Sunday, December 16, 2012

Django Month: Django the Bastard (1969)

AKA: The Strangers Gundown or Django the Avenger

Now this is a cracking little Spaghetti western and probably my favourite of all the Django "sequels". Though there's little connection to the original film - don't expect any machine-gun action here - there is a strong similarity in tone that makes it a good cinematic soul mate. And if you're a fan of Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider this is definitely one to check out because it's quite similar and pre-dates both. Here Django is played by Antony Steffen (or Antônio Luiz De Teffé to give him his real name) who starred in a whole bunch of Spaghetti westerns in the 60s and 70s and played the Django character in at least 5 other films. This one is more interesting than most though because he actually co-wrote the script and produced it.

story revolves around Django entering a frontier town where he begins to systemically hunt down and kill several bad guys. In cavalier fashion, he announces that they are going to die by sticking graveyard crosses in the ground with their names and that day's date on. At first we don't know why he's doing this, only that this final goal seems to be killing two men - wealthy sadistic rancher Rod Murdoch and his psychotic brother Luke. The most disturbing element to the story is that it's implied that Django may not actually be flesh and blood but potentially an avenger from beyond the grave!

So, yeah, it's sort of revenge flick with a little bit of supernatural mixed in (I'm such a sucker for these kind of films). The whole is he or isn't a ghost is left nicely ambiguous. For everything that points one way there's something else that points the other and it never settles the issue right up until the end. I liked that approach a lot. The story is riveting and nicely told. It does drag a little in the middle but the ending more than makes up for it. Once again, like the original Django, the film has a nice arc where the lead character starts off seemingly invincible only for things to get much tougher by the end.

Anthony Steffen is a little wooden in the title role but fits the part well. To be honest the film doesn't really demand much more from him than to just look menacing and stare at bad guys a lot. The one big weak point for the film is definitely the extended Civil War flashback in which we see a happy, carefree Django (!). I get that they wanted to make a contrast with who Django was then and is now but it's a really cheesy sequence that's both sloppily shot and acted. Steffen should definitely stick to just strong, silent type roles. The villains are also pretty memorable. There's a nice balance between the calm and methodical Rod and the demented and twisted Luke. Luciano Rossi goes gloriously over-the-top in playing the latter.

The directing was pretty good as well. I mean the set is quite cheap and low budget but the director, Sergio Garrone, manages to make the most of it and create a really gothic atmosphere by using a lot of low key lighting. A lot of the time it feels like you're watching a horror film. There was also a pleasing amount of stylised camera angles. Lots of overhead shots and dutch angles that you don't always see in these types of films. Much like the original Django, Garrone also uses a lot of crucifix imagery which fits perfectly with the old testament/"eye for an eye" atmosphere of the film.

Django the Bastard is a fantastic western that barely puts a foot wrong. Okay, it's not as great as the original but not far behind it either. If you're going to check out just one Django "sequel" make it this one.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Django Month: Django Strikes Again (1987)

AKA: Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno

Before I get on the unofficial sequels I thought it best to cover the single official entry that was released in 1987. Though it wasn't directed by Sergio Corbucci (a guy called Nello Rossati directed it under the pseudonym Ted Archer), he did at least give them permission to use the character's name and back story which I was hoping would be a tacit seal of approval. Unfortunately the belated sequel feels very, very different from its predecessor. Visually and tonally it's got a lot more in common with 80s 'Nam-ploitation movies than it does with 60s Spaghetti westerns.

Django Strikes Again is set in the jungles (?) of Mexico and begins (rather symbolically) with two cowboys getting gunned down by a passing armoured steamboat. The boat in question belongs to the evil "El Diablo" Orlowsky and his band of cut throat mercenaries. Orlowsky has been using the ship to kidnap locals and force them into slavery in his silver mines. One of the women manages to escape and heads to the nearby monestry where she tells the familiar looking monk "Brother Ignatius" what's going on. Of course, Ignatius turns out to be none other than Django who, following the events of the first film, has renounced his life of violence. The woman informs Django that Orlowsky has kidnapped his daughter so he (literally) digs up his old guns and set out to take down Orlowsky and his whole operation.

I'll admit the the storyline isn't half bad. The idea of Django becoming monk seems quite fitting after what he went through at the end of the original film. And the idea of a villain running his operation from a steamboat is quite novel. The main problem is that the whole film is really quite sluggish and dull, particularly when you put it alongside the zippy pace of the original film. The action scenes are also far less memorable and pretty poorly shot. Sure Django busts out his trademark machine gun on several occasions but there's very little excitement to any of these scenes. They even try to stick in a few Arnie-style quips to spice it up but they pretty much all fall flat.

The acting is pretty weak across the board. Sure, it's great to see Franco Nero back in the title role, but he gives a fairly lifeless, uninterested performance. It doesn't help that they give him long hair and a beard making him unrecognisable as being the same character as before. And he's also saddled with one of the most annoying kid sidekicks, this side of Jake Lloyd, for much of the running time. The rest of the cast is also pretty weak. Christopher Connelly is very forgettable as the butterfly obsessed villain Orlowsky. Nowhere near as intimidating as Major Jackson and General Hugo. They even manage to waste the talents of Donald Pleasence in a tiny role as a professor who helps out Django.

