By Graham Fuller | Film Forum’s three-week Spaghetti Western season starts today with a three-course al dente hogfeast fit for the wealthiest grandee or the lowliest peon. Bring on the Sergios: The opening salvos are Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” (1966) – the genre’s two most influential works – and the US premiere of the complete Italian version of Sergio Sollima’s “The Big Gundown” (1966).
The Leone, culled from Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 play “A Servant of Two Masters,” Dashiell Hammett’s novel “Red Harvest, and Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” internationalized the spaghetti Western, supplied many of its tropes, and launched Clint Eastwood as an icon of impassive cool. The Sollima, initially scripted by “The Battle of Algiers”’ co-writer Franco Solinas, politicized and humanized the über-cynical western all’italiana (aka the “paella Western” from the frequent Spanish locations).
The Corbucci, clearly modeled on “Fistful,” upped the violence level to the extent that it was slapped with an 18 certificate in Italy (where it did massive business in the south particularly), banned in Britain until 1993, and shown only fleetingly in the US. Because it’s the nominal inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Christmas Day release “Django Unchained” – more likely it’s the patron saint of that Southern-based slavery “Western,” as the Italian war movie “The Inglorious Bastards” (1978) was of “Inglourious Basterds” – “Django” now screams to be seen.
It begins as an artful antidote to the horse opera: 23-year-old Franco Nero’s eponymous ex-Union soldier dragging a smallish coffin behind him as he struggles on foot toward a virtual ghost town sunk in a quagmire: Mud – it’s thicker even than in Eastwood’s viscous “Shane” reboot “Pale Rider” – is the movie’s visual world, emblematic of the iniquity characterizing the border war between an army of red-hooded proto-Klansmen and another of venal Mexican bandidos.
Django’s first action is to blow away five of the white supremacists who’ve just murdered the Mexican captors of the strawberry-blonde runaway Maria (Loredana Nusciak) so they can torture her to death. More courtly (though no less taciturn) than Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the “Dollars” Trilogy and his post-Spaghetti American Westerns, Django reinstalls Maria in the saloon-cum-brothel, where the barman and her raddled fellow whores survive as the unnamed town’s lone survivors. He’s come there to avenge the killing of his woman by the Klansmen leader Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and proceeds to play the two factions off against each other.
In a kinetic sequence that must have excited John Woo as well as Tarantino, he harnesses the technological marvel concealed in the coffin to massacre some forty of Jackson’s men in a few minutes. A demented Klan preacher – an early symbol of the anti-clericalism that came to infest Italian Westerns – is forced to eat one of his ears by the Mexican warlord (José Bódalo); Tarantino, of course, joyfully quoted its severing in “Reservoir Dogs.” A ferocious fistfight, shot with a handheld camera that contrasts with the rest of the movie’s emphatically short tracking shots and discreetly used zooms, ends in the brutal death of Django’s opponent. But just when you think he’s going to sail through the movie without a scratch, his hands are mashed to a pulp…
Influenced like his friend Leone by “Yojimbo,” the former film critic Corbucci (1927-90) came to “Django” after assisting Roberto Rossellini, directing “peplums,” writing comedies, and directing several experimental Westerns. On “Django,” which inspired one official sequel (in 1987) and bred some thirty unofficial offspring, he perfected the blunt graphic style and simplistic (a)moral tone that characterizes Spanish-language Western comic books, though its pessimistic streak betokens existentialism. Where the hell can Django ride off too, with or without Maria, except to fresh hells? Not that he’s much more of a flesh-and-blood creation than Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger in “Westworld.”
For more on the spaghetti Western, read “In Praise of Da Pasta” by J. Hoberman in the current issue of Film Comment magazine.
Image: Loredana Nusciak and Franco Nero in “Django” (1966) / Courtesy Film Forum/Photofest