When most people hear the phrase ‘Spaghetti Western’ their minds automatically gravitate towards legendary Italian director Sergio Leone. It makes sense. In the mid-1960’s Leone changed the Western landscape with his trilogy of films starring a young Clint Eastwood – “A Fistful of Dollars”, “For A Few Dollars More”, and of course “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. In 1968 he would release his seminal work – the pioneering masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Not only did Leone change the game, but he drew more eyes towards what would become known as the Spaghetti Western.
But Leone wasn’t the only Italian filmmaker who helped define the broad, stylish and violent sub-genre. Sergio Corbucci had already made several comedies and sword-and-sandal adventures before dipping his toes into Westerns. His first two ventures had a more traditional John Ford flavor. But then in 1966 along came “Django”, a Spaghetti Western through-and-through and the first of many Corbucci would make over the next several years.
“Django” checks most of the Spaghetti Western boxes with Corbucci adding a few extra marks of his own. The violence is a notch above even Leone’s movies. The line between good and evil is as muddy as the street in the film’s one-horse town. The lead character is aggressively antihero. Corbucci takes all of these elements plus some and weaves them throughout his gritty and often blood-soaked story.
The movie follows a drifter named Django (played by Franco Nero) who roams the dry dusty borderland like a wandering spirit, draped in a fading Union army uniform and dragging a dusty wooden coffin behind him. The contents of his cargo is a mystery – is it full of gold, maybe guns, or is it the corpse of someone dear to him? Where is he coming from? Where is he going?
Django is the kind of character that the genre’s filmmakers would return to again and again – an unknown stranger with a fast draw who moseys into the mud-caked town with surreptitious intentions. Storywise Corbucci’s film falls in line with Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” but with its own notable twists. There’s a kind of pessimism that found its way into most of Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns including this one. There’s also the violence which at the time many felt was excessive. But it fits with the bleakness that Corbucci’s run of spaghettis would become known for.
There is also a colorful batch of characters who fill out Corbucci’s ugly world. There’s a prostitute named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) who Django uses to introduce himself into story. There’s the town’s slimy saloon-owner/pimp, Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez). And of course there are the two battling bad guys, the racist ex-Confederate Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and Mexican General Hugo Rodriquez (José Bódalo).
Django puts himself right in the middle of Jackson and his henchman and Rodriguez and his bandits. His intentions are veiled but his presence is quickly noticed by the two sides. Again, it’s a familiar setup especially for fans of the aforementioned Kurosawa and Leone films. But Corbucci has enough of his own grit and verve to make his film stand out.
Many would later consider “Django” to be the first in what has been called Corbucci’s “Mud and Blood” trilogy. In terms of a direct sequel, there were over thirty unofficial movies that tried to copy and capitalize on the success of “Django”. But none included Corbucci or Nero. The only official sequel is 1987’s “Django Strikes Again”. Of course the influence of Corbucci’s original is still being felt (see Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”).
Some of the movie’s dialogue can be a little goofy and this particular English language dub is jarringly bad in spots. But if you’ve watched any number of spaghetti westerns you kinda expect that and it’s pretty easy to overlook. That’s mainly because Corbucci’s style and genre-rich direction gives the movie a kick that you don’t find in most studio Westerns. “Django” could be too much for traditionalists, but that’s exactly what will makes it so beloved by others.