Django (1966), Lookback/Review

What precisely was it about THIS Django that inspired Quentin Tarantino to make HIS Django?

You know his name. Once he loved her, but now he’s lost her, woah-oh-oh-oh. He’s lost her forever…Django.

But if you think he is a freed slave played by Jamie Foxx or that he’s traveling around the Antebellum South with a German gunslinger, then you have the wrong Django. Yes, long before Quentin Tarantino stirred his boiling Southern Fried Spaghetti, there was another Django with the exact same song. Released in 1966, the original Django is one of those lesser-seen Italian-seasoned Westerns that inspired a young QT, oh so many moons ago. This Django came out the same year as the third and final of the “Man with No Name” films. Indeed, Tarantino has often cited The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone, as the best directed movie of all time. Thus we at Den of Geek decided to revisit this less known influence to find out what else the pulpy visionary exhumed from the flick.

Django opens with the same credit style as last year’s movie, but with an oddly different emphasis. While Tarantino chose to focus on his enslaved protagonist’s pain-ridden face, director Sergio Corbucci begins the original tale with the lone gunman only seen from distances and silhouettes as he hauls a dense chunk of coffin across an Old West that looks suspiciously like rural Spain. Before the opening titles finish, Django  (Franco Nero) has stumbled upon a group of Mexican bandits prepared to hang an auburn-haired lady, Maria (Loredana Nusciak) by an inconveniently located river of quick sand. Our wayward hero passively watches as she’s saved by former Confederate soldiers…who then proceed to burn her at the stake. However the immolation is left uncompleted, because Django presumably finishes his off-camera cigar and springs into action by killing them and saving the girl in a way that would make Clint Eastwood proud.

It turns out fair Maria is from a local ghost town that consists of one bartender and an understaffed whorehouse. The poor wretches are under the “protection” and tyranny of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a former Confederate soldier who has an inexplicable disdain for any Mexicans near the Texan border (perhaps he was born a century or two early?). He and his men seem to bide their time between murdering Mexicans and terrorizing prostitutes. Fortunately, Django’s arrival means they are almost all dispatched immediately by the hero’s secret weapon, hidden in his coffin. Soon, Django is bedding Maria, teaming with Mexican bandit General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) and generally just double-crossing everyone about every 15 minutes.   Eventually, the movie comes down to a coffin full of gold (don’t they all?) and an inconveniently located river of quick sand. If there is a better metaphor for this movie’s plot, I couldn’t guess it.

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Django is a very difficult movie to digest. It does a solid job of evoking the more masterful Leone Spaghetti movies. Also, with a clearly meager budget, Django creates some striking visuals. The scene of the mysterious desperado trudging through mud and dirt with an equally foreboding coffin in tow is a striking image. The visual of the decrepit village is almost biblical in the nature of its desolation. Drowned in a seeming tsunami of wet earth that reaches up to consume the buildings, it feels almost more George Romero than John Ford. However, it is all in service of what feels like a cheapie knock-off.

At this point in his career, Franco Nero is a year away from earning a career breakout role as Lancelot in Camelot (1967), which led to the equally epic and complex love story of his 40-year on/off affair with actress Vanessa Redgrave. But as Django? The screen presence that would come to define him in future works is sorely missing in a performance that at best can be called a pale imitation of Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Apparently, the name Django sapped the stoic archetype of all the menacing charisma that the filmmakers were trying to ape.

The story is equally confounding. There isn’t so much a plot to this movie as a series of vignettes. First, it is about Django rescuing Maria and the prostitutes from Major Jackson. In the second story, Django woos Maria while manipulating General Rodriguez to help him rob a fortune. Then there are two final shorts about Django that are barely strung into an overall narrative, save for some incomprehensible character motivations. The last bit is particularly true for the much abused and oblivious Maria. She is the type of male-written woman who thinks blackmail and gunpoint bargaining equal love, just as the film thinks blood and violence equal excitement or suspense.

Indeed, it is easy to guess why Tarantino may have been first drawn to the picture. Beyond being a Spaghetti Western with a cool name, it also developed a cult following due its reputation. Upon its release in 1966, Django was considered the most violent film ever made. It was refused a certificate of rating in Great Britain until 1993, banned outright in Sweden and even received the very harsh certificate of “18” in its native Italy. Producer Manolo Bolognini once helpfully said that Corbucci forgot to edit out a graphic scene of Major Jackson’s lackey getting his ear cut off by a vengeful Mexican gang after complaints from Italian censors. I would venture to say that scenes of equal brutality that include Django having his hands smashed by betrayed colleagues and a gloriously absurd sequence of the anti-hero defeating an entire army thanks to a single Gatling Gun did as much damage with more sensitive audiences at the time as anything else in the movie.

It is easy to see why this would be considered a grisly classic in some circles, especially of the kind Tarantino does his daily laps in. Visually, it is quite beautiful and accomplishes more with its shoestring budget than many a Hollywood film. It also contains all the conventions for lovers of the genre. Unfortunately, it suffers from an all-too familiar set of clichés that are numbingly predictable and connected by a threadbare plot. The dubbed acting doesn’t work and every character’s motives aren’t so much guarded and mysterious as they are non-existent. These people are merely pliable stand-ins from better Spaghetti films that are bent for each successive set piece with no thought given to personality or motivation. Yes, the song is enjoyable in a way not unlike Gouda. But we should all be thankful that other than a visual tip of the hat to a whipping scene and a brief cameo from Nero, the song is the only major thing Tarantino took for HIS Django. Otherwise, this movie might as well go back to the quicksand of time along with that ever-troublesome gold.