As Django Unchained gears up to ride into UK cinemas, LWLies pays tribute to the fabled gunslinger that inspired Tarantino's southern-fried spaghetti western.
Here's the thing about heroes: the ones that become iconic, that blaze a lasting trail across the collective consciousness, tend to define neither this time nor that, inhabiting instead some transitional space between old and new.
Homer's Achilles, 'best of the Achaeans', embodies ancient codes of heroism even as he defies them by openly questioning their values and withdrawing from the battlefield. Virgil's Aeneas must navigate between past Trojan defeat and future Roman triumph. And Sergio Corbucci's Django is trapped between two states (literally Texas and Mexico, more metaphorically life and death) even as he brings a new (a)morality and sadism to a gunslinging figure of old America.
Django might at first seem out of place in this hallowed pantheon. After all, far from being an original, he appears, at least at first glance, to be a copy of a copy of a copy. Like all spaghetti westerns, Django is in a parasitic relationship to the American oater. The basic outline of its plot – a mercenary stranger drifts into a town being torn apart by two warring factions – is borrowed from Kurosawa Akira's Yojimbo. This had already been done, of course, by other spaghetti westerns, most notably Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and Corbucci's own Minnesota Clay (both 1964 – indeed, Leone and Corbucci caught Yojimbo in Rome in the same week).
Even the very idea of rustling western plots from Kurosawa's 'easterns' was borrowed from America, following the example of John Sturges' Seven Samurai rip-off The Magnificent Seven. Django does not so much emerge from a vacuum as from an echo chamber.
Still there is no denying Django's own immense influence on both the western genre and a certain kind of off-mainstream culture. Writer/director Corbucci and star Franco Nero may have worked together only twice to bring this bedraggled shooter in black to the screen – in the original Django and the belated 1987 follow-up Django Strikes Again (which Nello Rossati helmed but Corbucci helped to pen) – but their mythic anti-hero would spawn some thirty unofficial sequels (with neither Nero's nor Corbucci's involvement), while in Germany so closely was Nero identified with the character, and so popular was his appeal, that any Nerowestern released there would have the name Django gratuitously added to its title.
In the Jamaican midnight move The Harder They Come, protagonist Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) both watches Django at the cinema and self-consciously models himself on Nero's character, while more recently Miike Takashi has traced the spaghetti western back to its eastern origins in his Genpei/oater mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django. And after memorably cameoing in Miike's film, Quentin Tarantino has this year refashioned Corbucci's mud-spattered legend as a retributive African-American retelling of Birth Of A Nation, with a cameo from Nero himself.
To understand what lies behind Django's abiding influence and iconic status, it is necessary to go back to his first film outing, which fans of Django Unchained may be surprised to discover also featured an army of masked Ku Klux Klansmen. In Corbucci's film, set a little after the American Civil War, Django (who "fought for the North" and appears to have once had a Mexican wife) rides into a 'private war' between on the one hand the racial supremacist Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and his Confederate soldiers, and on the other General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) and his renegade band of Mexican exiles.
Far from being a random stranger, Django is there on 'business', looking for both revenge and enough gold to redeem his lost soul – but it is the odd particulars of his narrative journey that have left their indelible mark on the public psyche, as well, of course, as the fact that he has a memorable name (unlike, say, Leone's The Man With No Name). That name, incidentally, references pioneering jazz musician Django Reinhardt, who had to relearn how to play virtuosos guitar after two of the fingers on his left hand became partially paralysed by a fire – although you will have to wait till the very end of Django to see just what the titular triggerman manages to achieve after losing the use of all his fingers.
Really, Django has us in its grip from the film's opening 'shot', when we see the gunman on foot, dragging a closed wooden coffin across a desolate landscape. This irrational image – evocative all at once of Sisyphus rolling his infernal stone or Jesus bearing his cross – makes it clear that Django is a man never far from death. "Are you here to bury the dead?" are the first words addressed to him, by one of Jackson's men (soon himself to join the ranks of the deceased at Django's hand).
Shortly afterwards, the bartender Nathaniel (Angel Alvarez) will wonder aloud if Django is a "coffin maker" , come to town for work. One of Nathaniel's whores (using aptly sexualised language) will comment: "My girlfriends are afraid of what's in that box, but it doesn't really frighten me. After all, a coffin's a coffin. Is there someone inside?" To this, the protagonist will respond enigmatically, "Yeah, and his name is Django," as though acknowledging that he is a dead man walking. "I've walked long enough, long enough," he will wearily tell the halfbreed Maria (Loredana Musciak) just before the film's closing sequence (set in a cemetery!), "so I can finally bury Django in that box."
Is our hero even alive, or is he an unrestful spirit returned to what Nathaniel expressly calls "a dead city, a regular ghost town", much as Jackson's forces are themselves the shadowy phantoms of a war long since over, and much as Django itself is just another nail in the coffin of the traditional western and its long outmoded values?
Of course there is something more than a mere metaphor in that box – something that Django describes as "all the help" he will need in single-handedly facing off against 48 of Jackson's men. Corbucci makes the coffin the elephant in the room, mystifying viewers for over a third of his film's duration before finally revealing the box's deadly contents – and bringing his archetypal hero into a messier, altogether less honorable modernity. If John Ford's The Searchers left the classic American cowboy with nowhere to go, Django shows a new, if similarly elegiac and terminal, direction.
For here 'true grit' is measured not so much in heroic courage and determination as in the muddy filth of the sets, the dark cynicism of the characters, and the almost surreally uncompromising brutality of the violence. Bare backs are scourged, ears are sliced off, hands are bloodily crushed, and a body count in the hundreds – meaning that the film was rejected for certification in the UK until as late as 1993, receiving its current 15 certificate only in 2004. And of course, like all the best heroes, Django comes with his own hummable theme tune.
The original Django is released uncut and remastered for Blu-Ray and DVD on 21 January.