Call it a knock off of a rip off, and you won’t be far off the mark. But never mind: Sergio Corbucci’s original Django — the midnight offering Saturday at the River Oaks 3 Theatre — is regarded by many movie buffs and film academics as one of the very best Spaghetti Westerns released during the heyday of the genre.
Even if the legendarily violent 1966 flick is more or less a copycat clone of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Which in turn was an unauthorized remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).
And with the recent release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, there’s now even greater interest in the most enduringly popular achievement of the late Corbucci, a journeyman Italian filmmaker who graduated from sword-and-sandal epics (Duel of the Titans, Goliath and the Vampires) to stylishly stylized Spaghetti Westerns.
Indeed, Corbucci’s Django was banned in Great Britain for nearly three decades, partly due to an explicit scene.
(Among Corbucci’s other notable credits: Minnesota Clay, a pre-Django 1964 Western starring Cameron Mitchell as a gunfighter impeded by fading eyesight; Navajo Joe, a bloody 1966 revenge saga starring Burt Reynolds as a Navajo brave gunning for savage scalp hunters; and The Great Silence, a joltingly nihilistic 1969 drama that ends with the mute gunslinger hero played by Jean-Louis Trintignant — yes, that Jean-Louis Trintignant, the same dude who starred in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and A Woman — gunned down by Klaus Kinski’s band of bad guys.)
Django Unchained isn’t, strictly speaking, a remake of the original Django. But Tarantino has proudly proclaimed his opus is partly intended as a homage to Corbucci, a director whose influence he frequently has acknowledged.
“Corbucci’s heroes can’t really be called heroes,” Tarantino told the New York Times in a September interview. “In another director’s western, they would be the bad guys . . . [H]is West was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre.”
Indeed, Corbucci’s Django was banned from exhibition in Great Britain for nearly three decades, partly due to an explicit scene — one that Tarantino subsequently referenced in his own Reservoir Dogs (1992) — in which the chief villain slices off the ear of a turncoat who has displeased him.
But wait, there’s more: Tarantino’s regard for Django is such that he gleefully agreed to participate as a supporting player in Sukiyaki Western Django, a singularly weird 2007 samurai/gunslinger mash-up by another admirer of Corbucci’s masterwork, famed Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike.
Meanwhile, back in 1966 . . .
One year before he lifted his voice in song and his sword in battle for Joshua Logan’s film of Camelot (1967), Italian-born actor Franco Nero spoke softly and carried a big gun — a Gatling gun, to be precise — while playing the title role in Corbucci’s film.
Django, a scruffy ex-Union soldier, first appears somewhere near the Tex-Mex border just in time to dispatch several vicious thugs who are horsewhipping a prostitute because she dared to consort with a Mexican bandit. (“It’s not nice to harm women,” Django tells them before he shoots them.) The body count mounts as Django borrows a page from The Man with No Name’s playbook and pits rival gangs against each other in a town torn by violence.
The scenario is just an excuse to showcase Django’s subzero-cool badassery as he shoots, stabs or otherwise eliminates as many bad guys as possible.
“Cemeteries are a good investment around here,” a local sagely notes, “if you get paid up front.”
The plot of Django has something to do with Django’s temporary alliance with bandits to steal gold from an army fort, and something else to do with a racist gringo outlaw’s campaign to eradicate Mexicans with the help of flunkies wearing hoods. (Rest assured, Tarantino also references this plot element in Django Unchained.) But, really, the scenario is just an excuse to showcase Django’s subzero-cool badassery as he shoots, stabs or otherwise eliminates as many bad guys as possible.
Back in the day, Django was such an enormous box-office hit that it spawned 30 or so unauthorized Italian-produced “sequels” that had nothing to do with Corbucci’s film. (As film director and historian Alex Cox has noted: “A copyright-lite atmosphere prevailed in Italy” during the 1960s and ‘70s.) Some of these spin-offs, in the tradition of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and other Universal monster mashes of the 1940s, teamed Django — or some unreasonable facsimile thereof — with variations of Sartana, a similarly popular antihero introduced in 1968’s If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death.
Among their more colorfully titled collaborations: One Damned Day at Dawn… Django Meets Sartana (1969) and Django and Sartana are Coming… It's the End! (1970).
But Franco Nero reprised his Django character only once, in the only legitimate sequel, a 1987 reboot known variously as Django 2: Il grande ritorno and Django Strikes Again. In that flick, Django comes out of retirement — after spending 10 years in, no joke, a monastery — to rescue his daughter after she’s abducted by slave-traders.
What happens? Well, imagine Liam Neeson in a 19th-century version of Taken, with a Gatling gun, and you’ll have a pretty good idea.
Nero also pops up in Django Unchained, to kinda-sorta pass the torch to Jamie Foxx as the title character. Seriously: He’s the stranger who strikes up a conversation with Foxx’s slave-turned-bounty-hunter at the bar in a key scene.
“What’s your name?” the stranger warily inquires. Django dutifully identifies himself, even spells his name — and helpfully explains: “The D is silent.”
Nero replies: “I know.”
Of course he does.