Watching a great version of something – and especially the greatest version of something – can really spoil you as a moviegoer. When you're suffering through one bad movie after another, there's a sort of acceptance and even celebration of the ones that tell familiar stories even just the least poorly. But when you see the gold-standard, best-ever iteration of a certain story or genre, it puts you in the unfortunate position of comparing every other version to it.
The good folks at Fox Home Entertainment recently released the Man With No Name trilogy on Blu-ray, so I spent the better part of this week watching Sergio Leone's trailblazing westerns and marveling at how freaking great they are. (Look for a full review of that set coming soon.) Simultaneously, cult movie distributor Blue Underground released Django, the Sergio Corbucci-directed spaghetti western that quite literally spawned an entire subgenre. Never having seen it before now, I was curious: how do other spaghetti westerns, in particular ones in the subgenre's second most famous film series, compare to Leone's? The answer is in this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released in 1966, Sergio Corbucci's Django became a massive hit upon its release, inspiring a rumored 100 sequels, although according to Wikipedia only 31 of those officially count as follow-ups. Because the film's violence was considered until that time some of the most graphic ever depicted, it was banned in several countries.
What Still Works: As a fairly obvious knock-off of A Fistful of Dollars, Django is rousing entertainment. Franco Nero, a charismatic badass and more than suitable stand-in for Clint Eastwood, gives a sufficiently cool performance to make the title character a guy not to be trifled with, especially when he's using his gatling gun. Speaking of which, although the weapon is essentially a fictionalized version of about three or four similar guns that were invented later (and were logistically much more demanding), it's one of those showstoppers that basically confirms the character's immortality – even if that only means cinematically.
Meanwhile, the film features virtually all of the hallmarks that made Leone's film such a distinctive, unforgettable experience, including the single man stuck (or positioned) between two warring groups, his seemingly effortless manipulation of both groups, his eventual "punishment," and his redemption. Not to mention a bunch of terrific showdowns and stand-offs featuring not only some terrific pistol work, but the aforementioned gatling gun!
What Doesn't Work: Well, even as a rousing, entertaining knock-off of A Fistful of Dollars, it's still a knock-off. And going back to my discussion of great/ greatest versions of something, Leone made the best spaghetti westerns – all of his were amazing, and each one was better than the last. (Once Upon a Time in the Westis my favorite of all time, for goodness' sake.) Director Corbucci was one of five credited screenwriters on the film, and while he got the visual details mostly right – thanks in no small part to former Leone collaborators like production designer Carlo Simi – he doesn't have the same grasp on character and story that Leone had.
For example, in the Man With No Name trilogy, Eastwood was always sort of a rascal, a guy who was a little bit sneaky and who did things in ways that the law might not find appropriate, but he was always on the right side of the audience's sense of morality, which made him an appealing antihero. Eastwood's character (or characters depending on how you see those films) would double-cross somebody or embarrass them a little bit but he wasn't cold-blooded and ruthless in a way that made him irredeemable. By comparison, Django rescues a woman in the opening scenes of the film, but subsequently treats her pretty awfully and disregards her altogether until she forces him at gunpoint to take her with him.
Additionally, the character pits Mexicans "revolutionaries" against a group of rebel bandits, but less to help the people caught in between the warring factions than to entertain himself and help enact his own plans. The scene in which he mows down the bandit army with his gatling gun is sort of fun and exciting, but basically he challenged them to a battle and then ambushed them with his weapon, cool though it may be. (the gatling actually reminds audiences more of the villains in the first two Leone westerns than the heroes.) And later, after he sides with the Mexicans and helps them stage a robbery against a Mexican army south of the border, he celebrates with them, basically terrorizing the people who are putting the army up by shooting up their saloon and treating the prostitutes who work there like, well, prostitutes.
While I'll give Corbucci a pass for not directing like Leone – he's not obligated and nor should he make his movies the same way – I think ultimately he just doesn't have a confident sense of the identity of his main character, and as a result he's sort of conflicted between celebrating the empty thrill of violent spectacle and wanting to create some sort of moral journey for his character. Where Leone's films really encapsulated this idea of the futility of violence even as exciting as his showdowns always were, the payoff of those sequences were never glamorized. Django is kind of a jerk, he screws over his friends, he willfully lets one of his most dangerous adversaries go (seemingly mostly because the movie needs an ending), and just kind of thrills emptily on the killing and robbing.
Admittedly that's a little bit of the point of his journey – he's humiliated and realizes he needs to redeem his life. But because he's not quite charming or sympathetic enough throughout the whole film, we don't feel like the film ends any way except the way that it needs to for there to be an ending.
What's The Verdict: Ultimately, Django holds up as an escapist gunslinger adventure, but as an exemplary spaghetti western or a competitor for the artistry and sophistication of Leone's films, it's nothing spectacular. There's going to be plenty for newcomers to the genre to enjoy as it offers its own version of some previously-seen thrills and gives fans of the western subgenre more adventures to behold, but it's a little disappointing that Django, who's existed in some form for anywhere from 30 to 100 films, has less of an identity than a Man With No Name, who was in three.