Django: Franco Nero and Sergio Corbucci took the Western to the next level with this politically-charged, ultra-violent masterpiece

Sergio Corbucci’s iconic Spaghetti Western,  Django(1966), which made a star out of Franco Nero, looks better than ever  in a newly restored print.

When one thinks of adaptations  of  Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the title that comes to mind first is Sergio Leone’s A fistful of Dollars. Of course, it was the first of the Spaghetti Westerns and was the most famous- launching the big screen careers of Clint Eastwood, Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. But the true remake of Kurosawa’s classic film was made by another Sergio, Sergio Corbucci in 1966 called Django. Though the film did not take scenes or dialogues directly from the film as A Fistful of Dollars did, the film replicated the socio-political dimensions and the psychological depth of the characters from the original. A Fistful of Dollars had sidestepped these aspects for a new kind of stylish, operatic film.

Django is a strong political film: with it’s anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and perhaps even it’s Anti-American worldview. Though all the European westerns made at the time were clubbed together as spaghetti westerns, Corbucci’s films were completely different from Leone westerns. In fact, he intentionally set out to make his films very different from Leone’s. While Leone made his Films more operatic, fantastical and baroque; taking his westerns into the Fellini, Puccini territory; Corbucci took his westerns into the realm of political films of Rosselini and Pasolini , with characters and events depicted in the film having depth and strong political overtones; while Leone’s films were more in the realm of Fairytales and comic books, Corbucci’s visual sensibility were more akin to dark, graphic novels and his films are ultra-violent, with graphic depiction of carnage and disfigurement that prefigures the films of Sam Peckinpah; while Leone’s films were tongue-in-cheek in nature, with both wry and dark humor in abundance; Corbucci played it pretty much straight and his characters were very serious in nature, though the portrayal of violence is exaggerated to the point that sometimes it becomes grotesquely humorous; and, while Leone’s heroes were blatantly amoral, and had little by the way of character psychology and inner life, Corbucci’s characters had a moral center, which may not be unwavering, but they had it, along with a past history of pain and loss and  strong “emotional” lives. But most important of them all, the treatment of religion in Leone’s films is again as a sort of a parody; he recreates religious images in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, like the image of “Last supper” and “sermon on the mount” combined together in a scene in “For a few Dollars More” where the chief villain, El Indio, announces his plans to rob a bank. But Corbucci strongly believes in the “Christ’ figure, both “Django” and his other great creation, “The Great Silence” are both “Christ” figures, albeit refracted through a Marxian lens and following the  old-testament philosophy regarding vengeance. Django is a perfect demonstration of all these Corbucci virtues: It’s a very down and dirty, ugly looking film; with characters and scenery caked in mud and scenes dripping with blood. The film takes the basic template of Yojimbo: A stranger comes to a ghost town controlled by two rival gangs. He sets up one against the other and  ends up eliminating both of them. As opposed to the heroes of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars who were drifters, and who aimlessly drifted into the town, Django, who is a former union soldier, has a definite personal motive for coming back to the town. His lover was killed by Major Jackson, a former Confederate soldier and a white supremacist who is running his own private war now on the border with his  group of Proto-Klansmen. The other gang that is terrorizing the region is a band of Mexican revolutionaries lead by General Hugo Rodriquez.

Django opens with the title character (Franco Nero), under a dark, gloomy sky. trudging across a brown wasteland, towing a coffin behind him. It’s an iconic image taken directly from the opening of Yojimbo, where the camera follows tightly behind the lead Ronin. It also Immediately sets up a contrast to Leone’s westerns. Leone’s westerns are very harshly lit, with action unfolding in blinding bright light. The hero is not on a horse, though he is carrying his saddles. We don’t know what happened to his horse. The image seems to be a tribute to John Wayne’s iconic introduction scene in John Ford’s “Stagecoach(1939)”, where we see him with only his gun and his saddles. This ‘cinema cinema‘  aspect is one thing common between between the two Sergios, where they make references to the traditional Hollywood westerns. The image also sets up a parallel with the image of  Christ dragging his cross on his way to his crucifixion. Django emerges like a specter from the middle of nowhere, like a Divine force. The film plays out as a sort of Last temptation of Christ set in the  West, with Django as the Christ figure . But he is a “god” more out of the old testament: a lonely gunman dressed in all black, covered with dirt and grime; sullen and taciturn, and out for revenge . Nero’s performance as Django: vulnerable, angelic and  strangely robotic complements this mythic nature of the character perfectly. We soon realize that he is carrying a machine gun – an instrument of death- in the coffin that he is dragging along. When someone later inquires him about the content of the coffin, he simply says ‘A man named Django is in the Coffin‘.

