A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Italian West. Part VII
The Year was 1966 and Italian cinema was booming with westerns after the success of Sergio Leone’s iconic westerns Fistful Of Dollars and it’s sequel For A Few Dollars More, but 1966 would also unleash another iconic western, the atmospheric, ultra violent Django. Directed by Leone’s friend and peer Sergio Corbucci.
Sergio Corbucci, like Leone, was born in Rome, Italy. The filmmakers coming out of this part of the country were never taken as seriously as the northern Italian filmmakers like Fellini or Luchino Visconti. The central and lower Italy filmmakers were working class filmmakers and knew who their audience’s were.
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Corbucci earned his degree in economics and then went straight into film work. Like a lot of Italian and French cineastes he started out as a film critic before making his first film. He was known for being able set up action scenes quickly and cheaply and started directing many ‘Sword and Sandal’ pictures including one of the better ones Macist Contro il Vampiro, released in the US by American International Pictures as Goliath and The Vampires staring 50’s American Tarzan actor, Gordon Scott. He also directed the Italian gothic classic Castle of Blood an AIP style Edgar Allan Poe cash grab that’s quite effective staring legendary British scream queen Barbara Steele. That same year 1964 he also co-directed one of the first Spaghetti’s Massacro al Grande Canyon with American filmmaker Albert Band (his son is famed exploitation filmmaker Charles Band, of Empire Pictures and Full Moon fame, distributors of ReAnimator and The Puppet Master films and many others) and Minnesota Clay , but it was a few years earlier that things would take a turn for the two Sergio’s.
In 1959 Sergio Leone directed his first picture The Last Days of Pompeii and Sergio Corbucci was hired as assistant director. It was on breaks from shooting in Spain that the two would say to each other that we could make a great western out here and that the desert looks a lot like Texas and Mexico. I don’t know about Texas but from what I’ve seen from the films, the Spanish desert looks an awful lot like the deserts of California. Leone would make his groundbreaking western in 1964 Fistful of Dollars and Corbucci’s in 1966.
The same year that Corbucci made Django, he made another western called Johnny Oro, the name would be change to Ringo and His Golden Pistol, to cash in on the “Ringo” craze. It stared American actor Mark Damon, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, as a blue eyed Mexican dressed in black and packing a golden pistol, psychologists could have a field day with that one. Corbucci already had his next picture in mind and Mark Damon was set to play the lead Django, but actress Silvia Dionisio; then wife of assistant director Ruggero Deodato, who would later gain fame as the director of the gruesome Cannibal Holocaust, suggested 23 year old Franco Nero and Corbucci listened. Don’t feel bad about Damon though, he would go on to be a hugely successful and highly respected producer and marry 70s exploitation hottie, actress Margaret Markov, star of Black Mama, White Mama and the Arena.
Franco Nero had stared in a couple of now classic Italian cult sci-fi flicks, War of The Planets and Wild, Wild Planet but at the time was best remembered as playing Able opposite Richard Harris’ Cain in John Houston’s The Bible; In The Beginning Dino De Laurentii’s lavish production of the book of Genesis. Franco acted in all these films in 1966, but Django would bring him international fame.
Like Leone’s Dollars films Django was unlike anything that had come before, Italian or American. The story is about a Calvary man returning home from the war. He gets caught up with a bunch of red-hooded KKK confederates and a group of militant Mexican bandits and plays the two groups similar to Leone’s “Stranger” in Fistful of dollars and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Like Clint Eastwood’s “Stranger”, Django’s look was much different than in an American Western. Pictures like John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon had Calvary men, but Django does not look like that, he has the uniform for sure but his long coat, fingerless gloves and wide brimmed hat and scarf make him look more like a character out of a Hammer Horror Film especially dragging the coffin around like a gunslinging William Burke, the famous grave robber portrayed by Boris Karloff in Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher. He’s never seen riding a horse, though he does carry around a saddle, one assumes his pony was killed in action, he just walks around dragging the coffin, when asked what’s in the coffin he morbidly says “Django” suggesting he’s dragging his own resting place around.
Corbucci wanted his western to be set in the winter. The town in which Django walks into is empty, much like Fistful the town lives in fear of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo)and his red-hooded goons as well as Gen. Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) and his rag-tag army. The streets are muddied from melted snow, like in George Stevens’ Shane, much different than the usual dusty deserts that populate most spaghettis. Once the big reveal happens (without giving anything away, this scene is surprising if you’re unaware of what’s about to happen) the film moves at a rapid pace and just about anything can happen. As the story progresses it becomes more like a very good graphic novel, the violence is very bloody and over the top. When Gen. Hugo comes into town his men grabs Brother Jonathan, a spy for Jackson, and graphically slice off his ear then forces him to eat it, remember future Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato was assistant director on this picture. The film has a lot of nice scenes like Django sneaking out of his room with his coffin and using the coffin to move between buildings then going into another building to take the gold that was owed to him.
The score for the picture was iconic as well. Scored by Argentinian Luis Enríquez Bacalov. This is a film we’re a ballad actually works for the film and kind of fills in the holes of the character. It’s more of a slow rock song than than the folkish ballads of Peter Tevis and has really cool guitar solo. The other music has a Mexican mariachi sound to it and would later show up in Damiano Damiani’s political western and one of my favorites A Bullet For The General.
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Django was a huge hit in Europe and made Nero a star but was issued an ‘18’ certificate for its graphic violence. The violence caused it to not be released in the UK. In the US it failed to find a distributor but Franco Nero had it brought over to to Los Angeles for four special screenings while he was in Hollywood where he was staring as Lancelot again opposite Richard Harris in Warner Bros Camelot , writer, actor Jack Nicholson tried to acquire US distribution rights but was unsuccessful.
Again, the copycats came out after Django’s massive success and around fifty films came out with Django in its title whether the character was Django or not, in 1987 Django finally got an official sequel Django Strikes Again, Nero returned as Django, now as a monk! This picture was never released state wise, I first saw this as a second disk on Anchor Bays long OOP two-disk Django set that came out in ’99, has it really been that long? I think they waited too long to make this picture the magic is gone and Nero looks more like a fit Steven Segal and over all feels like a bad 80s action picture, which I suppose it is.
Of the wannabe Djangos there are some stand outs. Giulio Questi’s Django Kill, If You Live Shoot, this is quite possibly the most f’ed up western I’ve ever seen and I may do a whole blog on it in the next few weeks; this is one depraved sickie and had a huge influence on director Alex Cox’s (Repo Man) Straight To Hell. Another very good ripoff is Preparati La Bara, Django Prepare A Coffin. I’ll go more in depth on the these two pictures in the next blog.
Next: A new Django and a new star.
Sources: Once Upon A Time In The Italian West by Howard Hughes
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