Essential Viewing for fans of ‘Django Unchained’ Part 1: ‘Django’ / ‘Mandingo’ / ‘The Great Silence’
December is Tarantino Month here at SOS, and in the week leading up our January month-long theme of westerns, I thought it would be best to whip up an article spotlighting some films that influenced Tarantino’s long awaited take on the western, Django Unchained. For my money, all of the films listed below are essential viewing for fans of Django Unchained. I’ll be diving deeper into these films come January, but in the meantime, this should hopefully whet your appetite. Enjoy!
Note: I’m not including any Sergio Leone Spaghetti westerns as they should be essential viewing for anyone, regardless if you like or dislike Tarantino’s film.
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Bruco Corbucci and Sergio Corbucci
1966, Italy / Spain
The most obvious influence for Django Unchained was of course critic-turned-director Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece Django. The film features the Belgian actor Franco Nero playing the soon to be iconic titular character, a mysterious gunslinger who finds himself caught between two feuding factions: the KKK-like ex-Confederate soldiers (sporting red hoods over their heads) and a gang of Mexican bandits.
Django has a score to settle with Confederate leader Major Jackson, and intends on killing two birds with one stone by walking away with the treasure of gold belonging to the Mexicans.
Django is a prime example of the Italian way: how they do things bigger, better and bloodier than their American counterparts. Thus, Django was criticized on release for its onscreen violence (it has a body-count of 168), and was inexplicably banned in the UK for 23 years. However, it’s an important part of the spaghetti western canon and managed to be influential in its own right, inspiring more than 50 unauthorized sequels – and counting. But for American audiences, it was mostly an inconsequential curio, as Corbucci was always overshadowed by his Italian contemporary, the other Sergio. But Django is perhaps the best of the blood-splattered spaghetti westerns – albeit, a downbeat, bleak and desolate movie from start to finish.
Playing a slight variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (by way of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), Nero’s Django is a loner anti-hero who pays allegiance to no man nor country. Death is everywhere, and Django is like the Dracula of outlaws, complete with his own coffin which he drags around with him, and a thirst for revenge that can only be quenched with bloodshed. Franco Nero’s performance was so good in Django that it gave him superstar status in Europe. Nearly every movie he made thereafter bears the Django brand.
The action in Django is downright entertaining, and the best scene comes when Django takes to wielding an oversized gatling gun (which went on to inspire a scene in DePalma’s Scarface). Another much talked-about scene involves a deranged preacher forced to eat his own ear as punishment for spying on the Mexicans. The cutting of the ear of course influenced Tarantino’s famous sequence in Reservoir Dogs. And another cruel moment sees Mexican prisoners used as clay pigeons. But the film’s most nihilistic moment comes when we witness the titular character receive his punishment for stealing from the Mexicans, leading to an unforgettable final gunfight: Django guns down six men with just six bullets even though his hands and fingers have been smashed to a pulp. Yes, Django is an extremely sadistic film, and when the credits roll Django walks away with even less than what he started with. In Corbucci’s Wild West, there is no honour amongst men. Django is the director’s cruel morality fable of men at war with themselves, each other and the whole damned world. Corbucci never gained the international reputation of Sergio Leone, and while he can’t match the master’s style or virtuosity, he’s the closest anyone else has come. There’s much to admire in his direction; his attitude, his films, and their iconography.
The only sequel endorsed by Corbucci, Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno, came 20 years later. It was the only other to also star Franco Nero.
If you’re a coffin maker, you sure did pick a good town to settle.
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Jack Kirkland
Anyone who listened to our review of Django Unchained on the Sordid Cinema podcast will remember me raving about this film. This controversial adaptation of the Jack Kirkland novel was produced by Dino DeLaurentiis, directed by Richard Fleischer (Solylent Green, The Bodysnatcher) and featured a solid cast (including James Mason, Perry King, and Susan George). Roger Ebert gave Mandingo a zero star rating, calling it a piece of manure, obscene and racist trash. To be fair, Mandingo is trash cinema, a ruthless exploitation of racial stereotypes – but Mandingo is also a rarity, a big budget exploitation flick with a pulpy, cheap plot made by the Hollywood system. Tarantino went so far as to compare Mandingo to Showgirls, and one can easily see why. It’s a sleazy, dirty, unapologetic film but there’s no denying that Mandingo holds up as a seriously captivating, provocative exploitation pic. Think Young and the Restless and Gone With the Wind with a soundtrack of Muddy Waters tunes and a fantastic score composed by Maurice Jarre.
Mandingo is an equal opportunity offender, attacking both slaves and slave owners. No character in this film is innocent, and everyone is caught in a vicious cycle that corrupts society in every which way possible. Fleischer’s films were often extremely grim, and Mandingo is no exception. In one of the film’s most gruesome scenes, boxer-turned-actor Ken Norton and bodybuilder/pro wrestler-turned-actor Earl Maynard rip themselves apart, biting off more than they can chew (literally speaking). Mandingo is a true exploitation film, and the pitchfork-sharp ending (culminating with a bath in a boiling caldron) will forever boil under your skin. Apparently the film spawned a sequel, the 1976 flop Drum, but I’ve never been able to track it down.
I thought you was better than the white man, Masta. But you is just white!
The Great Silence
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Mario Amendola and Bruno Corbucci
1968, Italy / France
With The Great Silence and Django on his resume, Corbucci is without a doubt the biggest influence on Django Unchained. His best films rank up there with Sergio Leone, and arguably The Great Silence is his most critically acclaimed (although not my favorite). Without a doubt, it is also one of the most disheartening Westerns ever made, and stands out amongst the many spaghetti Westerns for a number of reasons. Set in the Utah Territory during a bitter cold winter around the turn of the last century (1899), the film follows a mute gunslinger appropriately named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who faces off against a gang of blood-thirsty bounty hunters led by their vicious German leader, Loco (Klaus Kinski). The pair create one of the most memorable protagonists/antagonists in any western movie: Silence is cool, calm and silent and Loco is ruthless and cunning and talks too much. Watching them onscreen together is utterly engrossing.
The greatest moment is reserved for film’s sensational finale, an ending of despair and hopelessness for which it has become famous for. In Corbucci’s world, the lines between right and wrong are blurry and the good guys don’t always walk away unharmed. It’s a bleak, brilliant and violent vision of an immoral West.
Featuring superb photography by cinematographer Silvano Ippolito and a haunting score from maestro Ennio Morricone, director Sergio Corbucci’s unrelenting spaghetti western is a must see.
Once, my husband told me of this man. He avenges our wrongs. And the bounty killers sure do tremble when he appears. They call him “Silence.” Because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.
- Ricky D