Django, the oft imitated, decades banned in the UK, spaghetti western space shuttle that launched Franco Nero's career, is finally out on Blu-ray. 1966 was right in the middle of Italian cinema's gritty western boom time where every studio and every director who could hire a horse was making some bandito-and-bounty hunter filled bullet ballet. By 1966 though, following the success of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, the Italian inspiration shifted from the optimistic western myths of John Ford to the gritty and neo-gothic Sergio Leoni. Gone were the sharp optimistic vistas of the old west replaced with mud-filled shanty towns, dingy cat houses, and killers masquerading as bounty hunters, shop keepers, and priests. The Italians took the western out of American history and dropped it into a whole different world.
Enter Django, dragging a coffin as he walks through the slop and mud of some hellish wasteland. A fly-spec of a town shimmers like a phantom on the horizon, so that both it and Django seem real only in the most ethereal sense. Somewhere between he and the town, a woman screams for her life. Django, like so many of the Italian western protagonists has a past so checkered that his wanted posters should be printed on a gingham tablecloth; deserter, check, thief, check, killer, check. That said, Django is not without his moral compass and when he encounters Maria (Loredana Nusciak) being whipped on the banks of a sulfurous quicksand swamp, stages a gallant rescue. Now, as the woman's sole source of survival, the pair head towards the wreck of a town just on the horizon where a race war wages between American Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and the Mexican General Rodriquez (Jose Bodalo). This setup (two equally matched rivals set against each other by an outsider) is as standard as six-shooters in the spaghetti western genre, but by 1966 the writers and directors were exploring the different facets of this plot.
So, here we have Django, two equal armies, a woman who is a wedge between them, the innocents (Nathanial and his prostitutes) stuck in the middle but making a living off serving both sides of the simmering race war, and in walks Django with his coffin. What Corbucci manages to do here is set all of this up in the first ten minutes or so, then completely flip the story on its side. Django isn't a bounty hunter, he's a deserter, and he isn't a middle-man come to dispense justice. Instead, Django mows down all of Major Jackson's "Red Scarves" within the first fifteen minutes using the secret surprise in his coffin. From there it's not whether Django will somehow outwit Rodriquez, but will he survive long enough to escape this swampy hell.
Sergio Corbucci is, as far as I am concerned, the master of the bleak western. His, Django, and The Great Silence, being the two best of the genre, set the stage for later American directors like Sam Peckinpah to reclaim the western with works of gritty myth destruction like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Until those films reclaimed the western for American audiences (as short lived a time as that was) the nihilistic, bloody, violent, morally ambiguous, western with the black-dressed blue-eyed hero set the music and European cinema danced.
Django was so successful in Germany that every movie starring Franco Nero was renamed "Django", hundreds of unofficial sequels were cranked out by lesser directors (many of them starring Thomas Milian in the lead) almost none of them actual Django films. Django was banned for 30 years in the UK for violence, specifically a scene where a guy's ear was sliced off that he was later made to eat, by today's standards, Django is downright staid.
Blue Underground set the original Django loose on the DVD market a few years back and has re-released here both in regular DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray copy I watched was absolutely pristine. I mean, I could count the whiskers on Franco Nero's chin (11,456) and it's not just the HD presentation that makes it flawless, Blue Underground dug up a stupendous print of this somewhere. Like with anything else, if the source material isn't good the end result won't be. Django proves that rule. This is clearly the most colorful spaghetti western I've ever seen. Corbucci's pallet this time tends towards bright reds and high contrast, from the mish-mash of silks and satins on the prostitutes dresses to the colorful stripes of Nathaniel's "whore wagon", to the scarlet bloody brightness of the Red Scarves and the bloody bloodyness of the blood. Django is a smorgasbord of color.
Django comes in lovely hiss-and-pop free original Italian presented in HD-Mono, so this may be your first chance to hear Franco Nero's real voice and read subs in English, French, or Spanish. The presentation also contains an English dub (also in HD-Mono) that while sounding as crisp and clean as the original Italian seems like the voice actors were merely reading script lines without thought for what might be going on in the film. I don't know if this dub is the original English Language dub from back in 1966 or not. I am guessing not as I don't recognize any of the voice actors voices, and if you watch enough spaghetti westerns you start hearing a whole lot of the same voices. So, smart money is to stick with the original language track and subtitles.
Bonus Features includes a 13 minute interview with Ruggerio Deodato, the assistant director, and Franco Nero. This was produced for the original Blue Underground DVD release and offers a little extra information about the film's origin and legacy. This compliments "Western, Italian Style" a timely 1968 documentary about the Italian film industry's lust for the American west and features interviews with several of the principle filmmakers of that place and era including Sergio Corbucci himself. Finally, Blue Underground offers "The Last Pistolero" an 8-minute spaghetti appetizer also starring Franco Nero.
Overall it's a great purchase for fans of nihilistic Italian westerns, and this is one of the best, and the presentation makes it all the better.