Friday, July 11, 2014

DJANGO (1966)

"Spaghetti Western" is the term for an Western film shot in Italy, by Italian directors and with an Italian cast, though set in the American Old West and featuring an American or British star in the lead role. The plot typically involves a loner hero or anti-hero who arrives in a town and is caught between two battling factions. He usually kicks the bad guys' asses then leaves town. I have seen very few of these except for the archetypal one, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY which was Clint Eastwood's breakout movie role, but I saw that years ago on a tiny tabletop TV, not letterboxed, so my memory of it is very dim. So I'm calling DJANGO my first spaghetti Western.

Django (Franco Nero, pictured) comes into a very muddy town dragging a coffin behind him. The nearly-empty frontier town has been ruined by a war between a gang of Mexican bandits and a group of proto-Ku Klux Klan Southerners led by Major Jackson. Django sees a woman being whipped by some ugly men; she's Maria, a prostitute who has made the mistake of selling herself to both the Mexicans and the Confederates. The Mexicans who are whipping her are shot to death by a gang of Confederates, but when they decide to burn her at the stake, Django kills the Confederates and takes her back to the saloon/brothel which is about the only going concern left. Django is on neither side in the small war; out for revenge against Major Jackson, he seems to buddy up to the Mexicans, but later he steals a huge fortune in gold from the bandits. There are a couple of startling scenes of slaughter and a torture scene in which a monk has his ear cut off and is forced to eat it. Ultimately, Django is punished by having both his hands broken, and yet in the tense climax, he manages to come out on top anyway.

This is violent and nihilistic, and entertaining. The character of Django is the perfect anti-hero: we can't really condone much of what he does, but because everyone else around him is pretty much evil and he seems to be acting out of a need for personal vengeance, we're on his side most of the time. Nero is handsome and charismatic; even though he is caked in mud all through the movie, everyone else is even filthier. No one else comes close to being very likeable—Maria has been wronged, for sure, but we never get to know her very well; Nathaniel, the saloon owner and pimp, seems harmless; and everyone else is a bastard. Though there is lots of violence, it's not as gory as it would have been if made twenty years later; for example, the ear slicing scene is not nearly as graphic as Quentin Tarentino's similar moment in RESERVOIR DOGS. The presence of a machine gun seems anachronistic, but why bother about details? I don't think I’ll be going on a spaghetti Western jag anytime soon, but I did enjoy this. [DVD]

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