Saturday, July 14, 2012

Django

The term "Spaghetti Western: refers to the large number of Western movies produced by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s following the success Sergio Leone achieved with Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy. Unlike the polished Hollywood pictures starring John Wayne, these movies (often filmed in Spain and on low budgets) were rougher, more violent, and the characters more ambiguously drawn. 

I've been familiar with the concept of Spaghetti Westerns for some time, but in all honesty, I never gave them much consideration. I'd hear the phrase and be like, "Oh yeah, Sergio Leone," and move on. Until a friend loaned me a copy of Django (1966), I never really appreciated there were more offerings from the genre. While Django may not transcend the genre or reach the heights Leone achieved (an admittedly high bar for any film, Western or otherwise), it's a gritty, entertaining, and stylish movie.

Franco Nero is the title character, Italy's answer to Eastwood's "Man with No Name." With an intense blue-eyed stare, rugged features, and perpetual five o'clock shadow, Django is a grizzled, mysterious gunslinger you do not mess with. We first see him dragging a coffin through the mud, unsure of what's in it or what his purpose is. After saving a woman named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from being burned alive, Django arrives in a town torn apart by a feud between Mexican bandits led by General Rodriquez (Jose Badalo) and a gang of renegade Confederates and Klansmen led by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). Django soon gets involved while operating on his own agenda.

Directed by Sergio Corbucci and using a plot reminiscent of A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo, Django is anything but subtle. Django the character is constantly surrounded by images of death, whether it's the coffin he drags behind or using a tombstone's cross as cover in the final showdown with the villains in a cemetery. Major Jackson is introduced taking shots at fleeing Mexicans for sport, and the bandits are first shown tying Maria up and whipping her for trying to escape. Like Eastwood's and Toshiro Mifune's characters, Django upsets the balance of power in town, but instead of playing both sides against each other and carefully mapping his actions like a chess player, Django whips out a machine gun and mows men down like grass.

Like Leone, Corbucci utilizes protracted buildups and explosive payoffs, most notably when Jackson's gang comes to town looking for Django, an occasion he uses to reveal what's in the coffin, and when Django and Rodriguez sneak into an army camp to steal gold. Like Eastwood's iconic character, Django is morally ambiguous and doesn't take any crap from anyone. His motives are murkier. Eastwood always had an ulterior motive he kept closely guarded  and had no qualms being completely mercenary and cold-hearted. Django at first appears to have just randomly come to town, but then he's revealed to be out for revenge, gold, and a chance to make a new life. It seems a bit like narrative convenience so Django doesn't kill certain people when he has a chance (otherwise the movie would be over), but it gives him a little more complexity. Unlike Eastwood, Django also seems to develop genuine feelings for Maria (at least when he's not ignoring or dismissing her).

One thing I always took away from Leone's movies were how dirty and sweaty they were; I always remember the closeups of ugly, perspiring men as flies buzz and land on their faces. If Leone's flicks were dusty, Corbucci's is muddy. Just about every path, trail, or road is soggy and seeping with gunk, and even quicksand comes into play a couple of times. Men and horses are regularly bogged down in filth as their corpses sink in the mess. The violence is a more drawn out as well. One character has his ear cut off and shoved in his mouth. Blood flows freely, and one massacre in particular, shot in slow motion with men getting hit multiple times, is more reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch than Leone.

There's nothing too original about Django, and the narrative doesn't build so much as go from one showdown to the next, but it remains a fine example of the genre, and Nero demonstrates he belongs in conversation with Eastwood as a resolute tough guy. For those looking to explore Spaghetti Westerns beyond Leone, this is a  good place to start.

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