There might be something over 100 films with the name in the title – including Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus opening on Christmas Day – but there’s really only one true Django, and that’s Franco Nero. Starting this Friday (December 21st) in anticipation of the rough spin off Django Unchained, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will be opening up a run of director Sergio Corbucci’s ultraviolent, incredibly bleak, and ultimately influential 1966 Spaghetti Western to remind viewers not only where Tarantino was coming from on his latest film, but to showcase a true cinematic landmark featuring one of the genre’s most iconic figures.
Perhaps next to Sergio Leone no one name was more closely associated with the bloody Italian western than Corbucci and no one character got more recognition than Franco Nero’s titular gunslinger and “coffin maker.” The film became such a worldwide phenomenon that in Europe where anyone could make a loose retelling of whatever they wanted, a slew of films were made with Django in the title without the participation of Corbucci or Nero. Despite the name becoming synonymous with low budget badassery, Nero and Corbucci would only ever team up for one official Django sequel that didn’t come until 1987 that the director only wrote and refused to direct.
There are few more iconic images and opening sequences than the one that opens Django. A lone man very quietly and slowly drags a coffin tied to a rope slung over his shoulder across a muddy wasteland that’s supposed to be around the Mexico/Texas border. Set to the strains of the chilling theme song from composer Luis Enríquez Bacalov and singer Roberto Fia that spells out the entire story the audience gets acclimated to a world where not very many happy and lighthearted things are going to happen. It plays for the entire length of the song like an actual funeral march designed to show one man’s dedication for the work he is on his way to do.
On his way through the muddy, muddy West (which looks the way it does thanks to the film’s winter shoot that made simply walking around the most difficult part of filming), Django happens upon a woman named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) about to get whipped by a pair of Mexican bandits in the middle of nowhere. The whipping never fully gets underway thanks to the bandits getting shot and killed by a racist Texan posse working under the orders of the evil Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajarado). Wanting to do her harm as well, Django shows off his quick draw skills and his ability to mow down entire bands of scum without reloading before anyone can get a shot off.
Django the young woman to a nearby town that’s nearly abandoned except for a brothel and tavern that has been forced into catering for constantly battling and thieving Mexicans and Texans alike. Django, a widowed former Union solider in the Civil War, makes it known he’s on a mission of unstoppable revenge against the klansman-like Major Jackson for killing his wife, and he aligns briefly and uneasily with Mexican leader Hugo (Jose Bodalo).
Corbucci’s film looks incredibly drab and bleak, and unlike many of its counterparts and contemporaries there’s hardly a laugh to be had or a smile to be cracked. Everyone – including Django – comes across as being beyond redemption. There’s no real right or wrong in Corbucci’s world, but only the true motives of everyone involved. Co-written by his younger brother Bruno (with Assistant Director duties going to Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato for that little extra bit of feel bad goodness), it’s a no bullshit western that clocks in at a decidedly un-epic, yet wholly appropriate 95 minutes with an almost impossibly high body count.
Nero (who despite having appeared in film and television over 180 times in his lengthy career might only be better known as one of the villains in Die Hard 2) has the oddly handsome looks of an oater icon. He’s got a poker face that you could light a match on if all the sweat on his brow wouldn’t put it out. He can credibly pull out an enormous Gatling gun and mow down entire armies of people before he finishes a cigarette, but when he speaks, it’s always clearly, intelligently, and without ever repeating himself. He’s pretty upfront about the hell he’s about to bring to the last remaining residents of the town, but he can’t be brought to care too much. It’s one of the truly great antihero stories of the era that concludes with a genuinely painful looking, but satisfying finale that makes the audience care for a guy who wasn’t that moral to begin with.
It’s rightfully the most iconic film in the careers of both the director and star, and while its interesting to note that Tarantino would cite Corbucci’s next film – the Burt Reynolds starring Navajo Joe, which covers a lot of similar revenge flick ground – as the one film people should watch before Django Unchained to get acclimated to the tone of his film, it’s still interesting to see what gets borrowed for this latest affectionate knock off. The themes of racism and antiheroics are still on full display and single lines of dialogue here will echo in the viewer’s mind while watching Tarantino’s film. The muddy landscapes make another appearance, as does Corbucci’s love of fast moving zoom-ins. It also helps that Nero shows up for a brief non-Django related cameo to function as a torch passing of sorts. It’s doubtful that Tarantino’s film will inspire a legion of imitators or a revival of the Django film, but seeing the original will definitely give audiences a better understanding of the tone and style he’s striving for. Also, it’s a great, nasty little piece of down and dirty business.