Director Sergio Corbucci never gained the international reputation of his contemporary, Sergio Leone, and arguably with good reason. Corbucci, in contrast to the Sergio forever associated with the Spaghetti Western genre, had none of the master’s style or virtuosity. Many still think of him as a hack. When one looks again at Django, his most famous and imitated western, there’s much to admire, however; the attitude, the relish employed in the construction of memorable set-pieces, yet there’s none of the craft and that perfect synthesis of composition and score, that made the Dollars trilogy one of the most iconic in cinema.
Corbucci’s Clint Eastwood was Franco Nero, given an American voice of someone half as smouldering in the dubbed English version of the picture. Nero has the look and the manner required of the lone outsider in any language, and it remains a mesmerising turn, informed by American Westerns yet unmistakably Italian, like its parent picture. Nero may be better known to general audiences as Mr Vanessa Redgrave these days and like Corbucci suffers by comparison with more famous contemporaries, but there’s nothing low rent about his performance or this revenge thriller; it’s a movie with true grit.
Criticised on release for its sadism, manifested in gleeful waves of on screen violence, and inexplicably banned in the UK for 23 years, Django gained something like notoriety, the kind of film that engorged Quentin’s Tarantino, amongst other body parts; indeed the Pulp Fiction director has uncharacteristically cribbed the name for his forthcoming Leone love letter, Django Unchained.
The violence, which crucially for the British censor, lacked any form of on screen condemnation, lead to a charge of exploitation. However, Django isn’t exploitation cinema in its pure form; it’s not a carnival of horrors in which no character carries any moral authority, thereby forcing the audience to question their own responses to the material. Django’s position is outlined in a diagetic bit of opening narration that doubles as a title track. It sets up the loner as a man whose lover has been murdered and is lost as a consequence. If there’s any doubt that we’re supposed to despise former Southern war leader, Major Jackson and his cabal of hooded racists, then I missed it. Once we learn that Jackson is responsible for the death of Django’s woman, it’s clear how it should unfold and it duly does.
When Tarantino’s bulging eyes first laid eyes on Django, back in his video store days, one can understand his affection for the film’s memorable iconography – the dragged coffin, the machine gun, the hand crushed by a rifle butt; stylisation that made a two dime plot more colourful, more memorable.
The violence is tame by modern standards and divested of its shock value, Django is never better than a glorious and viscerally driven b-picture with a brutal streak a Stetson wide. However, it’s an important part of the Spaghetti Western canon; a film that despite its naked appropriation of better Westerns, nevertheless managed to be influential in its own right. For some it will remain an inconsequential curio, a footnote to the work of better directors, but Django is ripe for rediscovery for those that like their heroes sundried and prefer the thrum of a Spanish guitar to a Hollywood orchestra.