Despite being fifty years old, Django remains a brutal and disconcerting entry in the spaghetti western sub-genre.
Across a bleak muddy landscape, a lone figure in a Union Army uniform drags a coffin behind him. The man is Django, a former soldier with a secret from his past and a secret in his coffin. These secrets will soon drag him into the paths of a prostitute named Maria, a racist confederate ex-soldier and his hood wearing henchmen, and an excitable gang of Mexican revolutionaries.
All Westerns are slightly surreal and somewhat stylised, especially with the excess or lack of blood, given the amount of bullets fired, but Spaghetti Westerns, the uniquely European appropriation of a uniquely American genre are even more so. Whereas the US versions may celebrate or explore both the light and dark sides of the modern history of the country, the continental equivalents are shorn of that cultural context, and seem to take place in a strange alien world, but the world of Django goes a step further.
The bleak, isolated muddy town looks like a post-apocalyptic war zone, a place where human life has lost all value, where unlucky men are used as sporting prey, the unlucky women used for pleasure, and the "lucky" women get to feel like "real" women and be loved by a man.
The script is offbeat, unpredictable, and shocking. Plot wise, barely more than half an hour and the big twist about the contents of the coffin is revealed, turning the focus of the story elsewhere, with the links between Django and the other characters becoming apparent.
Clearly modelled on the two criminal sides of A Fistful of Dollars, the two gangs in Django are both equally despicable, but director Sergio Corbucci takes things a disturbing step further. The confederate gang dress in in red Ku Klux Klan style hoods, and treat their Mexican prisoners like animals, to be hunted for sport.
Django himself is no angel, repaying the hospitality of Nathaniel the saloon owner by shooting up the bar to demonstrate a weapon to the Mexicans, then later cajoling Nathaniel into driving him to a massacre. It's a testament to Franco Nero that he can make a character like that likeable enough to keep us rooting for him.
What makes Django so compelling is the extremity of so many of the elements, even by the standards of the Spaghetti Western. The dialogue veers between the cringingly cheesy (“I felt like I was a real woman. Someone to protect, and to be loved), and the portentous (“His time hasn't come yet”). The violence is still shocking today, the tone being set in the opening scene of Maria being mercilessly whipped by the Mexicans, after which we get everything from an ear that gets cut off and fed to its owner, to the comical, almost sexual pleasure General Rodríguez takes from watching Django having his hands crushed. Not surprisingly the film suffered with the censors, especially in the UK, with the BBFC refusing a certificate for the film until 1993.
There are also two things in Django that are surprising for this sort of film. Firstly is a modicum of character development. As the end theme music swells, Django walks off into the distance, but in the foreground we see that he has left his gun behind, which throughout the film has been the main way for Django to define himself as a man. Secondly, as he walks off, he has Maria with him, signifying another change in how he defines himself, this time with the love of a good woman. Both of these thing point to a changed man, and a happy ending of sorts, for an audacious and forgettable classic.