By Jeremy Carr.
Arrow’s laudable treatment of Django attests to the lasting interest in this unconventional and oftentimes striking fare.”
Although his stature has risen in recent years, Sergio Corbucci has primarily resided in the shadows of his more famous spaghetti western counterpart, Sergio Leone. But like the sub-genre generally, for which he is best known, Corbucci’s work has been steadily accepted and applauded by a sizable cult niche, especially among those who recognize his films as reference points courtesy of Quentin Tarantino. And of his more than 60 eclectic features, Corbucci’s Django has easily become his most renowned and most often cited release, with good reason. From its very beginning, this 1966 film confirms its distinct essence with what critic Stephen Prince calls a “transformative opening.” First is the film’s theme song, conducted by Bruno Nicolai, written by Franco Migliacci and Robert Mellin, and sung by Rocky Roberts. It’s one of the catchier refrains in western history, lyrically testifying to Django’s solitary wanderings as well as the movie’s evocation of past trauma. Then there’s the incongruous sight of Django’s titular hero, played by Franco Nero, as he drags a coffin over a sullied, barren landscape in a memorably surreal conception. Ruggero Deodato, assistant director on the picture, says the idea of the coffin pulled by Django was derived from a comic Corbucci once read, and for Prince, the unusual touch symbolizes the death Django drags with him and “dispenses … throughout the film.” Whatever its genesis or ultimate significance, the coffin hauled by Django’s enigmatic protagonist is just a preliminary foretaste of the film’s enduring eccentricity.
Django was written by Corbucci and a handful of collaborators, including Bruno Corbucci, his brother, and like Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, released two years prior, it’s an unambiguous riff on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), where the entrance of a mysterious stranger into a town besieged by two warring factions unleashes rampant duplicity, scheming, and bloodshed. Unlike those earlier features, however, where the terse hero is simply an observant bystander to start, gauging the degree of hostility and assessing how best to wield his own upper hand, Django instantly garners the animosity of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), rescuing a tortured prostitute (Loredana Nusciak) from his grip and killing several of his henchmen in the process. For a brief period thereafter, Django does bide his time in a lifeless saloon-cum-brothel, but before long, after the arrival of Mexican renegades led by General Hugo Rodríguez (José Bódalo), an unsavory character who shares a dubious past with Django but is by no means his ardent acquaintance, he takes a more active role in the territorial skirmish, prodding both sides of the conflict.
Like many spaghetti westerns, Django was filmed on location in Spain and Italy, but its scenic visions are relatively unique in the genre. Considered part of Corbucci’s “mud and blood” trilogy (including also 1968’s The Great Silence and 1969’s The Specialists), the film is entrenched in a damp and desolate environment, one that is unremittingly downcast and cold. There is in the film, according to Prince, an “aura of doom,” and it’s fitting Django would correspondingly emerge as a furtive, almost spectral figure whose sheer presence signals imminent upheaval. Consumed by globs of mud and muck, the rundown town serves as something of a home base for Django. It’s defined by its tedium and vacancy, to the point where the adjacent cemetery seems to be its most populated site. Owing to the superbly subdued cinematography of Enzo Barboni and Corbucci’s sparse tonal inflections, the uneasy region appears at the ends of the earth, existing out of place and out of time, where civilization has concluded but wars long since settled have not. Django may have fought for the North during the American Civil War, but aside from his enmity toward Major Jackson, which stems from a more personal vendetta (Jackson was responsible for the murder of Django’s sweetheart, or possibly sister – it’s never explained), he demonstrates little in the way of political or national commitment, unlike the ex-Confederate officer who wears his racist heritage on his sleeve.
Before relaxing into a fairly conventional plot involving the theft of some gold and a succession of double-crosses and shootouts, Django is rife with sedentary tension, developing from the methodical pacing, the cautious movements of characters and Corbucci’s camera, and the halting glances of individuals prone to arbitrary outbursts of viciousness. And, of course, there’s the inscrutable nature of Django himself, to say nothing of the peculiar case he keeps in tow. As Austin Fisher and Alex Cox observe in their respective supplements, included on the Arrow Films release of Django, a comprehensive backstory wasn’t always necessary for the mythical western hero, and the lack of exposition could in fact advance his sustained existence as an unknowable crusader. In this regard, Corbucci would have been better served to stress the point and prolong the ambiguity further than he does. Not only is the reason for Django’s considered arrival affirmed quite early, but the reveal of what’s inside the coffin comes far sooner than expected. It could have been a thrilling payoff made all the more dramatic after a protracted phase of curiosity, but instead, Corbucci chooses to expose its contents about 30 minutes into the 90-minute film. That said, this revelatory episode is nevertheless Django’s standout sequence, displaying Corbucci’s virtuoso staging and his knack for vividly jarring action. As Jackson’s men descend on the town, carrying a burning cross and armed to the teeth, their blood red hoods pepper the bleak backdrop. They surface from street corners and alleyways as Corbucci tracks parallel to their forward progression, while Django, positioned behind a randomly placed log, opens the pine box and discharges an ostentatious machine gun. He rises and proceeds to mow down the villains in an awesome display of masterfully orchestrated ferocity.
