For the majority of casual western fans, the alpha and the omega of the Spaghetti Western is usually considered to be Sergio Leone’s legendary contributions to genre – yet if we were to look a little deeper, we’d find that Clint Easwood’s Man With No Name actually has peers who are equally as mythic and mysterious as he. Those familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained may not be aware that the name “Django” carries a substantial amount of weight (similar to a coffin full of gold, actually) thanks to Sergio Corbucci’s magnificently gothic 1966 western, Django and the legitimately insane amount of unofficial sequels that followed in the track marks the original left in the mud.
Striking, breathtaking and loaded with ferocious violence (it was impressively labelled as one of the most violent movie ever made at the time), this haunting, Western comes sodden with an unforgettable atmosphere that penetrates to the bone like an icy chill.
A stranger enters a town on the Mexico – United States border wearing a Union uniform and dragging a coffin behind him. On his way he comes across a bunch of Mexican bandits whipping a prostitute, Maria, until they’re shot and killed by goons working for racist, ex-Confederate officer, Major Jackson, who then up the ante by deciding to crucify and burn her until the stranger known as Django finally intercedes with a flurry of bullets. Taking Maria to town and holing up in the local bar, Django learns from the crusty owner that the town is a shakey neutral zone in the ongoing feud between Major Jackson’s Ku Klux Klan-esque Red Shirts and General Hugo Rodriguez’s revolutionaries and immediately begins to cook up a plan.
Awaiting the inevitable pushback from the Red Shirts, Django lays in wait, apparently supremely confident in outshooting around 40 men, but when they arrive, he opens up his coffin and reveals his ace in the hole: a fucking machine gun that bloodily evens the odds and causes Jackson to flee.
Essentially ending the feud, Rodriguez who knows Django and even owes him his life, comes to town with his men to celebrate, but Django isn’t done yet, proposing that they hit Jackson even harder by robbing the man’s gold by raising his gold from an army fort.
However, after successfully stealing the loot, all Django wants is to take his share and bounce, but Rodriguez holds out, wanting to spend the gold on more of Django’s machine guns in order to win the revolution so the blue-eyed gunslinger simply thinks “fuck it” and decides to steal the lot for himself.
Rodriguez’s retribution is terrible, leaving Django in no condition to defend himself and after word gets out that the gunslinger ain’t able to sling his guns no more, Jackson and the few remaining Red Shirts crawl out of the woodwork in order to take revenge on the crippled opportunist…
From the opening credits, that features an opening theme song that’s positively fueled by regret and loss (“Once you loved her, now you’ve lost her, but you’ve lost her forever, Django”) and boasts the unforgettable image of Franco Nero’s titular lead dragging his trusty coffin with him wherever he goes, Sergio Corbucci’s masterpiece is a wonderfully morbid mood piece that follows its inscrutable hero as he goes through the usual double dealings familiar with the genre, but that tinges every scene with an obsession of dread and death. Obviously Django’s trademark accessory is a massive giveaway, but while his peers usually are merely simple men trying to make their way in the world, Django is literally still wounded by a mystery loss he simply can’t get over and needs to score himself riches in order to start a new life and finally move on from his grief. It creates a somber, gothic tone that seeps into every fibre of the movie – sure, most locales in Spaghetti Westerns are run down to a certain degree, but the town in Django is a world class shithole, virtually deserted and swapping out dusty streets for cloying, sucking mud, this doesn’t even have enough to even class as a one horse town. It’s cold, wet and horribly inhospitable and a perfect place for our bitter hero to hang his hat.
Franco Nero is magnificently understated, placing emphasis on every terse line with a flash of those brilliant blue eyes and fobing off every attempt to probe into his past with vague explanations and impatient brush offs. He is a fascinating conundrum, simple on the outside, but revealed to be internally complex due to his treatment of prostitue, Maria, acting as her protector until his emerging plans require him to turn colder than a polar bear’s butthole on a dime.
Matching the somber tone is the violence, which, as I mentioned before, was incredibly shocking for the time. Django starts off with the standard quick drawing shenanigans, soon upgrades spectacularly to mowing down vast swathes of bad guys with his tricked out machine gun, later one of Jackson’s men is tortured by Hugo by being fed his own severed ear and, in the movie’s most infamous scene, Django himself has his hands shattered with rifle butts until they look like two, bloody wads of raw hamburger meat for his transgressions. This leads to the unforgettable final scene which sees a battered Django taking refuge in a the type of cemetery a horror flick would kill for, awaiting the arrival of Jackson and his men as he tries to manipulate his pistol with his mangled, useless fingers by biting off the trigger guard and trying to aim by hooking the gun onto an ornate gravestone to steady his aim. It’s an image that perfectly encapsulates the Grand Guignol attitude the filmmakers are shooting for that also includes all the flourishes Italian cinema is known for. The villainous Jackson is obsessed with the colour red, meaning that those scarlet hoods pop against the grey, washed out nature of the rest of the film and the story goes out of it’s way to make sure no one escapes this tale without either absorbing a life-altering injury or two or simply gets out and out slaughtered for their troubles.
And yet, for all of its grim and gloomy outlook, it precisely this stylised pessimism that makes Django so exhilarating to witness. It’s a high standard that its blizzard of ripoff sequels couldn’t hope to match (although some are actually quite fun), but the original still stands as an impossibly cool Western that uses its gothic trappings to amazingly violent effect as its titular slinger gets put through the wringer.