In the mid-1960s, the Italian fascination with, and deconstruction of, the American Western had reached a peak and the king of the Spaghetti Western was Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). However, in 1966, a stranger moseyed into town: Sergio Corbucci, a prolific but struggling director who’d dipped his toe into the genre before, but never with more brutal success than in Django (1966).
The story is a familiar one for fans of the genre. In a small, post-Civil War ghost town, two rival factions stand at odds: a gang of former Confederate soldiers, led by the virulently racist Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), and a band of Mexican revolutionaries led by the only marginally less crazed General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo).
The film opens on a group of Mexican bandits whipping a tied-up prostitute named Maria (Loredana Nusciak), only to be gunned down in quick succession by a gang of Jackson’s Confederate soldiers—men who, promptly after untying Maria, start preparing a wooden cross to burn and crucify her on.
Enter the mysterious Django (Franco Nero), a drifter dragging a coffin behind him, who scolds these men for treating a woman this way. He dispatches all five without breaking a sweat and, in a disarmingly gentle voice, tells Maria “my name is Django, no one will hurt you anymore as long as you’re with me.” It sets the scene for a movie filled with spectacular gunfights, surprising sensitivity, and a level of transgressive violence never before seen in a Western.
There are some remarkable parallels between Corbucci’s story and Leone’s from A Fistful of Dollars; parallels which can largely be explained by their shared source of inspiration: Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961). Still, in spite of the narrative similarities and the obvious Clint Eastwood archetype that Nero’s fulfilling as Django, the two films are more different than meets the eye. Leone’s movie, visually stunning as it may be, is almost monochromatic in its reliance on shades of brown, but Corbucci rebels against this idea of the Western as a colour-drained genre. The desolate landscapes of Corbucci’s America, almost wintry in their complete lack of plant life, are punctuated by shocking bursts of bright colours. Major Jackson’s soldiers—who are, in everything but name, Klansmen—wear red cloth masks that almost jump out of the frame at you, an oasis of colour in the film’s bleak desert backdrop. In the film’s most triumphant action setpieces, too, the vividness of the blood is a welcome pop of crimson that separates the film and gives it a personality all its own.
The most memorable distinguishing feature is, naturally, the sheer brutality of it. While the violence may pale in comparison to the Quentin Tarantino film it inspired—Django Unchained (2012), which features a jokey cameo from Nero himself—in 1966 it was considered outrageous and borderline scandalous in its lack of restraint. The most memorable moment will be familiar to Tarantino fans: General Hugo captures one of Jackson’s spies, savagely cuts off his ear, and, with a crowd of laughing spectators gathered around, feeds it to him before shooting him in the back. It’s grisly, to say the least, and when considered alongside the mud fights, barroom brawls, and innumerable deaths by machine gun, there’s no question Corbucci was toying with the idea of revitalizing the Western by way of exploitation and excess.
Still, against this backdrop of shocking violence lies a surprisingly tender love story. The emotional heart of the film is in the romance between Django and Maria and, against all odds, this subplot works. There’s ultimately no mistaking the tender, soft-spoken Django for Clint Eastwood’s unfeeling ‘Man With No Name’, especially when he starts speaking mournfully about the death of his wife years ago at the hands of Major Jackson. For all his tough posturing and skill with a pistol, Django is a romantic at heart, and his slowly unfurling relationship with Maria feels not only compelling but also, in the end, unexpectedly moving. Django is simultaneously the most macho and compassionate protagonist in the wild, wild west—one who reaches well beyond the constraints of his Eastwood-esque role to achieve something far more interesting and nuanced.
The film has inspired countless unofficial sequels and imitators (Tarantino among them), but there’s truly nothing like the original. It’s a bloody and bruising jolt of exploitation movie energy, funnelled into a genre that sometimes borders on blandness. It’s Leone’s oeuvre condensed into a fast-paced collage of lurid set pieces and high-stakes drama. As the eponymous theme song announces after the film’s transcendent, blood-soaked finale, Django will surely face another day… and if you didn’t already know his name you’re not likely to forget it.
