I’m fascinated by spaghetti westerns. How can Italian directors, many of whom never set foot on American soil, reinvent an entirely foreign genre, that of the Western? How can they take the basics of the John Wayne-style cowboy film and transform it into a world with no morality?
All Italian Westerns owe a debt to the films of Sergio Leone. A Fistful of Dollars liberally borrows — steals — from Akita Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Its hero doesn’t fight the two gangs in the film one on one in honor bound High Noon-style duels. Instead, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name uses treachery and deceit to defeat both gangs, which depend on their terrorism of the populace to keep their position. Leone would move past simply remaking other films toward creating his own movies that were ripe for being ripped off.
After Leone, arguably the best Italian Westerns came from Sergio Corbucci. The same director who’d go on to direct Bud Spencer and Terence Hill comedies like Super Fuzz was really known for some of the most brutal and violent films in the world, which is saying something, as the Italians do love their blood and gore.
His main hero Django, who first appeared in 1966’s Django. The character’s name is a joke based on the guitarist Django Reinhardt’s ability to play guitar despite not being able to use two of his fingers. In the film, the villains destroy Django’s hands before he rises up to take them all out. According to Ruggero Deodato, the assistant director of the film, Corbucci also borrowed the idea of a protagonist who dragged a coffin filled with gold and weapons behind him from a comic book that he had read.
There would be over thirty sequels to this film, many of which were completely unofficial and many of whom have nothing to do with Django at all, including One Damned Day at Dawn…Django Meets Sartana! Nero would only reprise the role once in 1987’s Django Strikes Again, the only official sequel, which was produced with Corbucci’s involvement.
Throughout the films of Quentin Tarantino, the shadow of Sergio Corbucci looms. In his very first movie, Reservoir Dogs, the scene where Mr. Blonde slices the ear of Nash the cop is completely indebted to Hugo performing the same gory attack to Brother Johnathan. At the end of Kill Bill, Tarantino had a Rest In Peace notice for those actors and directors he saw as his most important influences: Charles Bronson, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Leone, Cheng Cheh, Lo Lieh, Lee Van Cleef, Willian Witney and, of course, Corbucci.
Never has that influence been deeper than in this film, an indirect remake and remix of the Spaghetti Western, now back in American hands.
In 2007, Tarantino said that he wanted to create a movie that dealt with America’s sinful past, but not in a message movie. Instead, he wanted to make “genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.” He went on to explain that after starting to write a book about Corbucci, he was intrigued by how his films offered an evil and horrible version of America.
There are also allusions to the films Mandingo and the snow scenes of Corbucci’s The Great Silence. Even the title itself alludes to the American title of another Corbucci film, Hercules Unchained.
The movie begins in Texas in the middle of the 1800s. Ace and Dicky Speck (James Remar and James Russo) are driving black slaves on foot toward an unknown destination. One of them is Django (Jamie Foxx), who has been separated from his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), a house slave raised to speak German and English.
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist/bounty hunter, soon arrives and offers to buy Django to gain his knowledge over three men he has a warrant to bring in dead or alive. Ace tries to shoot him, but Schultz easily kills him and shoots Dicky’s horse, leaving him trapped and at the mercy of his now freed slaves.
Schultz isn’t another slaver. Instead, he offers Django a chance to be a free man and teaches him the career of being a bounty hunter. He’s a natural — he’s able to pull off incredibly complicated shots with all manner of weapons. As they track the Brittle brothers, they make their way to the plantation of Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett (Don Johnson). While the two men talk, Django finds two of the brothers — Big John and Lil Raj — whipped a slave. As he remembers them doing the same to him, he flies into a rage and murders the two men. The third brother runs but is easily stopped by Schultz.
Later that night, Bennett and the local Klan raid the campsite of our heroes, but a combination of poorly made hoods, explosives and skill allow Django and Schultz to escape. Afterward, Schultz relates the German tale of Siegfried and his epic rescue of Broomhilda. Realizing that he has at last met a real hero, Schultz feels honor-bound to help Django reunite with his wife.
Some months later, Django and Schultz travel to Mississippi and the Candyland plantation, whose owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) now keeps Django’s wife. Schultz and Django meet Calvin at a gentleman’s club where he stages Mandingo fights and attempts to buy one of his fighters, which is all a ruse so that they may purchase Broomhilda.
Over dinner, Schultz offers to buy her as his escort. This makes Calvin’s loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel Jackson) suspicious, so the villain changes the deal so that they don’t get the fighter, but only the woman. He thinks he’s won, when truly our heroes have exactly what they’ve come for. However, he can’t stop lording over Schultz and continually demands that they shake hands. A shootout ensues, with Schultz killing Calvin, Calvin’s bodyguard Butch (also James Remar) killing Schultz and Django killing, well, everybody.
However, our hero can’t stop everybody and is captured, with Stephen forcing his surrender by threatening Broomhilda. Django is nearly castrated by Billy Crash before being sold to the Australian-owned LeQuint Dickey Mining Company, who will soon work him to death.
Django soon turns the tables on the mining company’s escorts, played by Tarantino, Michael Parks and John Jaratt (Mick Taylor from the Wolf Creek films). He returns to claim Broomhilda’s freedom papers from Schultz’s corpse, kills every single one of Calvin’s slave trackers (Zoe Bell, Michael Bowen, Robert Carradine, Jake Garber, Ted Neeley, James Parks and Tom Savini play the trackers at various points in the film) and then enters Calvin’s mansion, where he murders everyone else as they return from the funeral. He saves Stephen for last, shooting him in the kneecaps so that he can’t escape the house exploding as our hero rides into the sunset with his wife, or as happens in The Ring of the Nibelung, they renounce the world of the gods and together, they hail light-bringing love and laughing death.
Spike Lee said he would not see the film, saying, “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them.”
Samuel Jackson again defended Tarantino, replying to Vogue Male that “Django Unchained was a harder and more detailed exploration of what the slavery experience was than 12 Years a Slave, but director Steve McQueen is an artist and since he’s respected for making supposedly art films, it’s held in higher esteem than Django, because that was basically a blaxploitation movie.”
Since this is a Tarantino film, there are plenty of references to movies within and without the universe of his films. Django and his wife are meant to be the great-great-great-grandparents of the character John Shaft. And of course, Franco Nero shows up in a cameo role that made me raise my arms in triumph. When Tarantino first met him, he astonished the actor by knowing all of the dialogue and words to the songs from his films.
There are also appearances by Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat as U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum, Russ and Amber Tamblyn as Son of and Daughter of the Son of a Gunfighter, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill and Lee Horsely — from The Sword and the Sorcerer — as Sherrif Gus.
Happily, this film isn’t the end of the story. A comic book sequel to the film, Django/Zorro, is supposedly going to be made into a film. Tarantino has also discussed plans to turn the movie into a longer mini-series, as well as a series of novels. One of those planned novels, Django In White Hell, eventually became The Hateful Eight.