If the casual moviegoer in the year 2021 knows the name of Sergio Corbucci, it is likely because of Quentin Tarantino. Most recently, he was name-checked in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) describing him to falling star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as “the second-best director” of Spaghetti Westerns (behind, it goes without saying, Sergio Leone). And of course, DiCaprio’s previous collaboration with Tarantino was Django Unchained, which reimagined Cobucci’s most enduring character, a gunslinger who fought for the Union in the Civil War, as a slave-turned-bounty hunter. And even before that, Tarantino was pinpointing Corbucci as one of his favorite filmmakers, peppering his early pictures with shout-outs – including the notorious ear-severing in Reservoir Dogs, which he swiped from a similar scene in Corbucci’s Django.
So what was it that made this filmmaker so influential? The answers lie in that original, 1966 Django (currently streaming on several ad-supported streamers, and out in a gorgeous new 4K Blu-ray from Arrow). It is, per the opening titles, “An Italo-Spanish Co-Production,” one of the many, many Spaghetti Western hustled into production after the astonishing success of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The distaste for the subgenre articulated by DiCaprio’s Dalton in Once Upon a Time was not uncommon, particularly among those, like him, who had spent the careers making “traditional” Westerns, white- and black-hat tales the whole family could enjoy.
What Leone was doing to the genre, with his grime and grit and morally malleable antihero, was disreputable; what Corbucci was doing was the disreputable version of that, sleazier and bloodier and nastier than even his friend Leone’s reinvention. And the spirit of Corbucci’s Westerns (particularly in later titles like The Great Silence and The Specialists) was darker – Leone’s protagonist (played, memorably, by Clint Eastwood) is a rouge, but he also doesn’t seem to go looking for trouble. Django does, and the picture is defined by the ruthless brutalism of all of its characters (particularly its grotesque supporting players), which give the proceedings a semi-nihilist, Peckinpah-ish vibe.
Like Leone, Corbucci is particularly skilled at playing up the charisma and cool of his leading man. We don’t see Franco Nero’s Django for the first few minutes of the picture; he enters with his back to camera, dragging (as he always will) a coffin, as the film’s earworm of a theme song fills the speakers and blood red titles fill the frame. He stumbles upon a trio of Mexican renegades, whipping a local sex worker (or “muchacha”) who “tried to escape”; she is rescued, but alas, it’s by a group of Confederate rebels who have bad intentions of their own. Our hero saves her from that, and she brings him back to her town as a thank-you, and we’re off and running, with (like Fistful) a Yojimbo-inspired story of double-crosses and allegiances for hire.
The Italians were demystifying the Western well before the film brats of the 1970s, and not just in terms of morality and messaging. The mere aesthetics are different, partially because of the international locations, but also because they weren’t shooting on long-standing, clean, studio backlot “Western Towns.” The streets of this town are wet, muddy, and all but abandoned; watching our hero slog and slosh through them does not look like a good time, and the friendly barkeep informs him that it’s not exactly a tourist destination: “If you’re a coffin maker, you sure did pick a good town to settle in.”
But what’s most compelling – and probably influential – about Spaghetti Westerns is how they view their heroes. American Westerns of the era and before certainly didn’t slouch when it came to romanticizing their leads, but filmmakers like Corbucci tested the validity of that perspective but applying that ultra-cool lens to men who were often outright amoral. And then, just to underline the point, they’d amp those archetypes up into the realm of mythology. Django never misses a shot, never wastes a bullet, and barely breaks a sweat, and Corbucci plays it like what it is: a juicy gag, a pre-Waco Kid wink, as his hero shoots vaguely in the direction of a guy, and then said guy plus a couple more hit the deck.
And yet, paradoxically, Django is also vulnerable. In the film’s third act, he gets the absolute snot beaten out of him, his hands reduced to bloody mitts – and what’s most shocking about the scene (aside from the savagery of the violence) is the realization that we’d never see John Wayne get his ass handed to him in a movie, not like that. But Corbucci knows how to write a character arc: when we see him struggling to use his pistolero in that considerably weakened position, it grants him a degree of sympathy he might not’ve otherwise earned, and thus when he triumphs, it lands.
It’s been a big spring for fans of Spaghetti Westerns, with Arrow’s crackling 4K of Django following KL Studio Classics’ release of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly on the format a few weeks back, and there’s something kind of delightful about these low-budget foreign genre movies getting the deluxe treatment and HD spit-polish. But these films play so well on 4K because the format is great for textures, and the textures of Spaghetti Westerns – both in landscapes and in faces – are so striking. And frankly, that goes for their storytelling as well.