A solitary man is dragging a coffin through bleak, rocky terrain. He comes across a helpless female tied to posts, being whipped by a gang of banditos. A group of mercenaries, adorned in red scarves, shoot down the bandits. The group, members of ex-Confederate Major Jackson’s marauders, plan on burning the woman alive. The solitary man, watching all this, guns down her attackers with blinding speed, freeing her and offering protection. The man’s name is… DJANGO!
Any resemblance between Sergio Corbucci’s seminal 1966 Spaghetti Western and Sergio Leone’s 1964 A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is not strictly coincidental. Both movies are uncredited adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 YOJIMBO, though Corbucci’s version of the tale takes more liberties and he succeeds to out-Leone Leone with the brutal, unrelenting violence, making this a must-see film for fans of the genre.
Django takes the woman, a half-Mexican named Maria, to a desolate ghost town inhabited only by saloon proprietor Nathaniel and a brood of colorfully dressed whores. The town is considered neutral territory for two warring factions, Jackson’s KKK-like rebels and “General” Hugo Rodriguez’s band of revolutionaries. When Jackson and his men enter the tavern, we learn what Django’s been keeping in that coffin… a mitrailleuse machine gun, which he uses to obliterate most of Jackson’s gang! Soon The General and his troops ride into town, and Django, who once saved Hugo’s life, has a plan to purchase more machine guns for Hugo’s cause, by stealing the gold hidden in the Mexican Army stronghold Ft. Charriba.
Django, Hugo, and two men hide in Nathaniel’s wagon, pretending to be the whores, and pull a bloody raid, witnessed by none other than the vengeful Major Jackson. Django is now ready to take his share of the gold and move on, but Hugo is reluctant to part with either it or Django right away so, while the revolutionaries revel in their good fortune, Django re-steals the gold, loading it in his coffin. He sets up his machine gun to thwart anyone attempting to enter its location and sets to ride off, but Maria forces him to take her along. Coming to a rickety bridge, Django prepares to part ways with Maria, only to have the gold laden coffin slide into the quicksand below! Maria tries to help Django extricate himself from the quagmire and is shot down by Hugo’s men. Django is pulled from the quicksand and suffers an even worse fate, viciously beaten with a rifle butt and trampled by horses, leaving him a broken, bloody mess.
Hugo and his pistoleros ride off, only to be ambushed and slaughtered by Jackson and the Mexican Army. Django and Maria, both still alive, make it back to Nathaniel’s, and Django confesses he must kill Jackson, the man who murdered his former fiance, or none of them will get any peace. The final confrontation in the cemetery between Django, broken hands and all, and Jackson is a masterpiece of Spaghetti Western cinema.
Corbucci’s judicious use of wide-angled shots, overhead views, and close-ups, while similar to Leone, are far from derivative, and the director stakes out his own unique style, making art out of all the carnage. There are shocking scenes like the one where Hugo cuts off the ear of one of Jackson’s men and force feeds it to him, then shoots him in the back. A barroom fight between Django and one of Hugo’s men is well-staged, and capped off by Hugo plunging an axe into his own soldier’s back! The sight of Django brutally beaten and trampled is both horrifying and unforgettable. Then there’s that cemetery finale, done by Leone and Kurosawa in the previous versions, but with a distinct Corbucci twist.
Franco Nero became an international star with DJANGO, appearing in two more Corbucci westerns (THE MERCENARY, COMPANEROS), and returned to the character in 1987’s DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN. There are over 30 “unofficial” sequels featuring Django, with actors Tomas Milian, James Philbrook, Franco Franchi (of the comedy team Franco & Ciccio), and Terence Hill all tackling the part. Mention must be made of DP Enzo Barboni’s stunning photography and the score by Luis Enrique Bacalov (who won an Oscar for 1996’s IL POSTINO), featuring a theme song by European pop star (and American ex-pat) Rocky Roberts.
The movie and character have influenced everyone from Quintin Tarantino (his DJANGO UNCHAINED even features the same theme song, and a cameo by Nero) to pro wrestler The Undertaker. DJANGO played briefly in Los Angeles in 1966 before gaining wider distribution in an edited version in 1972. The print I saw on Sony Classics was the uncut (though dubbed) original, and that’s definitely the one you want to watch. DJANGO is also available on both DVD and Blu-Ray, and if you’re into Spaghetti Westerns, rush out and buy a copy today.