Galloping onto the Blu-ray format for the very first time as a result of a new HD restoration supplied by Cinetecca di Bologna (a welcome consequence of the recent success and critical notice being afforded to Quentin Tarantino’s latest epic, “Django Unchained”), comes this 1968 cult sequel to Sergio Corbucci’s violent, mud-&-blood splattered Spaghetti Western classic of 1966, which starred Franco Nero as the titular machine-gun-toting, coffin-dragging man in black loner antihero, previously seen solemnly traversing Mexican border towns with revenge on his mind. This time trailing colourfully trippy contemporary animated titles in its wake, and with a sweeping lament of a pop ballad title song by composer Gian Franco Reverberi and his brother Gian Piero (recently memorably sampled for the Gnarls Barkley chart hit "Crazy"), “Django Prepare a Coffin” has a much better claim to the Django family name than most of the dozens of Italian-made copycats and cash-ins that closely followed Nero’s iconic performance in the lead role back in the late sixties, with often only tenuous connections to the Corbucci original anywhere in evidence -- if they existed at all. For if the main narrative concerns of Tarantino’s current homage to cult Euro-cinema can be admitted to have very little ultimately to do with the subject matter of the films that give them their names, then that is as nothing when we consider the marketing and re-branding exercises that must have went on in Italian producers’ and distributors’ offices back in the day, following the international success of the original “Django” release, in what amounted to a concerted campaign intended to capitalise on the ‘mania’ for the character by transforming often completely unrelated Westerns of the day into Django franchise spin-offs for foreign distribution, particularly in Germany and Spain.
Between thirty and sixty movies with the word ‘Django’ in the title emerged during this brief period, which spawned memorable offerings such as Giulio Questi’s ultra-violent “Django Kill!” despite it having absolutely no connection at all to the Corbucci film or the main character, who doesn’t even appear in it! Although neither Sergio Corbucci nor Franco Nero participated in the making of an official sequel until well into the 1980s, Ferdinando Baldi’s “Preparati la bara!” (“Get the Coffin Ready!” – aka: “Viva Django” or “Django Sees Red”, but mainly known internationally as “Django Prepare a Coffin”) comes closest to fulfilling that role, as it sees one of the collaborative writers of the original, Franco Rossetti, handling a screenplay that is in part a prequel but partially also a reboot that rounds off a few of the Corbucci/Nero effort’s rougher edges; while the original “Django” cinematographer Enzo Barboni also returns for this unofficial follow-up with more of the same oaky, russet-hued photographic ambience that graced and helped facilitate the distinctive, downbeat mood created in the Sergio Corbucci film of a few years before.
Director Ferdinando Baldi is not in the same league as his predecessor, for sure. But Rossetti’s script stays close enough to the iconography and mood of the original -- which wallows in imagery of dusty graveyards, wooden crosses, mouldering coffins and the shadow of the hanging gallows – for one to be able to feel like the film legitimately belongs in at least a variation of the same universe, even if the back story we see enacted before us here, varies slightly from what we were told in the original. Whatever the differences, the same vengeance theme predominates and issues of loyalty, betrayal and sacrifice –perennial concerns for any Spaghetti Western in fact – are much to the fore in this slightly less gritty variation on the Django mythology. With Nero unable to appear (he was originally intended to have resumed the role until Hollywood beckoned with the chance to play opposite Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave as Lancelot in the 1967 movie version of “Camelot”), it fell to actor Mario Girotti, aka Terrence Hill, to take on the role in what amounts to a respectful variation on the character created by Nero that nevertheless has its own distinctive flavour. After appearing in many German-made Westerns and adventure films shot during the early sixties -- adaptations of the popular work of German pulp writer Karl May -- Girotti found himself back in demand upon his return to his native Italy because of his physical resemblance to Franco Nero. In the 1970s he went on to found his own ‘Trinity’ franchise after teaming up with Bud Spencer on a series of popular comedy Westerns.
