Even upon Django’s release in 1966, it was readily apparent that Sergio Corbucci had lifted several key elements from Sergio Leone’s 1964 classic A Fistful of Dollars. Despite this fact, Corbucci’s film presents these elements in a more nihilistic fashion—it’s a movie drenched in its own excess, a characteristic that helps the film succeed in serving up a unique personality. As the famous line in Spinal Tap goes, “This one goes to eleven.”
The plot of Corbucci’s masterful piece takes place during the Civil War, only slightly above the border of Mexico. The West is in its infancy; outlaws run wild with only a hint of the civilization that was to come dotting the burned-out landscape. The film takes place in a muddy (significant winter weather storms wrecked havoc on the set), hell-hole of a town, a community in which the only entertainment provided would come from a bar and whorehouse that, if a denizen entered them, could very well get him killed, or at the bare minimum significantly scarred. The town is run by Major Jackson (played with gusto by Eduardo Fajardo) who allows his racist confederate soldiers—masked with red Klu Klux Klan style hoods—to kill and destroy whatever poor Mexican has the bad luck to cross their path. The other faction isn’t any better; the down and dirty banditos only goal is to amass enough artillery to blast their way through Jackson’s men and back across the border. Enter Django, a stranger who comes out of the emptiness of the surrounding landscape, trudging through the heat and mud, his only possession a wooden casket he lugs behind him. Much like the Stranger in A Fistful of Dollars, he bares no allegiance to either side. What does become clear is that Django has only revenge on his mind and when the mystery that lies within his coffin is revealed, pain and suffering will be soon to follow.
Due to Corbucci’s skill, a true master-craftsman, Django manages to not only avoid becoming a shameless knock off but also eclipses A Fistful of Dollars as the better film. The tone is excessive in its pessimistic nature, accentuated by haunting visuals and punctuated by shocking violence. Two of the classic’s most unnerving scenes include dozens of Klansmen, blanketed in their red hoods, marching in for the kill, and the immoral town preacher getting his comeuppance when his ear is sliced off. To top it off, there is the legendary performance by Franco Nero as Django, one that enters the hall of fame of bad asses, guns blazing. His performance carries with it that of a spectral quality (but with a larger range of emotions than that of the Stranger), one of such power that his foes must wonder if he represents a supernatural force called to their own corner of Hell to dispense the most righteous of all retributions.
Django managed to earn itself quite the reputation over the years, especially in Europe. It was banned in Sweden, due to the violence depicted in the film, and was refused a certificate (their term for a rating) in Britain until 1993, helping Django to earn a inordinate amount of fame for being one of the most violent films produced up until that point in cinema history. In spite of the controversy, the success of Corbucci’s masterpiece could not be denied. It went on to spawn more than 30 “sequels,” 4 released in 1966 alone with the last being released in the 1980s. None of these films were official, however, and only one, Django 2: The Great Return, had the participation of Corbucci and the film series original star, Franco Nero.
The classic’s influence still rings throughout the cinematic universe. References to the film and the character of Django continue to pop up in films such as Robert Rodriguez’sDesperado, with Antonio Banderas’ version of The Man with No Name coming to town with a guitar case full of guns and a heart filled with the desire for reprisal. And who could forget the controversy that Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs sparked when Mr. Blonde hacks off the ear of a policeman for sport? It seems that Corbucci created not only a classic in the Spaghetti Western genre, but a film with cultural significance that transcends the boundaries that served to constrain most of the genre’s contemporaries.