You may have heard about this little Quentin Tarantino movie being released into theaters very soon called Django Unchained. We ve only expressed our excitement and anticipation for it about 10,000 times here at The Back Row. However, I can’t help wondering how many casual filmgoers out there are aware of the original film which Django Unchained is based on? When Inglourious Basterds was released, many people were unaware that it was based on a 1978 Italian World War II action film called The Inglorious Bastards, though all the two films really had in common were the title and the World War II setting. It remains to be seen how faithful Django Unchained will be to its original source material, but even if Tarantino takes things in an entirely different direction, helping expose filmgoers to the original Django can only be a good thing. Django is a 1966 Italian spaghetti western which was released at a time when the genre was at the height of its popularity. Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood had just made the enormously successful A Fistful of Dollars and its equally successful sequel, For a Few Dollars More, and were one year away from completing the “Man with No Name” trilogy with one of the most iconic films of all time: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Italian director Sergio Corbucci was in the midst of a rather unspectacular career making low-budget sword-and-sandal movies, so he decided to try his hand at the spaghetti western genre when he made Django. The film had a very simplistic and rather derivative storyline and pretty much went into production without a finished screenplay, but the end result was one of the greatest spaghetti westerns ever made.
The key to a successful spaghetti western is a very memorable antihero and the film s opening credits instantly establish that Django is going to have one. We see a drifter named Django (Franco Nero) wandering through the countryside to the tune his own title song. Django is dragging a casket behind him, and the movie does a great job at building anticipation about what could possibly be in that casket. He passes by a cemetery where a prostitute named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) is being whipped by the henchmen of General Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo), who is none-too-happy that she tried to run off on him. These goons are soon killed by the henchmen of Rodriguez’s arch-rival, Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), but unfortunately for Maria, they plan to tie her to a cross and burn her alive. That’s when Django steps in to rescue her by killing Jackson’s goons, proving himself to be a master gunfighter who can shoot multiple men in seconds with pitch-perfect accuracy. It later turns out that Django wants revenge on Major Jackson for killing his wife. The storyline is very similar to A Fistful of Dollars (itself an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) as Django soon enters a small town and uses his skills to play the rival Jackson and Rodriguez factions off each other. Django could easily kill Jackson right away, but needs to keep him alive for awhile, so that he can join up with Rodriguez and help him steal a large quantity of gold from Jackson. Of course, Rodriguez ain’t exactly a saintly individual himself, so Django is happy to manipulate these two warring factions into wiping each other out.
As I stated earlier, Django pretty much went into production without a finished script. Given the popularity of Leone s films, Sergio Corbucci probably wanted to start working on a spaghetti western as soon as possible. He asked his brother to quickly draft out a story and they pretty much commenced filming with a detailed synopsis rather than an actual screenplay. However, what Django may lack in story depth or originality is more than made up for in style. Django has some of the most clever and creative gunfights and set pieces you will ever see in a western, particularly its finale, where Django has both of his hands completely broken and is left unable to fire a gun, but somehow still finds a way to defeat half a dozen men singlehandedly. While he was not the original casting choice to play Django, Franco Nero is absolutely perfect in the role and, in some ways, makes an even more effective antihero than Clint Eastwood in the “Man with No Name” trilogy. While Django is visually striking, it’s also very raw and gritty and it also caused a lot of controversy because of its level of graphic violence, which lead to the film being banned in several countries. Of course, the violence in Django looks very tame by today’s standards, but at the time, audiences were completely shocked by it, particularly one scene where a character has his ear sliced off. The film’s official body count is 138 and people were just not used to seeing that many people get killed onscreen in a 90-minute movie. A good portion of the body count is caused by this scene, where they finally reveal what Django has been concealing inside his casket. Quite simply, this is one of the most satisfying and badass payoffs in the history of cinema.
Django became a huge success in Europe and helped Sergio Corbucci become the go-to guy for making Italian spaghetti westerns after Sergio Leone stepped away from the genre. In subsequent years, over thirty westerns would be released with “Django” in the title and while many of them were billed as “sequels”, none of these films had anything to do with the original film. In fact, whenever Franco Nero starred in a western, it became a common trick for some distributors to shoehorn the word “Django” into the title even though he was playing a completely different character. The only official sequel came in 1987 when Nero returned to reprise the role in Django Strikes Again. It was a perfectly decent and entertaining sequel, though it was no match for the original. It’s not surprising that Quentin Tarantino would take on the task of directing his own Django film, considering that he had a substantial acting role in Sukiyaki Western Django, the 2007 Japanese spaghetti western from Takashi Miike. Even though the original Django has a devoted cult following, it’s still somewhat underrated and is nowhere near as well-known as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Hopefully, Django Unchained will result in a wider exposure and newfound popularity for Sergio Carbucci’s film. If you’re planning to see Django Unchained, but have not yet seen the original Django, you are highly advised to check it out. However, just make sure you seek out the original subtitled Italian version. The English-dubbed version is absolutely atrocious and Franco Nero is dubbed over with a soft-spoken Henry Fonda-esque voice which is all wrong for the character. In the meantime, check out Franco Nero in this brilliant short film called The Last Pistolero, which is included as a special feature on the Django DVD and is a very fitting and clever tribute to the character.