Friday, June 12, 2009

Django (Italy, 1966)

(Trailer.) Lacking virtually all of the operatic aspects of Sergio Leone's great Spaghetti Westerns, Django is nonetheless one of the all time greats of the genre. Alongside Leone's Per un pugno di dollar / A Fist Full of Dollars (1964) and Corbucci's other masterpiece Il Grande silenzio / The Big Silence (1968), Django is one of those rare films that takes the traditions of the genre one step further. But whereas A Fist Full of Dollars is a relatively serious movie and Il Grande silenzio is a pessimistic and political film, Django is an over exaggerated, multi-violent joke complete with a slight promise of a new, happy future.
As Corbucci says in Joe Hembus' Western Lexikon, even he finds the famous concept of a man dragging a coffin through the mud behind him "zum Totlachen" ("a killer of a joke"), and the film was thusly developed. The coffin Django drags is only one of many aspects of the film that are so over the top, so unbelievably overstated or overdone that they initially make the viewer laugh. The love story, the body count in excess of 150, the hookers and put-upon bordello owner, the dialog, the characterization, the shootouts—everything comes across as a satire or cartoon, leaving the viewer little option but to chuckle (or groan, if you're one of the few who fail to realize that the film is meant as a comedy).
True, there are a few scenes—like the ear-cutting scene—in which the violence exceeds even some of that which is found in the films of today, but somehow the violence never seems out of place in the muddy hellhole in which the story transpires, and segues in nicely between the more cartoonish aspects of the film. The film might go on a tad too long, but all in all, too long or not, Django is so original that it can't help but entertain everyone but the most die-hard traditionalist or western hater. Of course, the success of the film spawned dozens of "sequels" in the years that followed, but even those that were good—of which the real, official sequel Django II: Il grande ritorno / Django Strikes Again (1987/trailer) is not one—never came close to achieving the unique heights of this masterpiece.
As in almost all Spaghetti Westerns, Django (Franco Nero) is the typical unshaven anti-hero, a solitary man whose intentions remain unclear throughout most of the movie, long after the reason for his becoming what he is are revealed (in his case, the death of the woman he loved). (Corbucci has gone on record that his hero's name is a tribute to the great guitarist Django Reinhardt, but luckily he never took the homage so far as to make Django play guitar.) Perhaps Django's one difference from the traditional men with no names to be found in Spaghetti Westerns up to that point in time was that he is probably the first one to have a snappy comeback for every situation, as is so common in every action flick today.
When first seen, Django, dressed in the remnants of a Union uniform, is traipsing through a muddy landscape on foot dragging a heavy coffin behind him, accompanied by one of the all time corny theme songs ever written. (Supplied by the relatively unknown but very active 1994 Oscar winner—for Il Postino—Luis Enriquez Bacalov, the background music is excellent. It is only the song sung over the opening credits that is cheesy—probably on purpose.) Stumbling upon the fabulously beautiful Maria (Loredana Nusciak) as she is being terrorized and whipped by Mexican bandits, he does nothing. But after a group of men wearing red scarves shoots the bandits dead and then prepare to burn Maria on a cross, he saves her by shooting them dead and then lets her tag along to his destination, the deserted town close by. The town is a ghost town surrounded by a sea of mud, deserted but for a rundown bordello run by Nataniele (Angel Alvarez), who, caught in the crossfire of two groups, pays protection money to both. The first group is seemingly modeled after the KKK and is under the command of the southern man Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo); the second group is the Mexican rebels under the command of General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bodalo). As soon as Django arrive in town the Major takes a break from shooting Mexican farmers as a sport and comes to kill the man of mystery, a hated northerner, but after a couple of snappy verbal exchanges Django shoots all but the major dead, telling the southerner to come back with all his men. This of course leads to the famous scene of the film, the scene that dare not be revealed (if you don't yet know it), for it should be enjoyed for the over-the-top surprise it is.
Soon after Django has obliterated the major's personnel KKK troop, the hookers first stage a muddy catfight in front of the bordello and then the Mexican revolutionaries arrive, just in time to cut the ear from and then kill the Major's faithful right-hand man. General Rodriguez turns out to be an old friend of Django's (as well as the person Maria was originally fleeing from), and the two of them plan and execute a big robbery of gold, more or less directly and violently out from under the Major's nose. Soon thereafter, after Django sneaks off with both the gold and Maria in tow and loses the stolen riches in a pit of quicksand, Rodriguez shoots Maria in the back and lets his men ride their horses over Django's hand before riding off to be killed in an ambush set up by the Major. Then, the Major and five of his men show up to finish off Django, whose hands are too crippled to even hold a gun....
No ands, if or buts about it: Django is essential viewing.

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