Quentin Tarantino "borrows" from Sergio Corbucci's Django Spaghetti Western for his hotly anticipated new movie: Django Unchained.
Quentin Tarantino has made a career of taking the lesser-known history of world cinema and reconstituting it in a way that is modern and new. Part ‘homage’ part invention and part plagiarism, his work has become a genre unto itself. This year his ‘Django Unchained’ is a Southern American regurgitation of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ with particular reference to Sergio Corbucci.
Of the 'Spaghetti Western' genre, it was Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy that surprisingly took the US box office by storm, opening the floodgates of the Italian made Western all’Italiana. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ was made in 1964 and released in the US in 1968, and its success was repeated by ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965) and ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966). Over 600 Westerns were shot in Europe between 1960 and 1980, the vast majority of them in Italy and Spain. Initially the term ‘Spaghetti Western’ was somewhat derogatory, but in later years, as the genre developed a cult following and its artistry became more apparent it became a valid term.
While the box office success of the Sergio Leone and Enio Morricone-scored ‘Dollars Trilogy’ was never repeated, the decade of ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns tapped a well of creativity that had a far-reaching influence on mainstream American cinema.
Tarantino’s latest offering is ‘Django Unchained’, starring Jamie Fox the title character plots an arc of revenge in order to free his enslaved wife from the plantation owned by Leonardo di Caprio. It promises Tarantino’s usual signature themes of violence, revenge and cinematic tribute.
Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966)
Borrowing heavily form any number of European/Italian Westerns the main influence is the work of Sergio Corbucci and especially his profoundly influential ‘Django’ (1966). Shot on a shoe-string budget in various locations throughout Spain and Italy the film was a tornado of savage action and brutal themes. It was probably the most violent film to get mainstream release up to that point and eschewed the Western’s convention by jilting the hero in favour of the anti-hero.
The lead character Django, played by Franco Nero, is a typical drifter out to revenge the murder of his wife. Torn between the dual motives of revenge and money the plot eventually incorporates a number of violent protagonists form Mexican bandits to the Mexican Army and Gringo sadists. The film contains the themes that were to resurface in nearly all of Cobucci’s films – betrayal, revenge, violence, disfigurement, torture… the film was originally banned in the UK for an ear-severing scene (Reservoir Dogs anyone?).
The film spawned up to a hundred unofficial remakes with many of the lead characters taking the name of Django. The character of course in the original was named after the Django Reinhardt, the Parisian Roma Gypsy, who was probably the greatest jazz guitarist who ever lived and who played with a hand that was paralysed as a result of being caught in a house fire. His ‘disfigurement’ led him to adopt an unorthodox playing style that has proved impossible to emulate by the many who have tried since. The Django of the film shares a digital handicap when in the closing scene of the film both his hands are broken by the hooves of a horse, yet still he manages to drop the hammer of his pistol in a shootout with his enemies.
Perhaps there is no reason to be hard on Tarantino for pilfering from the genre as those film maker too borrowed freely from others. Sergio Leone’s ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ was a virtual (unauthorised) scene for scene remake of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ (1961), who in turn had been inspired by the epic Westerns of John Ford.
Corbucci continued to bring his brutal vision of the Wild West through a number of equally nihilistic and savage narratives. ‘Navajo Joe’ (1966), shot in Spain, starred Burt Reynolds in his second leading role as a Navajo Indian opposing a group of bandits responsible for massacring his tribe. It was shocking for the level of violence and unusual for making the ‘Indian’ the hero and the ‘Gringo’ the nemesis.
‘The Great Silence’ (Il grande silencio, 1968) is one of Corbucci best-known works. Again the title character, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is handicapped (mute) and again he is involved in revenge plot, this time against a group of bounty hunters led by Klaus Kinski. Unlike other westerns of the time, the film is set in a snow-bound landscape of Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899. Tarantino borrows the snow scene in his ‘Django Unchained’ from this film. The ending is brutal with the protagonist gunned down and the bandits riding off into the sunset.
The European Westerns enjoyed success for a period of ten or so years from the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, petering out quickly after that. However the legacy was far reaching and in the US Sam Peckinpah took up the torch with his redefining American Western ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969), another great influence not only on Tarantino but on generations of film makers. The modern action film as we know it owes much to the anarchic creativity of the Italian western directors.
Corbucci’s ultraviolent and uncompromising vision of the West also evolved as the whole genre looked to maintain mainstream success, eventually abandoning the violence in favour of choreographed brawling. His Mexican Revolution trilogy, ‘The Mercenary’ (1970), ‘Compañeros’, (1970) and ‘What am I doing in the middle of the Revolution’ (1972) increasingly looked to incorporate humour in an effort to prolong the success of the genre. ‘The White, the Yellow and the Black’ (1975) was an all out parody, one that directly influenced ‘Shanghai Noon’ (2000).
While the US studio system were busy trying to sanitise and mythologize the Wild West and the brutality of that period in American history it took an Italian to cast a cold eye on history and create a ferociously beautiful account of life in those times. Europeans have always been more comfortable with their own history, certainly in cinema, and don’t shy away from depicting it in its brutal forms. Italians especially are aware of the violent struggle for survival that preceded our modern prosperity. Just as Italy’s story is steeped in blood, war and hardship, so too is America’s, and seeing what has gone before is the best way to learn form it, and to appreciate how delicately balanced or ‘civilised’ society is.
The subjects of genocide and racism were studiously avoided by the major American studios, but the low budget European productions saw them as central narrative themes that portrayed the savagery of the Western frontier in relatively recent history. The lack of a hero is a distinctly European cinematic device that could not have come from the American film making tradition. The result is powerful nihilistic cinema that can be traced back through the work of Tarantino, the Cohen brothers and back through the writing of Cormac McCarthy.