Post the title sequence, which include the famous bombastic title track, the film quickly sketches out both its racial and religious politics. Django observes from a distance the Confederates, and then the Mexican troops, attempting to kill the prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) for consorting with the enemy; in a scene reminiscent  of “Jesus saves woman taken into adultery” , Django Rescues Maria by shooting down the soldiers who are planning to burn her on a cross. From that point on Maria becomes Django’s ardent disciple and she follows him wherever he goes. The two of them continue their journey and finally reaches a desolate, mud-choked town with absolutely no inhabitants, except  for a group  of  overly made up whores and their saloon-owner pimp, Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez). The only other resident appears to be a hypocritical Bible-thumper called Brother Jonathan (Gino Pernice), Major Jackson’s spy, who would soon have his ear mutilated by the Mexicans and fed to him in shocking act of violence that would inspire a similar scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”. This town, without a name, with nothing in it except for a trunk of a petrified tree that sprawls in front of the saloon and nothing worth fighting for,  as a battleground between the rival gangs represents the dark, nihilistic nature of this film. This is an unapologetically  ugly film; ugly locations, ugly sets, ugly people and appallingly ugly violence. There are  mutilations, massacres and slaughter. The main antagonist, Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and his henchmen, are introduced in a scene where they are using Mexican peons for target practice, gunning them down  mercilessly as each one is made to run for his life.

No fewer than three wholesale massacres are committed over the course of the film. In the first massacre – a confrontation that occurs in the town square- Django uses his machine gun to gun down the majority of Major Jackson’s troops. Jackson is spared by Django , but not before he shames Jackson by turning him to a black-face (when Jackson trips and falls in the mud while escaping from the gun fire). The second massacre happens when Django joins up with General Hugo to ambush a fort to steal gold. The stolen gold becomes the moral pivot of the film when the Christ like Django is seduced by its effect. He steals the gold from General and his men and makes off with it accompanied by Maria, But when they reach the rickety wooden bridge suspended above a pit of quicksand, where Django first saved Maria, a quarrel breaks out between the two. Django wants to part ways with her, while Maria begs him to abandon the gold so they can start a new life together. In the melee, Maria’s rifle misfires and the coffin falls into the quicksand below. Django nearly drowns when he tries to recover the gold, and Maria, while trying to save him, is wounded by Hugo’s men who has caught up with them. Django’s hands are crushed as punishment for being a thief- an act akin to crucifixion. If it was the betrayal of his comrade and disciple Judas for money that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, then  here, it is  Django’s own betrayal- of his comrades and his self, as he gets tempted by gold and moves away from his mission of vengeance. This moment perfectly encapsulates both the anti-capitalist and religious viewpoint of the film.

The final massacre happens when General Hugo  and his troops are ambushed by Maj. Jackson on their way to Mexico. Meanwhile , Django somehow makes it to the town with the wounded Maria. He tells Nathaniel to inform Jackson that he will be waiting for him in Tombstone Cemetery. Jackson reaches town and learns about Django’s plight. After killing Nathaniel , he reaches the cemetery to confront Django. This is the the moment of Django’s Christ-like resurrection. He rests his gun on the back of his lover, Mercedes Zaro’s cross . Believing that Django cannot fire the gun with his mutilated hands, Jackson shoots the corners of Zaro’s cross. Django then kills Jackson and his men by pushing the trigger against the cross and repeatedly pulling back the hammer. His mission accomplished, Django  staggers back into the hazy distance from which he came from. Though bleak and pessimistic in its worldview, the film ends on an optimistic note in which it is hinted that Django would start a new life with Maria.

Django took the  Spaghetti Western to the next level from where Sergio Leone had left it. The stylistic, operatic westerns of Leone was embellished with deeply political and psychological depths by Corbucci, even as he amplified the blood and guts associated with the genre. Apart from Corbucci, other directors like Damiano Damiani also came in to make politically charged westerns like A Bullet for the General. Even Leone seems to have been inspired by Corbucci’s westerns and his later films like Duck you Sucker had a strong political viewpoint. Django made a star out of Franco Nero, who was just 23 years old when he made the film. The film turned him into a phenomenon in Europe- to such an extend that the producers stopped putting his name on movie posters, they just put Django. In Germany, they called all his movies Django; When he did a movie about the Sicilian mafia they called it Django in the mafia. The film inspired many future films and filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino who made Django Unchained(2012), with Franco Nero in a guest role.

3 thoughts on “Django: Franco Nero and Sergio Corbucci took the Western to the next level with this politically-charged, ultra-violent masterpiece

  1. Mank, this is a great piece. I remember watching Django many years ago and had enjoyed it as a generic Western action movie. After I read this, I went back to it, and your subtext, especially the Christ analogy is so spot on. Amazing analysis in general.

    I’ve read quite a few of your write ups and enjoyed them. Loved the Gandhi write up recently. This is a great collection of work you’ve put together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karthik. You can find the Christ analogy in Sergio Leone films also, but he uses it in a more tongue in cheek manner. Corbucci is a straight shooter, the Christ figure is referenced again in his next great Spaghetti Western, The Great Silence


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