Death Walks Across the Desert

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Movies Western Spaghetti Western Franco Nero Sergio Corbucci Action Gothic

A man drags a coffin through a muddy grey town. This is a Spaghetti Western, not a Hammer horror film, but it’s the introduction of Gothic horror imagery and atmosphere into a Western that explains much of the appeal of 1966’s Django. The second half of the film is in some ways less interesting, becoming more of an action film, but really the whole thing is a nice combination of action and a sense of doom and chaos created by themes and visuals.

Like the earlier A Fistful of Dollars directed by Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci’s Django owes an unmistakable debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, though it doesn’t follow the plot of the Kurosawa film as closely as Leone’s. Corbucci does essentially borrow the opening title sequence which played Masaru Sato’s strident theme for Sanjuro, the protagonist of Yojimbo, while the camera used close, low angles of the man carrying his sword over his shoulder and close-ups of his feet while he walked, conveying the impression of a legendary figure. Corbucci’s protagonist takes on an even more mythic quality for the fact that he pulls a coffin along and, typical for a Spaghetti Western, he’s stylishly dressed, wearing an overcoat and scarf in the middle of the desert.

The theme music by Luis Enriquez Bacalov was later reused by Quentin Tarantino for his Django Unchained and, in fact, anyone more familiar with the Tarantino film will spot many familiar melodies in the original Django.

There’s a whip in the original Django, too, as the opening credits end with Django (Franco Nero) coming across a beautiful woman, Maria (Loredana Nusciak), being whipped by a group of Mexican bandits. The film adds a racial element to the Red Harvest style, two sides played against the other plot of Yojimbo. Django has a group of Mexican bandits versus a proto-Ku Klux Klan group who wear black clothing with red scarves and sometimes red hoods.

Though Django doesn’t really do much to exacerbate the conflict between the two groups, rather than trying to get the two sides to wipe each other out for pure altruism or, perhaps, boredom, Django has the quality of an avenging angel, his theme song telling us how he’s lost his lover who we presume occupies the coffin though, when asked at the brothel, this film’s version of the inn where Sanjuro made his base of operations, who is in the coffin, Django answers, “Django.”

I love this shot where he waits for the Klan-ish group behind a fallen tree that looks like a dinosaur bone. The film has a lot of really nice visuals.

Unlike Sanjuro, Django only teams up with one of the factions, the Mexicans, to help them steal some gold. Sadly at this point he stops wearing his hat and cloak, for some inexplicable reason they never return. The climax of the film is pretty satisfyingly brutal, though not as brutal as Corbucci’s later, wonderfully subversive 1968 Spaghetti Western The Grand Silence.

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No-one has asked the blades if they’d cool down.
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Sombreros bouncing heaven’s heads rebound.
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A Nero trades his death for fiddle veins.
Emerging hands assault the window panes.

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