of Mexican troops in Fistful Of Dollars. Then there is the sensational gold heist that seems inspired by Leone's large scale staging of Indio's escape from the Mexican prison in For A Few Dollars More, only even more elaborate and kinetic. This sequence, in particular, is a wildly delicious chapter of balls-to-the-wall abandonment. Using Nathaniel's whore-wagon as a ruse, Hugo's men, including the devious Django, tumble through the stockade, gunning down almost everyone within it in a cascading orgy of extremely jubilant death-dealing. With marvellous camerawork from Enzo Barboni, Corbucci just seems to have armed his cast and then simply unleashed them. Barboni can barely keep up with their hit-and-run raid. If you look closely at this desperate blitzkrieg, you can see how narrowly Django, himself, avoids being slotted by his own dubious comrades-in-arms as bullets are sprayed excitedly in every direction. Aiding this free-for-all is the gloriously upbeat Mexican fiesta music from Luis Bacalov, the piece for this perversely joyous sequence entitled Vanamos Muchasos! Bacalov's overall score is one of the most eclectic in the genre, although he is unmistakably influenced by Morricone (but, then, who hasn't been?) and happily mingles a pop ballad title theme, performed with toptastic 60's machismo by Roberto Fia, with searing orchestral work and vibrant and ribald ethnic cues. Funnily enough, he pulls the same trick that Elmer Bernstein did with The Magnificent Seven's score in that he purposely ups the tempo and the urgency of the music when we see Hugo's men riding into town as they simply aren't moving all that fast.

    Django also has another magnificent chapter to add to the suspense. Once again, the genesis of Nero's highly exciting and visually inventive attempts to whisk away the cache of gold from under its captors' noses is Leone's first two Dollars movies, but the novel and amazingly dexterous use of the coffin certainly gives the sequence a classic twist all of its own. Equally, the climactic graveyard face-off between a severely handicapped Django and his nemesis is justifiably famous and incredibly tense. The wonderful combination of a bullet-deflecting cross, Wacko Jacko's hooded goons, a doomed final prayer and Django's ferocious coup de grace is as ecstatic and blistering a conclusion as you could wish for. Corbucci, it should be noted, does not try to copy Leone's long-drawn-out “stand-off in silence” style of confrontation, actually creating a mise-en-scene that is entirely his own. Poor Django's wrecked hands struggling with his six-shooter a pulse-poundingly anxious moment.

    Of course, religious themes and imagery have always played a part in the Spaghetti Western, but it is usually more for inspired dramatic effect than for any sermonised message. And this is certainly the case here in Django. Corbucci isn't making any sort of allegorical or theological point with this Biblical zeal - Brother Jonathon (Corbucci regular, Gino Pernice) venting evangelical spiel from behind his almost Amish beard, Major Jackson's Pharaoh-like campaign of genocide, Django's benediction of lead etc, are just colourful adaptations of the genre's own inbred mythology. The town may feel like a mud-caked variation on Purgatory and its lead character become a very subverted Messianic figure, but Corbucci is having fun with all this potent symbolism. Poor old Nathaniel is like a cross between Friar Tuck and Timothy Spall, a wizened old Dickensian foil of simpering, long suffering abuse and intimidation. His flea-bitten sideliner is very much a parable staple - he is the meek and weak-willed coward who sides with tyranny purely to survive, but he is also the onlooker who is compelled to find some semblance of inner-resolve and charity once a new player arrives in town, one who is not resolutely evil and may even offer a chance for redemption.

    “You've given me the feeling, if only for a short time, of having a man nearby ... to protect me. To love me.”

    Corbucci, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Bruno, can't resist pitching in a bar-room brawl as well, with Django (and a very obvious stunt-double) going toe-to-toe with Hugo's hot-headed lieutenant Ricardo in a brilliantly choreographed tussle. And you've also got to admire his slutty indulgence with even allowing the ladies to partake in a spot of impromptu mud-wrestling. Helping to rear a newborn genre is one thing, but Corbucci is taking the Hollywood clichés and battering them around the head with infectious bonhomie. Where Leone was more intrigued by the unapologetic ambiguity of his killers' psyche, living vicariously through their desperate actions, Corbucci was just nicking ideas and images off-the-peg and then smashing the all together. In the mud. His sense of humour and flair for crafting iconic and captivating imagery is revealed with Jackson getting mud splashed, ironically, all over his face, and the sight of a gore-encrusted pistol wedged in the frame of a graveyard cross. Some of the concepts don't quite come off and this is one occasion when some backstory exposition (or even a couple of flashbacks) might have come in handy. A couple of glaringly plot holes go unaddressed, especially regarding Major Jackson's apparent double-standards, but Django's “in-yer-face” attitude push it belligerently to the forefront of the Spaghetti tradition.

    Nero would go on to carve out a fabulous career for himself that would see him become a heartthrob not only in his own country but all the way around the world. He would be seen in a vast number of movies, all across the range of genres, but he will forever be remembered as the coffin-dragging Django. Beyond this emphatic cinematic statement, I love his portrayal of the Rambo-haired half-breed Keoma in the tremendously exciting film of the same name. And it seems a shame that whenever he is tagged in a review or mentioned on the back of DVD/BD packaging, he seems saddled with Die Hard 2 as his more usual claim to fame. Corbucci had already made Westerns before Django, with Cameron Mitchell in 1964's Minnesota Clay, for instance, as well as several of the popular “peplum” (sword and sandal) pictures that Italy once churned out by the muscle-bound dozen. And he would go on to helm two more incredible Spaghetti flicks, Navajo Joe with Burt Reynolds in 1966 (a wonderful score from Morricone there) and The Great Silence in 1968, with Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the film that totally throws out the rule-book on how to end a heroic saga, and cemented the director's wild and controversial style in blood.

    Django spawned a phenomenal number of unofficial sequels, though these were, in the main, simply cashing-in on the uber-cool brand name. This is the genuine article. Furious, dark and iconic, Django cuts a dash and goes for broke.