I think the main problem with the film is that the makers seemed too keen on ditching so many traditional Western elements. Worse still, they don't seem that interested in tying the film back to the original Django beyond a few references and some gimmicky updates. For instance, instead of dragging a coffin behind him in this film Django upgrades to a tricked out horse drawn hearse. Given that this is the one official sequel I guess I was expecting a bit more reverence and connection to the original film but it's just not there. I feel that the filmmakers were far more influenced by films like Commando and Rambo II. In fact, the end of the film in particular feels like a mash-up between those two films. That sounds like an endorsement but it really isn't. As I said, the action in this is very lifeless.

Ultimately I think Django Strikes Again doesn't really work as a film or a sequel but it's an interesting curiosity piece for fans of the original. It's probably worth seeing once if you come across it but don't go out of your way because there's far better "unofficial" sequels out there that I'll be covering soon.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Django Month: Django (1966)

Right let's start at the very beginning. Django came out in 1966 and was a breakout success for both its Italian director Sergio Corbucci and star Franco Nero. The film had an enormous impact on the Spaghetti western scene with tons of directors attempted to capture its look and feel for the next ten years. Django was also something of a watershed moment for cinematic violence with its ridiculously high body count and graphic gore (it was actually banned in the UK right up until 1993!). If you're a fan of Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino you need to see this film because both filmmakers owe a great deal of debt to it.

The film's
plot sees Franco Nero play Django, a mysterious cowboy drifter who we initially meet trudging through a bleak, muddy landscape, dragging a coffin behind him. What's in the coffin? If you don't know, I'll leave it as a surprise (here's a hint, it's not a body). Anyway at the beginning of the film he rescues a prostitute called Maria from a group of bandits and escorts her to a nearby town. He finds the place is controlled by two warring factions. On the one side is the sadistic Major Jackson and his band of red masked former Yankee soldiers while on the other side is the equally sadistic General Hugo and his group of Mexican bandits. As Django wants revenge against Jackson he sides with Hugo and his men and helps them steal a large quantity of gold from Jackson. However it turns out Hugo has no intention of giving him his cut so Django decides to team up with Maria to steal his share. Will they get away it? Will Django get revenge on Jackson? What's in the coffin?

Even watching this 46 years after it was made you can tell it's something special. Django is such a fantastic protagonist - morally questionable, unpredictable  full of mystery - and he's played with perfect precision by Nero and his steely blue eyes! I really enjoyed the fact that Corbucci starts the film off by making Django seem to be an indestuctible figure only to slowly strip him back until, by the end, he's a shell of a man. I mean it's a tradition of story writing to give your protagonist a difficult final fight but Django's is one of the bleakest, most hopeless ones I've ever seen. A lot of people try and compare him to Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name because they both are taciturn anti-heroes but arguably Django's a far more tragic figure and much more morally unbalanced.

Corbucci's film also has a very unique atmosphere. The muddy landscape is highly evocative and stands in stark contrast to the traditional dusty vistas of American westerns. That first shot of Django really sets the tone for the rest of the film. He's literally dragging death into town with him. There's also a great bit later on where someone asks him what's in the coffin and he replies, with no hint of irony, "Django". Corbucci portrays a very cynical and revisionist view of the Wild West. There's no hint of "manifest destiny" or "the land of opportunity" only a lawless place populated by selfish characters who are obsessed with money and wealth. It's hard to see it as anything less than a critique of American capitalism.

The film is also rife with 
religious imagery which, given that Italy is a heavily Catholic country, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Throughout the film there's a fixation on crucifixes that culminates in the final shootout in a cemetery; the character of Django on his knees, hiding behind a tiny wooden gravestone while Jackson mockingly suggests that he should start praying. Also earlier in the film, in it's most infamous sequence, General Hugo discovers the town priest is a spy and cuts off his ear and sadistically feeds it to him as punishment. I can't help but feel these scenes are trying to either say God has abandoned these people or, perhaps more controversially, religion is a falsehood that we shouldn't try to hide behind. I don't know, maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Well, that's
enough philosophical analysis for one post. Overall Django is a fantastic movie. Okay, it's a little more cartoonish and more rough around the edges than Leone's westerns but it's just as riverting to watch and still feels surprisingly fresh. If you've never considered yourself a fan of westerns I strongly recommend checking this film out.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Django Month: An introduction

All this month I'm going to be reviewing a handful (or should that be fistful?) of Django movies in anticipation for Quentin Tarantino's new film Django Unchained. As such I thought it would be a good idea to just have a little introduction to the character to those that are unfamiliar with him. 

The character of Django originates from the 1966 Spaghetti western of the same name directed by Sergio Corbucci. The film is about a mysterious cowboy (played by Franco Nero) who comes to a frontier town, dragging a coffin, and proceeds to get involved in helping a group of Mexican steal a huge amount of gold from a sadistic army general and his men. It's a bitter, bleak and very cynical movie that stands at complete odds to the more polished and safe John Wayne movies of the 1940s.

The film was not only highly influenced (by Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars) but also highly influential in its own right and it's often reported that there were over 100 'unofficial' sequels made. The reality is that only about 30 can be confirmed and almost all of these were movies that were inspired by Corbucci's vicious western rather than direct continuations. In most cases, these other 'Django' movies were original films that had the lead character's name changed during the dubbed process to become Django. As a consequence Django has his wife, brother and other family members killed several times, in several different ways.


Still the fact that these movies had character names changed in post-production doesn't stop a lot of them from being very interesting (and often very good) westerns. Obviously Tarantino's new film is going to continue this tradition, in a very post-modern way, by having Jamie Foxx's former slave character called Django. I'm happy to see him do this as I think it will bring the character a lot of attention for modern audiences and hopefully lead to more of these somewhat forgotten films getting re-released on DVD.

Hope you enjoy the reviews.