Essential Viewing for fans of Django Unchained’ Part 2: ‘The Mercenary’ / ‘Navajo Joe’ / ‘Legend of Nigger Charley’
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: This is the second of a three part article.
The Mercenary (Il Mercenario) (A Professional Gun)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Giorgio Arlorio and Adriano Bolzoni
1968, Italy / Spain
Second only to Leone, Sergio Corbucci is the best when it comes to making spaghetti westerns. The man would never take a break, directing Django, The Great Silence, Navajo Joe and The Mercenary within a span of two years. Each are superb Italian Westerns, but each are incredibly distinct. Tarantino has called The Mercenary one of his 20 favourite films of all time, and while it is perhaps not Corbucci’s best, one can understand why.
The Mercenary stands out in part as his most hopeful and playful film. It isn’t bleak like Django nor sombre like The Great Silence and is best described as a member of the “Zapata Westerns,” a nickname given to a sub-genre of spaghetti westerns dating largely from the mid 1960s to early 1970s which were set in and around Mexico and dealt with overtly political themes. While The Mercenary has the stylistic action you’d expect from Corbucci, it is also stuffed with humour and lightweight politics as well.
The year is 1915 and the story of The Mercenary takes place in the middle of the Mexican revolution and follows an unlikely pair of revolutionaries: Franco Nero stars as the mercenary Sergei Cowalski, a Polish immigrant who is hired to transport silver to a mine in Texas by Paco (Tony Musante), a peasant who leads his comrades into rebellion against the oppressive Mexican military government. Switching sides, the hired gun finds himself teaching the rebel leader how to put his revolutionary ideas into practice, but soon the two clash over ideals and a gorgeous, feisty woman (Giovanna Ralli). Hot on their heels is General Garcia and gunslinger Curly (Jack Palance), out for revenge and determined to catch Kowalski and Paco, who stole their gold.
Originally written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio and inspired by the Bertold Brecht’s Die Ausnahme und die Regel, The Mercenary started with quite overtly leftist politics but after passing through many hands, and undergoing several rewrites (including a final draft by Corbucci himself), and the end result saw the politics take a backseat to funny dialogue and a few religious references. For example, Nero’s character is captured and strapped to a cross, and Paco’s twelve men are like Disciples – when they meet Kowalski, he becomes their saviour.
The acting in The Mercenary is what really sets the film apart from so many of its contemporaries. Palance stands out amongst the eccentric cast of characters for his villainous turn as Curly, a white-suited gay gunslinger. Palance manages to play the character as both campy and menacing and despite little screen-time he has some very memorable moments, including finishing off one revolutionary by placing a grenade in his mouth. Heroes in spaghetti Westerns are more likely to be motivated by money than idealism or revenge than forgiveness. Franco Nero and Tony Musante’s duo are no different and they make a great team, playing the characters as both comedic and heroic.
While The Mercenary isn’t quite as good as Il Grande Silenzio, or as iconic as Django, but Ennio Morricone’s score and the giant action setpieces (specifically, the well-choreographed shootout in the climax) elevate The Mercenary above your average Italian Western. Morricone would compose 7 scores for Corbucci, each with a wide variety of styles matching the different moods of the scenes. The most famous track, “L’Arena,” was later appropriated by Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol.2.
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Fernando Di Leo and Ugo Pirro (story)
1966, Italy / Spain
The sole survivor of a massacre vows revenge on his attackers and on the men who murdered his wife.
Most spaghetti Westerns are by and large, shot on small budgets and in little time. Storytelling wasn’t always the prime concern for most filmmakers, especially the producers, and of the hundreds made, only a select few stand out. They all featured a distinct visual style that separated them from their American counterparts but only a few had compelling stories. Navajo Joe isn’t nearly Corbucci’s best film but there is no doubt it is better than the average spaghetti Western. And although it’s weak in story, it’s riches lie in the action set-pieces, wild gunplay and assorted bloodshed.