In speaking about Django’s influence on subsequent spaghetti westerns, primarily its cynical themes, formal quirks, and its alliance with oppressed or wronged individuals, Cox notes how the film’s popularity resulted in at least 30 other features bearing the title “Django,” even if Corbucci and Nero and even the eponymous character had nothing to do with them. One of these is also included with the lavish Arrow package, which includes a commentary track for Django and this supplemental feature. Released in some countries as a sequel to Django (in name only), Texas, Adios was Nero’s third western in a row, following Django and Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time (1966). Co-written and directed by Ferdinando Baldi, who also helmed 1971’s Blindman, with Ringo Starr(!), and the 1981 3-D western Comin’ at Ya!, Texas, Adios arrived in theaters just a few months after Django, but this time, Nero is playing Texas sheriff Burt Sullivan. Accompanied by his younger brother, Sullivan tracks down a tyrannical Mexican crime lord (José Suárez) who had once upon a time murdered his father. Also showcasing the cinematography of Barboni, Texas, Adios is, save for its exceptional opening credits sequence (an already-in-progress, freeze-frame shootout), a less idiosyncratic product than Django. While it contains plenty of the wicked malice seen throughout the spaghetti western heyday, the look and fundamental narrative of the roundly impressive picture is comparatively restrained and abides by many traditional genre standards.
As for Nero’s wrathful lawman, he again operates with a subjective brand of morality and social decency. Like Django, he is quick to kill but does so only as an efficient savior or avenging angel, and Nero plays both roles to grizzled, stoic perfection. He is brazen and shrewd, or, as Major Jackson remarks in Django, courageous or crazy. Just 23 at the time, Nero wasn’t the first choice for Django, though he did receive Leone’s seal of approval when the director stopped by the set (perhaps Leone saw an effective actor but one not quite equal to his own leading man, Clint Eastwood, who Nero is clearly emulating). Eventually reprising his role as Django in Django Strikes Again (1987), the only “official” sequel to Corbucci’s film, Nero conveys in both Django and Texas, Adios an estimable wit and grit. With a sometimes-abrasive reserve, he is laconic, tough, and uncommonly proficient in his capabilities, particularly when they’re in the service of rectifying a disconcerting past.
According to scholar Howard Hughes, who contributes three essays as part of the 60-page booklet included in the Arrow release, Corbucci directed 13 spaghetti westerns from 1964 to 1975, but as Roberto Curti points out in his own writing, he was prolifically diverse across all genres. Still, films like Django are those for which he is best known, and even within these westerns he was capable of immense versatility and inventiveness. The depicted violence is admittedly a large part of his notoriety, as Corbucci would routinely demonstrate an intensely visceral brutality, and Django alone features such sadistic acts as when Jackson’s merciless red hoods murder fleeing Mexicans for sport and when Django has his hands pummeled into inoperable slabs of gruesome flesh; most notable of all is when Mexican rebels slice off the ear of a local spy and drop the bloody appendage into his gaping mouth. Not surprisingly, Django was refused a certificate by the UK censors, which only endorsed its offbeat status. Yes, these scenes could be repellent, and Deodato, one of many individuals interviewed for the Arrow collection or featured in archival conversation, derides Corbucci’s penchant for cruelty. But this grievance is rather ironic coming from the director of 1979’s Cannibal Holocaust, and one also senses Deodato’s resentment for what he perceived as a lack of credit on Django; the idea of the red hoods (to hide the actors’ ugly faces) and certain other elements were, according to him, his unacknowledged ideas.
In any event, while the violence was a sensational selling point, Corbucci wasn’t preoccupied by carnage alone. His ingenious framing, chaotic handheld brawls, and cascading camera maneuvers had a less overtly operatic effect than that of Leone, but his technique still stood in obvious contrast with Hollywood’s kindred product at the time. In rightly praising Corbucci’s stylistic virtues, Fisher and Prince are also careful to place his work in the context of the era, not only discussing the history of the film and its variations, spin-offs, and rip-offs, but also, most importantly, its adherence to audience expectations. Although Corbucci’s method could be “perverse,” in the words of Prince, that wasn’t necessarily a drawback. He knew how to successfully integrate what Fisher calls “crescendos” of action, calculated moments of “titillation” and “gratification” designed and implemented to meet the tastes of his primary viewers. Corbucci’s own sense of humor was also vital to not taking these movies too seriously (although his handling of racial and political issues – concerns that became prominent plot points in the spaghetti western’s later years, as Fisher notes – was rather admirable). His unpretentiousness is borne out by his occasionally incomplete screenplays and his acceptance of improvisational adaptation. So, while critics may have objected to the degree of violence at the time, these films were, and remain, well-regarded favorites among fans; if nothing else, Arrow’s laudable treatment of Django attests to the lasting interest in this unconventional and oftentimes striking fare. As such, spaghetti westerns like Django will continue to enjoy their due admiration, especially when the associated films are at their best, which they regularly were when directed by Sergio Corbucci.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).