Here, a happier more at-ease-with-himself Django is presented to us in the early stages of the film, perhaps as a means of accounting for Hill’s slightly less rugged countenance and an inherent charm that shines through the sombre, haunted figure the character of Django becomes over the course of this particular narrative. Although initially right-hand man and bodyguard to corrupt politician David Barry (who is played by Horst Frank, a German actor best known for appearing in a variety of Klaus Kinski-like villain roles across a plethora of Euro cult films; most notably he was the incestuous Dr Baum in Dario Argento’s “Cat o’ Nine Tails”), Django is double-crossed and betrayed by his uber ambitious boss, who turns out to be moonlighting as the brains behind a gold bullion-stealing gang as a side-line to his also being elected to office in a late-nineteenth century-era frontier town in the Sierras. Django’s wife is killed and he is also left for dead at the roadside while transporting a wagon-load of gold from local mines to company offices in Santa Fe; the transport is held up and robbed by the Lucas Gang, who’re acting for Barry but who are ostensibly led by a hulking, raven-haired George Eastman (aka, Luigi Montefiori). After burying his dead wife in the desert and digging his own future grave to be laid next to her at a later date (this was a man whose idea of the good life even before this tragedy was to live quietly on a ranch with his woman, ‘waiting peacefully for the Last Judgement’!), Django takes up office as a travelling hangman under an assumed identity, who ostensibly disposes of the poor peasant farmers who get framed for the crimes Barry and Lucas are in reality behind all along. Actually, he fakes their deaths with the aid of a special support harness with a hook at the top that goes under the clothes of the accused, who then feign being dead until nightfall when Django cuts them down and ferries them under cover of darkness to an abandoned town situated nearby. It turns out that Django is actually assembling an army of the dispossessed, intending them to help him go after Lucas and the men who are actually behind the scam, as well as pay back the jealous rivals who connived with Barry’s help to frame them all.
Despite its flippantly black sense of humour and a likable gathering of support characters who are brought into attendance throughout, “Django Prepare a Coffin” becomes a brooding, gun-slinging morality tale, set in a mud festooned, dirt track landscape of primal emotions which sets out the struggle to forge workable personal codes of conduct in a semi-lawless age when power and powerlessness alike constantly threaten to undermine any sense of communal law: polar moral opposite philosophies of living are laid before us in the persons of Barry on one side – a ruthless, ambitious blonde haired would-be Übermensch who uses people as pawns on his path to personal riches and empowerment; and the implacably steadfast and loyal (until crossed) Django on the other – a man for whom friendship, decency and loyalty are paramount virtues. Everyone else in the film exists somewhere along the scale demarcated by these two, with most scraping an existence among the rocks and sand by moving back and forth from one side of that scale to the other. Here we have a sombre, downbeat yet romantic tale in which Django’s crudely optimistic faith in his fellow man is put to the most stringent test, as his own gang of vengeance-seekers threatens to unravel and cave-in to temptation at any moment. The central dynamic is embodied best in the character of Garcia (José Torres): a Mexican peasant saved from execution by Django, who then later pays back the debt by also saving Django's own life in return when some of the duplicitous men he’s previously brought back from the dead form an alliance against him. But Garcia himself then instigates the ultimate betrayal, blackmailing the rest of Django’s ragtag band of dispossessed outlaws to join him in pre-empting the Lucas Gang’s next stagecoach robbery while Django is away and preoccupied in saving Garcia’s wife (Barbara Simon) from her own appointment with the hangman’s noose. Vengeance, greed and betrayal form a triumvirate of plot points, driving the character development of men like Garcia – people who have been fucked over and kept down in the dirt all their lives by men like Lucas, but who feel they have to take any opportunity that comes their way in order to escape this dead end trap of economic and social exploitation, for the sake of their families – even if this means betraying every friend they’ve ever had. The irony is, of course, that by taking this road, Garcia becomes akin to Barry, who near the film’s beginning, admits that he has gladly sacrificed friendship for wealth and ambition.
Baldi’s solid if uneventful direction seeds the film with plenty of memorable set-pieces, face offs and fight scenes, and delivers a jaw-dropping coup de grâce in the form of what critic Kevin Grant pertinently calls a Deus ex Machine Gun, come the final frames. The constant repetition of the same section of the title theme becomes slightly monotonous after a while; but the traditional themes of vengeance, betrayal and redemption are what leave the most abiding impression here -- Hill, Eastman and Frank making for compelling presences in what is a passable attempt to recast the original film as a more franchise-friendly roadmap for future sequels (although none seem to have transpired in the end, despite the continued use of the Django name elsewhere). This Arrow Video Blu-ray comes after a recent DVD only release from the company and adds a modicum of clarity and sheen to the original standard definition release, although it comes nowhere near replicating the quality of some of their other recent classic Italian cult titles such as “Black Sunday” or “Black Sabbath”. Nevertheless, this is a disc that has much to recommend it, delivering a solid transfer and both English and Italian audio tracks (the latter including newly translated removable English subtitles). There is a ten minute video essay on the Django phenomena as the only extra, called “Django Explained”, by author Kevin Grant, whose book “Any Gun Can Play: the Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns” looks like required reading; and there's a trailer for the film under the title “Viva Django”. The package comes with reversible artwork and a collector’s booklet with writing on the film by Howard Hughes. A sure-fire must-have for all Euro-Cult and Spaghetti Western fans.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!