Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained mixes a narrative of oppression – being a thematic follow-up to Inglourious Basterds (2009) – with the director’s trademark ultra-violence and profanities. Both films, and presumably also the forthcoming Killer Crow (mooted as the third film in his trilogy of oppression), also specifically reference Italian action films from the 1960s and 70s. Basterds was loosely inspired by Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978) while the second is not only inspired by Django (1966), but also exists as the latest instalment of the long-running saga that followed Sergio Corbucci’s film.
In Corbucci’s original, Django arrives in the form of taciturn gunslinger Franco Nero. As he settles into a one-street town as the de facto sheriff, a ubiquitous Western / samurai film plot ensues, with a Mexican gang and the soldiers vying over a cache of buried gold. Corbucci makes his hero one to remember – from the iconic coffin the gunslinger pulls behind him to the casual torture the bad guys inflict on anyone who crosses them, including a graphic ear-severing scene probably stuck in Tarantino’s mind long before he considered making a sequel to the film.
In the Electric Sheep anthology The End , I wrote about Italy’s laissez faire approach to (zombie) sequels, and similarly when Django proved a hit, a variety of other Westerns already in production saw their names changed to capitalise on its success, including 1966’s Some Dollars for Django (cashing in on two Italo-Western franchises) and Django Shoots First (1966). One of these, Django Kill! (aka If you live, shoot! 1967) is an unusual homoerotic Western / horror hybrid particularly worth tracking down. Its touches of surrealism, Christian iconography and dreamlike flashbacks prefigure Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) while the graphic disembowelling of a man shot with golden bullets anticipate the gore in Italy’s cannibal films in the following decade.
A craze of retitling led to another seven Django films in 1967 alone, and by 1968 Italian directors had had enough time to start making actual Django sequels rather than just naming unrelated films as such. One of the most notable is Ferdinando Baldi’s Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968), a prequel best known for its soundtrack by Gianfranco Reverberi, which was sampled by Gnarls Barkley for their hit ‘Crazy’. In Prepare a Coffin Terence Hill takes on the title role, undercover as a hangman in order to create a gang of his own to revenge his murdered wife. Although somewhat slow, the neat plot and iconic music give the film some credibility as a bona fide Django film and it’s nice to see Hill take the lead in a non-comedic Western.
Another eight Django films turned up between Baldi’s film and the following year’s One Damned Day at Dawn… Django Meets Sartana! (1969), in which two iconic gunmen meet for the first of five team-ups. By the end of 1972, the number of films that were either made as sequels to Django or merely titled as such had reached the improbable total of 30. By that time, the entire genre was on its last legs, and apart from continuing international capitalisation on the success of the franchise – such as the Nero-starring Keoma (1976), retitled Django Rides Again in some countries – it took the interest of the original actor himself for the saga to be belatedly revived on its twentieth anniversary.
Django 2 / Django Strikes Again (1987) sees the character return from self-imposed exile to save his daughter from Hungarian slave traders, and like the following year’s Rambo III (1988), features a monastic anti-hero, cheesy 1980s production values and signs of franchise fatigue. Apart from an extended cameo by Italophile Donald Pleasence, Django 2 has little to recommend it beyond the novelty of seeing Nero back in the title role.
The combination of Luis Enríquez Bacalov’s returning classic Django theme, stylised ultra-violence, and Quentin Tarantino attempting an improbable accent is actually not first found in the latter’s Django film but rather in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), in which Tarantino stars as the mentor of a female assassin. Cultural references fly thick and fast as Miike mixes the War of the Roses, flamenco, a schizophrenic sheriff in the mould of Gollum, cowboy-versus-samurai action and a small boy caught in the middle, destined to grow up to be gunslinger Django. This Japanese remix is a heady brew of all that has gone before, marred only by the director’s ill-advised decision to have his cast speak English, learned phonetically.
Racial tension was present in some of the more Zapata-type Django instalments and Django Unchained (2013) brings racism to the fore in the latest version of the character. Unlike his predecessors, Jamie Foxx isn’t cast as another incarnation of the original, but rather as a freed slave turned hunter under the aegis of Christoph Waltz’s mild-mannered bounty killer. Waltz steals the movie, but Foxx himself is an appealing lead with nouveau riche affectations, wearing a bright blue outfit with ruffs for his first visit to a plantation as a free man. Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction allows the director to combine the tropes of a buddy movie with a Western that tackles the intolerance of the old West head on, leading to a variety of uncomfortable moments for the audience, in which they have to challenge the appropriateness of their own enjoyment.
Gravedigger, hangman, undead messianic widower, orphaned samurai, freed slave: the Django franchise has encompassed a multitude of styles, actors and directors over the last six decades and inspired enough genre-defying movies to make both the most famous instalments and some of the least known Django films worth tracking down before the title character drags his gun-filled coffin into that final Western sunset.
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