Monday, March 23, 2009


Django posterDjango (1966) is a lurid B-movie, banned in the UK for over 25 years due to its grisly scenes, but is also a classic in the Spaghetti Western genre for director Sergio Corbucci’s apocalyptic vision of the West. Django’s plot follows a similar course to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), about a mercenary who arrives in a town with two rival factions, and by making selective alliances leads them to destroy each other in bloody warfare. This archetype was famously employed by Sergio Leone in his Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, but Django is tremendously darker than the Dollars trilogy in the moral conduct of its characters, the level of explicit violence, and even the physical environment.

As the opening credits roll, Django is seen dragging a coffin across a bleak craggy landscape upon a layer of slick grey mud. Most folks in the Old West traveled long distances by horse; most folks were not as tough as Django. The first scene is of a Mexican gang whipping a beautiful prostitute tied between poles in a remote desert. Unlike any other Western hero, who would have turned the horrific scene into a display of heroism, Django merely watches. Suddenly a band of red-scarved gunslingers shoot the Mexicans and untie the woman, only to accuse her of moral depravity and prepare a cross to burn her on. Only then does Django take pity on her, shoot her captors and take her to the nearest town. The town is a collection of decrepit buildings lining a street of churned-up mud; there is not a living soul except for in the brothel. The brothel owner, a nervous man named Nathaniel, lays out the local politics for Django. Death has loomed large over the town due rivalry between the Mexican gang led by General Hugo Rodriguez and the Confederate gang of Major Jackson; the main prostitute, Maria, vexed the gangs by seeking business from both of them.

Corbucci establishes Major Jackson as evil incarnate when his henchmen, wearing the red scarves turned into KKK hoods, whip Mexican peasants into running so he can use them as target practice. In the brothel, where Jackson charges Nathaniel an exorbitant “protection” fee, Jackson describes to Django his private fight for white supremacy, hanging on to the Confederacy despite the post-Civil War era. Sensing a shoot-or-be-shot scenario, Django kills all the Confederates except Jackson, inviting Jackson and his 48-strong army to fight against only himself. Based on a conversation in which Django expresses that Jackson has no right to think that Mexicans are inferior, one might assume that Django is a noble vigilante out to destroy the KKK. However, after a spectacular battle in which he whips out a machine gun from his mysterious coffin and plows down scores of Jackson’s men, we discover that his sole motivation is to avenge his lover’s death at Jackson’s hands.

General Rodriguez’s reprehensible character is displayed in a fantastically gory scene where he and his henchmen slice the ear off a Confederate spy, force it into his mouth, and then shoot him in the back. Surprisingly, Rodriguez and Django are old friends, albeit a friendship shot through with mutual distrust. This is most surprising to Maria, who is handed back to her torturers by the one man she thought cared about her. Rodriguez is awe-struck by the power of the machine gun and hatches a plan to rob Jackson’s gold in order to buy more machine guns to conquer Mexico with. Django helps to plan the heist, wanting a cut of the gold. They use Nathaniel’s traveling brothel as a Trojan horse; once inside Jackson’s fort, the Mexican gang bursts out of the carriage with guns blazing and make off with the gold. However, Rodriguez makes clear his intention to deny Django his share of the loot, so Django covertly fills his coffin with it and escapes, unwillingly taking Maria with him. Rodriquez catches up to them as they hopelessly try to retrieve the coffin from quicksand; he shoots Maria and orders a henchman to cruelly smash Django’s hands. The pair survives and Django deposits Maria at the brothel, leaving a message that he awaits Jackson at the cemetery. After many miserable attempts to prop his gun on a cross with his bloodied hands, Django kills Jackson and his men in rapid succession. He slowly walks away from the massacre over the crest of the hill, destitute and broken but liberated from his burden.

Django is a notable film in the Western genre, pushing the envelope for the depiction of graphic violence, and bringing a darker twist to Sergio Leone’s anti-hero archetype. As Django is an Italian-made film, its director makes an effort to replicate the conventions of American Westerns, but to an extreme and often at the expense of realism. Mexican generals and renegade members of the Confederate military are often cast as the villains of American Westerns, but Rodriguez and Jackson take the sadism expected of villains to such an extreme that Django was either banned or highly rated in many countries. Many American Westerns have a preoccupation with the U.S.-Mexico border, tending to promote the message of a closed border that can only be crossed by diplomatic negotiation. In Django, Jackson is leading the cavalry to chase the Mexican gang who has robbed his gold, but the minute in which the gang crosses the border, the cavalry stops dead in their tracks. Despite being in the middle of an unidentifiable wasteland, they halt on this invisible line and explain to an irate Jackson that they can go no further. This projection of the fixity of the U.S.-Mexico border is a staple of American Westerns, but in Django it comes off as absurd. The American West seen as abject and unsterilized through Corbucci’s eyes has made Django an iconographic film for the era of cynical Westerns. On top of creating a gritty antithesis to the clean-cut cowboy, Corbucci invented a macabre setting to contrast with the sun-parched landscapes typical to Westerns. In Django, with its dilapidated town which is home to no one but a brothel of sickly prostitutes, nothing avoids being caked in blood and mud.

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