The rise of 'Django' and the spagetti western

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It’s Django January at the Curzon Soho, with a midnight double bill of the original spaghetti shocker and Takashi Miike’s new tribute. Adam Lee Davies dives into the tangled history of this flyblown western hero

‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ is as bloodthirsty, stylistically overwrought and way past cool as you might expect from prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, the director of ‘Audition’ and ‘Ichi the Killer’. But his scattershot homage to the patron saint of spaghetti westerns can never hope to match the delirious violence and unbridled sleaze of the dozens of Django films that came out of Italy during the ’60s and ’70s.

The original ‘Django’ (1966) was directed by sword ’n’ sandal specialist Sergio Corbucci and starred steely-eyed non-actor Franco Nero as a sun-baked Angel of Death arriving in a corrupt Mexican border town lugging a coffin. It’s a dirty, nasty, thoroughly enjoyable film that set the tone for all later outings: revenge, cruelty and misogyny hold sway, violence is patterned with vaguely supernatural noodlings and dusty graves are forever beckoning. The film was huge across Europe, a cult hit in the US and did as much as ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ to cement the spaghetti western as a bona fide cinematic genre.

Thanks to the especially loose-leaf Italian copyright laws of the time, it wasn’t long before this success was grossly exploited. Films already in the can were hastily retitled, with the lackluster ‘Some Dollars for Django’ and ‘Django Shoots First’ hitting the screen before the year was out.

In 1967 at least half a dozen films bearing no connection to the original made their way into cinemas, the main character renamed Django thanks to some slipshod dubbing sessions. The most notable is the totally unhooked ‘Django, Kill!’ with passive pretty-boy Tomas Milian in the lead. Featuring a gang of black-clad homosexual ‘muchachos’, vampire bats, scalpings and a heavy dose of psychedelia, it’s the most demented of the Django canon.

The following year brought comedy western legend Terence Hill’s slightly more ironic take on the role in the restrained ‘Django Prepare a Coffin’, which opens with the threatening theme song ‘You Better Smile’. Then 1968 also saw the arrival of ‘Nude Django’ (released as ‘Django Nudo und die Lüsternen Mädchen von Porno Hill’ in its native Germany), a spurious entry which consists of little more than a long scene of a woman being whipped.

Spaghetti stalwart Anthony Steffen assumed Django duties for the revenger ‘Django the Bastard’ (1969), while ‘One Damned Day at Dawn… Django Meets Sartana!’ (1970) sees our hero alongside another of the genre’s most pliable characters. The fact that bland Jack Betts could play Django here and then Sartana in ‘Django and Sartana are Coming…’ suggests that the Euro-western was nearing saturation and Django’s days were fading – though mention must go to ‘Django’s Cut Price Corpses’ (1971) purely for its title.

Fittingly, the trouble man’s last notable turn came from original star Nero in 1976s ‘Keoma’, aka ‘Django’s Great Return’. It offers nothing new, but is the most professional of them all, and Nero’s acting chops have improved. Unfortunately, he blotted his copybook with the first official Django sequel ‘Django Strikes Again’ (1987), which wasn’t worth the wait. The arrival of ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ not only proves there’s a Django for everyone, but that bad men don’t die easy.

Django January is at Soho Curzon on Fri Jan 23. ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ is on DVD from Feb 2.

Author: Adam Lee Davies



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