Let's Get Ready To Django
This past Monday night, Quentin Tarantino was in Toronto for the Canadian sneak peek of Django Unchained. He appeared on stage for all of about a minute, welcomed the crowd, cackled about us having to check our cell phones, got the audience to yell “Unchained” after he yelled “Django” and was gone… No Q&A (despite the fact that he was introduced by TV talk show personality George Stroumboulopoulos), just a red carpet walk beforehand. It was disappointing for the all the folks who had won tickets for a “screening with Quentin Tarantino,” made worse by the fact that they waited the better part of a hour to retrieve their phones from security afterwards.
Hmmm... a buzz-building screening three weeks before the official opening, unnecessarily tight security and the filmmaker on a whirlwind press tour – producers the Weinstein Brothers aren’t taking any chances building hype for a film that’s a tough sell.
Why is it a tough sell, you ask?
Well, for starters, it’s a western, not the most popular genre with modern moviegoers. And among westerns, it’s a “remake” of a spaghetti western, the genre’s dirty, violent, blood-red-headed stepchild. A bigger challenge for distributors, however, may be demographics, as there aren’t many westerns with black protagonists – this is considered the John Wayne/old white guy genre that, despite a few attempts, such as Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993), has never successfully targeted a black audience in the way that dramas, action or horror movies have been able to do. It doesn’t help that the film is two hours and forty-five minutes-long, either.
All of this also makes Django Unchained interesting, of course, and the kind of film that only Tarantino has the style, movie geek interest and clout to get made. With a few weeks to go before it hits theatres on Christmas Day, there’s plenty of time to discuss it more in-depth, however, there’s no time like the present to get a primer on what Django is all about for the majority of moviegoers who may not know what to make out this thing.
If you know your spaghetti westerns, you probably know that the Django films are second only to the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone Man With No Name movies in terms of grit and popularity. But Django Unchained has virtually nothing to do with the original 1966 Django. Just as Tarantino’s Inglourius Basterds really only shared a title (sort-of) with the obscure Italian action/war movie Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained has almost nothing in common with the 1966 Django, save for the theme, credit design, presence of a hooded militia and a crack-shot protagonist who spins his gun on his finger. Tarantino's film is about Django, a slave (Jamie Foxx) who’s freed by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, who won scores of awards for his portrayal of a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds) in order to track down a gang of wanted me that only he can identify, having been owned by them. In exchange, the bounty hunter helps Django rescue his wife from a nefarious cotton plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), with expectedly bloody results.
The original Django, co-written and directed by spaghetti western legend Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence, Companeros), stars Franco Nero (who has a small role in Unchained as a slave owner) as the title character. Unshaven, unemotional and unencumbered by seemingly anyone or anything, he’s the new breed of western hero that was born when Clint Eastwood and director Sergio Leone teamed up for A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, the first entry in their archetypal Man With No Name trilogy. This new breed of merciless gunslinger was an embodiment of the changing time, as movies in general became more violent.
The Man With No Name wears a poncho and chews on a cigar; Django’s particular affectation is the coffin that he drags around with him, which is eventually revealed to contain a sort-of Gatling gun, which he uses to mow down a mob of attackers, Rambo-style. The film begins with Django recuing a prostitute from being killed by men employed by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a ruthless thug who employs a small army of men in red hoods and likes to shoot Mexicans for fun. Jackson killed Django’s wife and he’s out for revenge. After taking out most of the militia with his big, bad, implausible gun, our anti-hero joins forces with Jackson’s enemy, General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) in order to heist gold from a Mexican army fort where Jackson does business. But Django doesn’t trust the General, and cuts out in the night with his share of the gold, which he stashes in the coffin. But when his horse throws the casket from the wagon, it slides down a hill and disappears into quicksand – just as the general shows up and has his men beat Django and break his hands. The General is then shot by Jackson, who goes after Django, who lies in wait at the local cemetery for a final showdown.
This was several years before the most violent western ever made, The Wild Bunch, and the blood and brutality on display was both shocking and popular with audiences. Django was banned in Britain until 1993, and to date there have been about 30 unofficial sequels to it (with outlandish titles such as Django Kill (If You Live, Shoot!), Django, Get a Coffin Ready! and Django’s Cut Price Corpses). It didn’t matter if the script had nothing to do with the first film, just adding the name to your movie made it automatically more valuable in the movie market. The only official sequel, which saw Nero return to the role, is Django Strikes Again, from 1987.
It's easy to see why Tarantino would fall in love with such a crazed cult movie, and he was paying homage to it was early as in Reservoir Dogs, with the severed ear scene. Django has also been referenced in the video game Red Dead Revolver, in the popular Cowboy Bebop anime series and by a bunch of bands, including Racid, which has a song called “Django” and Danzig, as you can see in this music video for the song “Crawl Across Your Killing Room Floor.”
Django is a pop culture icon, but it's not the same character as in Django Unchained. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but what’s the point in using the Django name then? Following a tradition of barely-related sequels, because it just sounds cool, or did part of a faithful story get lost in editing? The film seems to have had much cut out of it, as evidenced from some well-known character actors who appear very briefly, notably Bruce Dern (The Trip, Hang ‘Em High, The 'burbs), who's in the movie for literally seconds during a flashback.
The point is, don’t see Django Unchained if you want to see a Django movie, but do go see it if you want some spaghetti western-style grit and gore, which it contains. With that kind of running time, you’d think they coulda squeezed at least one shot of a damn coffin being dragged around.