Thursday 22 November 2012

With your shinin' coffin can

Left-pond the spaghetti western is synonymous with the films of Sergio Leone, whose Dollars trilogy made a star of Clint Eastwood. To Germans and other Europeans, this is not so. Over here Leone's films take their place among hundreds of other spaghetti westerns, Bud Spencer/Terence Hill buddy comedies, and West German adaptations of Karl May's late-nineteenth-century western novels filmed in Yugoslavia.

To be sure, the Euro-western fell on fertile soil in a country that had been obsessed with western lore and Native American culture since imperial times. The genre's rise to becoming a major part of German culture and staple of Saturday-afternoon television is still astonishing, though. Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) wasn't the first spaghetti western to be popular in West Germany. But it was such a massive hit that it spawned dozens of unauthorised sequels, led to the retitling of every Franco Nero film as Django-something-or-other and immortalised the character in sketch comedy.

In a genre replete with stone-cold badasses, Django still manages to put in one hell of an opening. A man wearing a Union cavalry coat (Franco Nero) drags a coffin through a mud-drenched hellscape. He comes upon María (Loredana Nusciak), a woman on the run being whipped by Mexican soldiers. The Mexicans are gunned down by a bunch of racist ex-Confederates dressed in red hoods, who are in turn dispatched by Django. María and Django head to a hotel/brothel in a ghost town on the Mexican border, where Django leans on reluctant owner Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez) to provide them with shelter.

The reason for Nathaniel's worry soon becomes clear: he owes protection money to two armed gangs jockeying for control of the area. A remnant of Confederate Klansmen led by sadistic Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) imposes a white supremacist reign of terror on the local Mexicans and Indians, while a second force is led by General Rodríguez (José Bódalo), who's crossed the border to escape the Mexican army. (Although it's not stated explicitly and spaghetti westerns generally play fast and loose with history and geography, the film seems to be set sometime between 1865-67, during the French intervention in Mexico.) Django manages to mow down most of Jackson's soldiers with a gatling gun hidden in his coffin and throws in his lot with Rodríguez, whom he helps steal a large quantity of gold dust from a Mexican fort. But the general's unwillingness to give Django his share of the loot threatens to fracture their uneasy alliance, while a down but not out Jackson lurks in the background.

The stranger playing two unlikeable factions against each other, invented by Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was a staple of the spaghetti western by 1966. Corbucci, his brother Bruno and their collaborators reinvigorated the trope first by playing up the nastiness of one side. Rodríguez and his Mexicans are venal, but Jackson is wicked beyond belief. Fajardo does some great work portraying a cold aristocrat who believes killing ostensible inferiors is his birthright. The first time the major is seen, he is hunting captured Mexicans for sport. It's a savage critique of the violence of white supremacy in a film industry that, having produced the notoriously colonialist cannibal film, is not generally known for its anti-racism.

It's certainly an uncompromising vision, by which I mean Django is a damn violent film. Like most spaghetti westerns it's cold and nihilistic, but unlike e.g. Leone's films it's also full of gore that was considered so excessive the film remained banned or thereabouts in Britain until the nineties. It's not quite as outré by today's standards, but a scene in which a man has his ear cut off and is forced to eat it still has the power to shock. The single-mindedness is also in the film's squalid look, with Corbucci persuading set designer Giancarlo Simi to leave the set south-west of Rome in its mud-soaked state. It doesn't look anything like the American southwest, but doesn't resemble Italy either: it looks like the forecourt of hell.

It's a mood piece, and both direction and music support it in that respect. There's a shot of Nero drinking while the brim of his hat conceals the upper half of his face, reused by Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973). Corbucci's go-to trick, though, is a rapid zoom from medium shot to close-up. It's used perhaps half a dozen times, to diminishing returns; but while it's good it's very good. Ennio Morricone has so influenced our notion of what a spaghetti western should sound like - strings, harmonica, whistling - that Luis Bacalov's work somehow seems wrong. But it's actually tremendously effective, more than enough to earn Bacalov his cult following (including Quentin Tarantino, who asked Bacalov to contribute music to Kill Bill).

To my mind, though, it's Franco Nero's film above all. As written, Django is the spaghetti western archetype of the amoral drifter who's the protagonist but hardly the hero. Nero, reluctantly stepping into the role after meat-and-potatoes western actor Mark Damon was prevented by scheduling issues, has the charismatic on-screen personality and Henry-Fonda-like ice-blue eyes for the part. The performance itself - Django as a self-amused, even cruel anti-hero - cast a long shadow over the western, arguably even influencing Eastwood's in High Plains Drifter. That it inspired a legion of imitators is no surprise; that it took over twenty years for Nero to step back into the role is.

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