Caked in mud and spattered with blood, Sergio Corbucci's classic spaghetti western, Django, noodles around with cinema of cruelty, surrealistic imagery, and proto-Peckinpahvian carnage—only without all those erupting squibs. Granted, the emblematic plotline, in which a mysterious stranger who pits opposing sides of an embittered feud against each other, owes a clear debt to predecessors like Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars (and that film's own considerable debt to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo). Yet Corbucci sets Django on its feet by moving away from the epic sprawl that started creeping into Leone's work with Fistful of Dollars, the very title of which suggests his "more is more" approach, into the sort of rough-hewn storytelling and rough-and-tumble pessimism that characterize subsequent Corbucci films like The Great Silence. Likewise, the political dimension is certainly not lacking in Django; the film readily aligns with more radicalized Zapata westerns like Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General and Giulio Questi's outlandish in-name-only sequel Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot!
Django opens with the title character (Franco Nero) trudging across a dun brown wasteland, towing a coffin behind him. He emerges like a specter from the middle of nowhere; in the film's strikingly composed final shot, he staggers disconsolately back into the hazy distance. The world of the film is forbidding terrain, an elemental landscape suffused with an aura of Sisyphean futility, where the closest approximation to an oasis proves to be a rickety wooden bridge suspended above a pit of quicksand. Almost classically constructed, Django will ineluctably return to this selfsame spot, and the yawning chasm of the pit, the gaping maw of the void, stands as an objective correlative for what Friedrich Nietzsche liked to call "the belly of being."
Django quickly sketches out its racial politics when Confederate and Mexican troops alternately attempt in vain to execute the prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) on the spot for consorting with the enemy. Rescued by Django's quick-draw prowess, the two of them descend upon civilization (such as it is) in the guise of a mud-choked town occupied almost exclusively by a gaggle of flea-bitten whores and their saloon-owner pimp, Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez). The town's most noticeable ornamental feature is the trunk of a petrified tree, resembling nothing so much as an exposed bone, that sprawls in front of the saloon. The only other resident appears to be a hypocritical Bible-thumper called Brother Jonathan (Gino Pernice).
In its time, Django raised the bar for graphic film violence, with the result that it was banned for decades in several countries. It's easy to see what all the fuss was about. This is an unrepentantly ugly movie, despite the striking visual flair Corbucci brings to his blocking and camera movement. Its violence isn't supposed to be cathartic; it's meant to be appalling. Corbucci fills the frame with mutilation and slaughter: No fewer than three wholesale massacres are committed over the course of the film, including the hilltop ambush of General Hugo Rodriquez (José Bódalo) and his troops. In another scene, Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and his henchmen use Mexican peons for target practice, gunning them down like so many clay pigeons. As if this weren't explicit enough, Corbucci brings the point home by portraying Jackson's flunkeys as red-hooded crypto-Klansmen.
Then again, the film's most brutal moments are reserved not for death, but disfigurement. Brother Jonathan undergoes aural amputation in a moment that was earmarked for inclusion in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, just as Django itself provides (at least nominally) a major reference point for Tarantino's latest. Initiating the trend of maimed heroes in Corbucci's films (Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Great Silence is both mute and maimed), Django has his mitts mangled with a rifle butt by Riccardo (Remo de Angelis), Jackson's right-hand man. There's a twinge of sadomasochism in these scenes that recalls Marlon Brando's perverse psychological western One Eyed Jacks, except Corbucci carries things far beyond the bloody horsewhipping Brando's Rio receives in that film. In a genre known for endless knock-offs, a trend that includes Django's 30-plus sequels, Corbucci's film is notable not only for the artistry of its construction, but also for the underlying anger that fuels its political agenda.