With Tarantino’s forthcoming Django Unchained the talk of the town we take a look at the film that gave it its name.
Introduced to the explanatory strains of Roberto Fia’s stirring yet pretty ridiculous theme song, Franco Nero is Django. First glimpsed dragging a coffin with awesome masculinity, later he’s seen perfecting the art of peering mysteriously from under his hat, his cool blue eyes flanked by designer stubble and grime. Django might be a shoo-in for most handsome man in the west but the film itself is not all hunks in hats; there are also massive guns.
Set just after the American civil war, Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western is the story of a lone gunfighter who’s recently lost the woman he loves, or so the opening theme histrionically tells us. It’s a woman lost, a woman found when he strays upon a group of Mexicans flogging the terrified and beautiful Maria (Loredana Nusciak) before they’re killed by a gang of Americans. Maria might have escaped the frying pan but she’s heading straight into a fire, as they plan to burn her on a cross.
Django rescues Maria (enjoy those five seconds of traditional heroism while they last), taking her to the relative safety of a nearby town and the local saloon-come-brothel, run by the reluctantly accommodating Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez). There she’s recognised as a supposed trouble maker, a mixed-race Mexican and Yankee woman who has been involved with two warring factions – her tormentors from before.
This double-threat of villainy are Mexican rebels led by General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo), and American KKK-like fanatics fronted by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) who consider themselves racially superior, wear sinister hoods and kill for sport.
Django finds himself in the middle of this bunch of bastards, and he’s certainly not one to judge. In a feast of immorality, he takes down 48 of the Major’s men after revealing that his trusty coffin is packing the aforementioned massive machine gun. Initially it seems that he’s on friendly terms with General Rodriguez and together they enact a daring gold heist, using a Trojan Horse-style scam led by the very unhappy Nathaniel.
The film was reportedly made on the fly from a hastily put together scaletta (somewhere between a synopsis and a screenplay) by Sergio’s brother Bruno Corbucci. Bruno was in fact only brought in to write something after filming had already begun with no screenplay at all in place. It was filmed at least partially on a weather-battered set at the Tor Caldara nature reserve, which oddly suited the film’s rough and ready feel.
Nero was a mere 23 when he played the part and had to be made-up to look much older. He describes the character affectionately as "a real son of a bitch" and the film as a cross between a Japanese samurai flick and a spoof. Though Nero had aspirations to be a stage actor when he accepted the role, he readily admits resorting to Fred MacMurray’s technique of, "A cowboy actor needs two changes of expression – hat on and hat off."
Consequently they tried over 100 hats to find the perfect one. He remembers Corbucci as "always full of humour", though he worked Nero damn hard, forcing him to lug that hefty coffin back and forth and sinking him in cold, makeshift quicksand for hours.
Django was so popular that it ultimately provided the inspiration for an astonishing 31 sequels. Unfortunately, only one of those which saw Nero back in the title role – 1987's Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno (otherwise known as Django Strikes Again), the only official sequel. Such is the cult of Django that Quentin Tarantino’s latest is titled Django Unchained. Although it’s not a remake as such (focussing instead on the slave trade), it is a revenge-themed western, featuring a cameo from Nero.
The unvarnished brutality (the ear severing scene stands out here – something else that was pinched by Tarantino) meant that Django never got a cinematic release in the United Kingdom and was only issued with a certificate in 1993 (an 18, though it was downgraded to a 15 in 2004). For years the most that was seen of it in this country was the footage featured in The Harder They Come, when Jimmy Cliff goes to see Django at the pictures. In fact its first official UK screening was on BBC2’s Moviedrome, presented by Django enthusiast Alex Cox.
Django is maniacal, muddy and masochistic, delivering transgressive, beautifully shot violence, alongside social commentary and even laughs.