Sunday, March 17, 2013

"D" is for Django

 Django (1966) is the sequel to Takeshi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) and has the distinction of not being one of the many Django knock-offs released between 1967 and 2012. Nah, I'm just pulling your chain, at least about the first part. It is true that Sukiyaki Western Django is ultimately a prequel, but I doubt that Sergio Corbucci (Super Fuzz) really planned for his Spaghetti Western about revenge, gold, and shooting Mexicans was meant to be based on a movie starring Japanese actors speaking phonetic English and Quentin Tarantino talking like he was being dubbed by a Japanese Quentin Tarantino impersonator.

  Anyway, I knew that Django existed for a while, but I'd only ever seen it made reference to, usually in documentaries like The Spaghetti West. I had seen Sukiyaki Western Django and I knew the story, so I was excited to hear that Tarantino was going to make a Django knock-off*, but it was weird that not many people I knew had heard of the original. Well, I figured it was high time for me to see it so that I could impart some wisdom to you good folks, and just maybe you'd watch Django, too.

(For the record, I watched the dubbed version because it was the only one available, so I'm not going to try to comment on performances. Everybody's voices were pretty bad, especially Django's. I'll try to watch the subtitled one when I can.)

 Django isn't really a classic in the way that Fistful of Dollars is, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have its charm. If it's remembered for anything, it's for having a great theme song and an even better gimmick for its title character.

 Franco Nero (Django Unchained) is Django, and we meet him trudging through the desert, dragging a coffin behind him. The theme song hints at loss and of love and I guess it's safe to assume that there's somebody in that coffin, so one can be forgiven when he later tells somebody that it's his friend, "Django." Long story, but we do get half an explanation later. Stick around and I'll share it with you.

 Django comes across Maria (Loredana Nusciak), who is being whipped by Mexican bandits for trying to escape them. Before Django does anything about it, the bandits are wiped out by soldiers who then indicate that they want to kill Maria, so Django brutally murders all of them. One of them even falls into quicksand, which is a pretty nasty way to go but it turns out is mostly foreshadowing the last act of the film. Django takes Maria into town, and into a saloon / brothel run by Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez), who explains that she is not welcome, but our hero doesn't care.

 In fact, Django is kind of a jerk to Nathaniel and all of the ladies who work there. He drags the coffin inside and makes a mess and later kills a bunch of guys and tells Nathaniel to "clean it up, but don't touch my coffin." He's a pretty presumptuous guy, if you ask me. He's also pretty cruel to Maria, and it turns out there's no real rhyme or reason behind it. I don't know that I want to pull for him yet, but everybody else is pretty much a scumbag too.

 The town is one of those "neutral areas for two opposing factions" that you see in movies like these (and also Yojimbo, where Leone "borrowed" most of Fistful from): there are the Mexican bandits, controlled by General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo), and the soldiers of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), who hates Mexicans almost as much as he hates Yankees. His soldiers wear home-made red hoods and carry a burning cross when they come for Django. Sounds kind of familiar, but I can't tell why...

 Major Jackson is mad because Django keeps killing his men (but sparing Jackson) but he's also wary after finding out that the "friend" in Django's coffin is a machine gun that wipes out his posse. Jackson is a pretty rotten guy - he gets his kicks out of letting Mexicans out of a pen and shooting them with a rifle as they run away, so we know he has to die eventually.

 Rodriguez and his bandits aren't much better: they catch one of Jackson's men, Brother Johnathan (Gino Pernice) trying to escape town, so they cut off his ear and make him eat it. If that wasn't bad enough, Rodriguez shoots him in the back as he walks away, so I guess Django will just play both sides against each other or something like that. I mean, I've seen this movie before, and Corbucci already gave away the secret of the coffin thirty minutes in, so what's left to surprise us?

 Well, plenty, it turns out: Django IS working for one side, but he never works for the other, and the side that thinks are his friends end up just being muscle for a robbery the titular character has in mind. Poor Maria keeps getting dragged into this because she ran away from Jackson's men and to the bandits, then realized that was even worse and tried to escape, so everybody wants her dead. Even the other prostitutes (whores?) get into a mud fight over whether it's Maria's fault that Django is killing everybody. In my estimation it's not really her fault that he saves her and brings her back when he didn't know that's where she was running from, but maybe I'm not privy to some inside information.

 There's some gold thieving and some shoot-outs and some betrayals (surprisingly not who you think) and then some frontier justice and more quicksand (this time it's Django's coffin, which has been filled with gold) and a final shootout at the cemetery. Django tells Nathaniel and later Maria that he lost somebody a while ago, when he "was too far away to help" and it looks like he's wearing a uniform under all of those heavy coats. But it's not clear if Jackson was responsible for it - Django seems to hate him but it's never clear what exactly he did - but vengeance must be served.

 I like the aesthetic of this "Old West": yes, there's a lot of dry landscapes, but the town is constantly wet and muddy and cold. There's a continued thread that any water you see in this area has to be disgusting or slimy or quicksand, which is a nice change of pace from dust and sand everywhere. Django's plan, while convoluted, has some pretty clever twists and turns, even if it's never clear why he's doing it. I guess he vaguely references being able to buy off who he was in order to start a new life, but I'm pretty sure the people he'd be paying off were the same assholes he just robbed and ran away from. Oh well, the final show down is pretty cool, and he does it without functioning hands.

 Nero would play Django again in 1987, but in the mean time people continued making Django movies - kind of like the Spaghetti Western equivalent of Asylum Studios - so you have lots of options. Still, this is arguably the best of them, I'm going to go out on a limb and say, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong. It just seems like no knock-off is going to topple the original. I mean, even Tarantino knew better than to leave Franco Nero out of his shameless tie-in to the series...

 * I guess the respectable term for when QT does it is "homage."

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