Django (1966) 4K Ultra HD Review: A Spaghetti Western Icon

Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy might have signaled the international recognition of the spaghetti western, but it was Django that launched a thousand rip-offs. A casual search of IMDB would make one think that Django was an enormous series, something like an Italian Zatoichi, but the fact is that there was only ever one real sequel, more than 20 years later and well after the heyday of the European western. What is Django, and why on earth did it become a touchstone for so many other films?

Django is, of course, a western, shot in Spain with a largely Italian and Spanish cast directed by Sergio Carbucci. It opens with one of the great iconic shots of its era: a man in a dusty black coat, wandering through the scrubby desert, dragging a wooden coffin behind him. An enormous song blares as he walks through the entire credits.

He eventually comes across a disturbing scene: a woman is tied to a bridge post and whipped by a crew of Mexican revolutionaries… who are then shot by a group of red-hooded men. They pull the woman down, but are clearly intent on killing her themselves. Only then does Django intervene, shooting them all in seconds with his lightning-fast quickdraw.

They then go to a tavern in a local town, where the woman is no longer welcome, but laconic Django and his grim determination will not take no for an answer. Eventually, the red hoods come looking. They’re religious fanatical racists following a Confederate named Jackson who wants to keep the border town clear of Mexican revolutionaries who dwell nearby. One would think he could solve the problem for himself by moving a little north, but he has business with the Mexican government just across the border.

When Django kills the few men Jackson brings with him, he comes back with the better part of an army. But Django is ready for that, too, and the resulting massacre is only the first of many to take place in this bloody, violent, and sadistic take on the western genre.

Django moves from set piece to set piece in a story that doesn’t conform to the world of realistic logic, but rather follows strictly the rule of cool. Neither a coherent worldspace nor historical integrity are the point of Django. It’s what looks cool, seems awesome, what heightens the story or makes it darker or more violent.

The story owes a lot to A Fistful of Dollars, and so Yojimbo, the Kurosawa movie that Dollars was an unauthorized adaptation of. All these films take heavily from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. That novel involves a detective who, finding himself in the middle of a gang war, plays both sides against the middle to arrive at his own ends. Django takes some of the framework, though without the question of dual-loyalty. The Mexican revolutionaries are commanded by an old prison buddy of Django’s, and Jackson is apparently an old enemy. Django is about mystique, and the film doesn’t fill in any more of his background than is strictly necessary.

Once Django and his old general buddy get together, they two pull off an improbable but wildly entertaining heist right across the border. Whether the plan they carry off would ever have had an actual chance of working in a real military fort doesn’t matter, because it looks great. It’s another fantastic set piece for men to be shot, to dive off of buildings, and for things to look cool.

This description makes it sound like Django doesn’t have a thought in its head, and that’s not an entirely fair reading. It has a definite attitude about the ever-shifting loyalties of men living on the brink of civilization, and the dubious morality of heroism. The themes of betrayal, and of money overriding other principles is present… but so are prostitutes wrestling in the mud, mutilations, and wildly kinetic fist fights in bars shot on a handheld camera.

Franco Nero plays Django with a steely eyed determination. It’s a steady, understated performance which works well since nearly everyone else in the film is chewing what limited scenery they have in the burnt out old town where most of the film’s action takes place. It’s a place where the only business in town is the brothel. Where they get their food, supplies for their horses or any of the other amenities that make life on the frontier possible are unanswered questions… but they don’t matter. It all looks cool.

And it’s the look, the images, the feeling of Django that I think is responsible for it being so wildly influential that dozens of movies stole its title, even when they had nothing to do with its story or filmmakers. The man with the coffin. The crooked tombstones and wooden crosses in the grande finale shootout. The swamp that sucks up dead bodies in the beginning and forms an important part of the third act twist. The barely connected threads of the story are reinforced by their imagery.

Django‘s success was almost immediately felt, with several unrelated films being released outside of Italy stealing the Django name. Texas, Adios, another film from the same year also starring Franco Nero was even marketed as a sequel to Django, though a cursory examination could show that other than the star and genre the movies had nothing to do with each other. That film is included on a Blu-ray in this release, and it serves as an interesting counterpoint to Django. Made in Spain and released just a couple of months after Django, Texas, Adios is a perfectly serviceable western, with some good action scenes. But it doesn’t have the unique feel of Django. It lacks the vision and bloody-mindedness that make Django so memorable. It looks like it’s trying to be a Hollywood western with a bit more edge. Django, in comparison, is all edge, all confrontation.

Django has been released on 4K Ultra HD two disc set by Arrow Video. This release does not include a standard 1080p Blu-ray disc with the feature. The Blu-ray contains Texas, Adios and its special features. The 4k UHD disc contains an audio commentary for the film by film critic Stephen Price. It also has several video extras: “Django Never Dies”, (26 mins), an interview with Franco Nero, “Cannibal of the Wild West” (26 mins), an interview with assistant director Ruggero Deodato, “Sergio, My Husband”, (28 mins), an interview with the director’s wife, Nori Corbucci. “That’s My Life Part 1” (10 mins), an archival review with co-writer Franco Rosetti, “A Rock n Roll Scriptwriter”, (11 mins) an interview with co-writer Piero Vivarelli, “A Punch in the Face” (19 mins), an interview with stuntman Gilberto Galimberti, “Discovering Django”, (24 mins) a video essay by scholar Austin Fisher, and “An Introduction to Django by Alex Cox” (12 mins), an archival featurette. It also include trailers.

On the Blu-ray, along with the film Texas, Adios is an audio commentary by spaghetti western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke. Video extras include “The Sheriff is in Town” (20 mins), an interview with Franco Nero, “Jump into the West”, (34 mins), an interview with actor Alberto Dell’Acqua, “That My Life: Part 2”, (10 mins) an archival interview with co-writer Franco Rosetti, “Hello Texas!” (16 mins), a featurette by Austin Fisher. The limited edition set also contains six collector postcard, a book with essays by Howard Hughes and Roberto Curti among others, and a reversible poster.

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Kent Conrad

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