In the lead up to (and now aftermath of) the release of “the best, most brutal, most intensely watchable film of the year” that releases on Christmas Day, I’m going to be running a five-part series called “Unchaining Django” that preps you for the film and celebrates Quentin Tarantino’s latest, greatest masterpiece (they all are, in some way or another) by looking at some of the films that led to it.
As I write this, well over $65m worth of you (!) have seen Quentin Tarantino’s great Southern, so with the next entry in Unchaining Django I figured it best to just go ahead and tackle the namesake. Our third Sergio Corbucci film, this masterpiece 1966 Western is the predecessor to QT’s latest in more than just name.
To start, let’s go ahead and recognize that Tarantino did not pick just any ole western from which to appropriate the lead character’s name for his own. This Sergio Corbucci classic rivals just about any Leone film, and features one of the most interesting western Anti-hero journeys the genre has ever produced. Per usual, Corbucci is all about stories with no real hero, and Django’s journey from being a mere fastest-gun opportunist to a legitimate Western hero has a higher dynamic range than your typical pulp story provides. Django’s greedier and more thoughtless when he’s bad, and yet his backstory and shift back to some kind of humanity is more poignant than you’d ever expect- an arc resonantly rendered by Franco Nero’s blazing performance. The story that plays out in between features all of Corbucci’s trademark brutality, hyper-violence, symbolism, action sequences, fascinating filmmaking, social and political cynicism, and requisite coffin theft. The brutality thing is key- nobody is willing to off characters more unceremoniously or demonstrate the cruelty of a villain more harshly than Corbucci, as demonstrated by the way Major Jackson’s “racists” entertain themselves.
Now again, the connections between Django and Django Unchained go much deeper than a shared name and the re-use of the amazing Luis Bacalov theme song from the former in the latter (sung by Rocky Roberts, doing his best Mr. Presley). There are indeed plenty of surface details like music and shots that Tarantino swipes for his own purposes, but most important is the shared sorrow of both Djangoes- they’re both men who have had their loves robbed from them. Nero’s Django begins his film trudging through the western mud, dragging along a coffin that not-so-subtly stands in for the emotional weight he bears from his murder of his wife. The coffin and its contents also serve as a nice Checkov’s gun and, even after its contents are dramatically revealed, its potency and use as a metaphor for Django’s internal journey remains consistent (and beautiful) throughout the film.
During his own Luis Bacalov-backed title sequence, Foxx’s Django is anchored by no mere coffin but the artifacts of the very idea of institutionalized oppression by the chains on his feet and the scars on his back. Both characters will square off against clumsily hooded gangs of racists, and neither dish out anything but bloody, mercilessly widespread vengeance. The key difference, of course, is that Foxx’s Django has only been separated from his wife, setting the stage for the eponymous “unchaining” and Tarantino’s very modern, very cathartic piece of hip-hop cinema. Inevitably both Djangoes find themselves torn back down to their lowest before they meet their final fates but, as Django Unchained is in no sense a remake of Corbucci’s 1966 film, the two largely diverge from there.
It wouldn’t be any fun to go without mentioning some of those other surface details. The most obvious are the shared bits of music, which include the main theme and a triumphant piece of Bacalov’s orchestration that plays over Django II’s first moment of badassery…
And of course we have the aforementioned gangs of racists…
Along with these specific details, there’s a meta-textual appropriateness to Tarantino choosing Django as a namesake film, as Corbucci’s film was so immensely successful that it is also the most shamelessly ripped off western there is! Literally dozens of films presented themselves as sequels or derivatives of Django, even without the director or star involved in any way. There is only one “sanctioned” sequel, Django Kills, but beyond that the 30-something other Django films you may run across are mere products of its immense success and influence. It’s all too appropriate that several decades later Tarantino would throw his own rip-off (complete with the original music and the “friendly participation of” Franco Nero himself) onto the pile, and that it would be best of all of them.
Finally, Django also represents the height of Corbucci’s directorial style, with some of the classiest zooms, hero shots, and generally superb filmmaking choices you’re likely to find in the desert on any continent. In a very general sense, Tarantino has gobbled up the Italian director’s tactics along with the techniques of so many other directors he admires, building those techniques into his own filmmaking DNA. So even when you don’t see the same compositions or notice the same bits of blocking, Django Unchained never fails to feel like the descendant of Corbucci’s best work.
Undoubtedly I’ve missed some other specific repeated costumes or recreated compositions, but you’re sure to have fun spotting many of those yourself. And, like all of the films so far in this series, Django is an absolute classic in its own right, one well worth your time even when divorced from the hype of a new Tarantino film.
Alas, Django does not sit on Instant Watch as the first two in our series do. Still, get your ass to a video store or queue up the disc because it’s all the way worth it. Even better: grab the Blu-ray through us or stream it on Amazon…
Thanks for reading!
Two more to go, and maybe even a bonus or two if you guys are up for it…