Navajo Joe might in fact be more of an influence on Tarantino’s Ingourious Basterds than his Django Unchained. The film opens with a gang of ruthless bandits riding through the west killing every Native American in their path for a one-dollar reward on every Indian scalp. As in Basterds, we are treated to a scalping in the horrific opening, a grim introduction set to Morricone’s heart-pounding score. Later an axe is thrown face in the direction of the camera, splitting open a villain’s head (much like Kill Bill Vol. 1); various messy shootings unfold and as per usual the body-count is extremely high. In one of the pic’s strongest scenes, the hero finds himself a victim of a savage beating. Hung upside down for an extended period of time, Joe, with the help of a friend, storms up a brilliant way to escape. The action of Navajo Joe is stellar. And there is enough to keep any spaghetti Western fan glued to the screen. The bandits’ ambush of the train is a particular standout. In another standout sequence, a dancehall dame is quietly executed by the town doctor, via his sharp scalpel.
Much like the Dollars trilogy, Joe’s lead came from the small screen. T.V. actor Burt Reynolds, like Clint Eastwood, would get his start in the spaghetti Western genre. Both men would of course go on to become icons in the ’70’s. Reynolds in his first major role, playing a Native American is enough to make any person curious, and while the choice to cast a white man is subject, dare I say Reynolds in his youth looks the part. His performance, however, is a mixed blessing. He registers little charisma and enthusiasm when delivering his dialogue and his post-dub is uninspired. To be fair, the brief, banal and lackluster dialog doesn’t help. But thankfully Reynolds suits the role in other ways – as an actor he is actually very action oriented, performing many of his own stunts and elevating Navajo Joe as one of the most physically demanding roles for any Western anti-hero. Apart from drawing his Colt .45 from its holster, Joe never stops moving, stabbing foes with his knife, soaring through the air like an eagle and pumping out shotgun shells every chance he gets. Reynolds throws his whole body into making the character lethal and in the finale, Joe carves a target onto a man’s forehead with his knife before grabbing a rock and smashing down an exclamation mark on his vengeance.
Corbucci and his director of photography Silvano Ippoliti, a first-rate technician, crafted a visually impressive movie. Navajo Joe is Corbucci’s first Western shot in an anamorphic widescreen process and Ippoliti captures some wonderful vistas and compositions. It is also worth noting that Ruggero Deodato, widely known for his controversial and extremely violent Cannibal Holocaust, served as an assistant to Corbucci for a few of his most popular Westerns. Joe was one of them.
Ennio Morricone (credited as Leo Nichols), provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks of his entire career. This was Morricone’s first score for Corbucci. He established a different style for the director’s films so one could easily distinguish them apart from the scores composed for Sergio Leone. The music is inspired by Indian tribal songs incorporates a wailing imitation of Native American chants. Both Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino used sections of it in their respective films, Election and Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
Like most Spaghetti Westerns by Corbucci, Navajo Joe touches on racism, tribalism and genocide. While Navajo Joe has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans, it did kickstart a wave of films that featured sympathetic Native American characters in starring roles. In one scene Joe appoints himself sheriff, telling the townspeople, “My father was born here, as was his father and his father before him. Where was your father born?”
All that aside, Joe is first and foremost an exploitation flick, a film that glorifies violence while preaching an anti-racist message – much like Django Unchained.
The Legend of Nigger Charley
Directed by Martin Goldman
Written by Martin Goldman and Larry G. Spangler
The Legend of Nigger Charley was no doubt controversial upon its release, spurred on by its rebellious title, but it didn’t stop Paramount from backing two sequels the following year (The Soul of Nigger Charley and Boss Nigger). Directed by Martin Goldman, this blaxploitation western about a trio of escaped slaves was one of Paramount’s highest-grossing movies of 1972. Despite the small budget, Nigger Charlie is an admirable black western and a truly empowering film. How rare is it to see a low-budget exploitation flick with such high quality acting? Fred Williamson plays Nigger Charley as a true hero. Unlike Tarantino’s Django, Charlie never seeks revenge, and whatever blood is spilled is all in self defense. This is one of the actor’s finest roles and best performances.
- Ricky D