Blu-ray Special Features:
- New restoration from a 4K scan of Django from the original camera negative by Arrow Films. It’s hard to imagine the film ever looking better than it does on this 4K restoration, the original camera negatives used to recreate this frame-by-frame beauty with all the necessary grit and splendour for a western-cum-exploitation film of this stature.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations. This is a good-looking Blu-ray, and never is that more apparent than in close-ups of Franco Nero’s dirt-caked face. Nearly every grain of stubble and bead of sweat is rendered with remarkable sharpness, and his bright blue eyes shine through like headlights. This is very much a visual film filled with larger-than-life action set-pieces, and every last death and mutilation is rendered with immaculate clarity and crispness.
- Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio. The audio isn’t anything to write home about, per se, but it certainly gets the job done. There is, however, one caveat to that: the default soundtrack is the English dub, a clearly phoned-in effort that renders even the film’s most dramatic scenes borderline laughable. The only respectable viewing option is to hear it in the original Italian with (newly translated) English subtitles—an audio track which, ironically, does still featured a dubbed Italian voice for then-23-year-old Franco Nero, whose real voice wasn’t deemed tough enough for the much older character he was playing.
- Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack.
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack.
- Audio commentary by film critic, historian and theorist Stephen Prince. Prince gives some worthwhile insight and analysis, as well as a good deal of bland narrating of what’s happening onscreen. He clearly knows what he’s talking about, the issue is just as that he doesn’t necessarily say anything new. Speaking as someone who rarely bothers with commentaries, this one isn’t quite essential and might just be for hardcore fans.
- Newly filmed interview with star Franco Nero. Nero, who looks maybe 40-years-old despite being nearly twice that age, talks about the casting process, Sergio Corbucci’s many idiosyncrasies, and some behind-the-scenes stories about what would be his career-defining role. One particularly bizarre story: while filming the opening credits sequence in which he walked through the hills carrying the coffin then disappeared into the distance, Corbucci and the crew abandoned Nero as a prank, leaving him alone in the pouring rain with this massive, real-life coffin. As if the production wasn’t already chaotic enough, the cast and crew were apparently keeping Nero drunk on whiskey throughout filming because the wintry conditions were so brutal—brutal enough that he was hospitalized at one point for hypothermia
- Newly filmed interview with assistant director Ruggero Deodato. A fascinating interview from the man who would go on to film what is arguably the most notorious exploitation film ever made, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). It’s telling that he got his start fourteen years prior on a similarly violent and transgressive film.
- Newly filmed interview with co-writer Franco Rossetti.
- Newly filmed interview with Sergio Corbucci’s wife Nora Corbucci.
- Archival interview with co-writer Piero Vivarelli.
- Archival interview with stuntman and actor Gilberto Galimberti.
- Discovering Django, newly filmed appreciation by Spaghetti Westerns scholar Austin Fisher. A really fascinating look at the film by someone who has spent his life studying this genre. Fisher provides some insightful context for Django within the history of the western and the history of film in general. In particular, he speaks about the film’s history as a cult film and its unofficial “franchise,” featuring over thirty films with “Django” in the title but no clear connection to Corbucci’s original film.
- An Introduction to Django by Alex Cox, an archival featurette with the acclaimed director. My personal favourite special feature, simply because I think Alex Cox is such a talented and interesting filmmaker. He doesn’t necessarily say anything that wasn’t said in other interviews—more talk about the violence on display in the film, some talk about the symbolism of Django’s costume—but it’s a lot of fun to watch someone who’s a fan, not a scholar, talk about what makes Django so special and, on a larger scale, the legacy of the Spaghetti Western as a genre.
- Gallery of original promotional images from the Mike Siegel Archive.
- Original trailer.
- Limited edition fully illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Howard Hughes and original reviews. Aside from simply looking lovely and being filled with gorgeous images from the film, the booklet provides some fascinating historical context for both this film and Corbucci’s filmography as a whole. The included excerpts from original reviews are particularly worthwhile—contemporary critics were clearly scandalized by the film’s violence, and they didn’t mince words about it.
Cast & Crew
director: Sergio Corbucci.
writers: Sergio Corbucci, Bruno Corbucci, Franco Rossetti, José Gutiérrez Maesso, Piero Vivarelli (Fernando Di Leo, uncredited; G. Copleston, uncredited on English version; story by Sergio Corbucci & Bruno Corbucci; based on ‘Yojimbo’ by Akira Kurosawa & Ryūzō Kikushima).
starring: Franco Nero, Loredana Nusciak, José Bodalo, Angel Alvarez & Eduardo Fajardo.