Be Quick or Be Dead: The Rebirth of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

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The unusual twosome of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, left) and Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx, right) go about their bounty-hunting business.

The release of a Quentin Tarantino movie is always an event, and it has been ever since the director took Hollywood by storm with his debut Reservoir Dogs and his sophomore effort Pulp Fiction about two decades ago. It’s not too hard to see why. People simply dig the coolness and the mystique surrounding his modern readings of different film genres. In addition, he usually recruits ensemble casts that can compete with the best of them. Roughly three years after the great success of Inglourious Basterds, the man has returned – with a star-studded line-up for Django Unchained, his first ever take on America’s favorite tale of old, the Western.

1858, shortly before the Civil War: The German émigré bounty hunter and former dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) takes the captive Django (Jamie Foxx) from two slave traders. He wants his help with pursuing a trio of ruthless killer brothers. Django was sold away from his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), and Schultz makes him an offer the slave can hardly refuse. If he aids him in locating the siblings, he will set him free and give him $75 and a horse to boot. After executing the brothers, Django becomes the bounty hunter’s associate for some time and learns the craft from his former owner before Schultz agrees to assist his partner in tracking down and rescuing Broomhilda.

A productive winter later, Schultz and Django manage to get hold of her current owner, a charming but equally brutal plantation owner. His name is Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and he is totally into the ritual of ‘Mandingo fighting’ that pits two male slaves against each other in a death match. The bounty hunting duo schemes a plan to get through to Broomhilda by pretending to be potential buyers of one of Candie’s best combatants. Eventually, they come to an agreement with the plantation owner. Schultz agrees to purchase a Mandingo fighter for $12,000 and asks if he may also obtain Broomhilda. She speaks German, and he claims that she would help alleviate his nostalgia for his mother tongue that he hadn’t heard in years.

Candie’s stalwart house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), however, doesn’t trust the visitors. He correctly deduces that Django and Broomhilda are no strangers to each other, and that the whole Mandingo affair is nothing but a ploy. When he informs his master about everything he has found out, Candie extorts $12,000 from Schultz for Broomhilda by threatening to kill her. The German bounty hunter agrees to the buyout in order to save her life. When the one-time dentist is about to leave, the plantation owner demands to shake hands with him. Else the deal wouldn’t be finalized. Schultz refuses. A standoff ensues. Will he and Django get out alive or will the sadistic Candie have the last laugh?

Django Unchained continues Quentin Tarantino’s trip through the different genres of film. Over the last two decades, he has essentially made a career out of it. As is usually the case, he pays homage to often unheralded (but campy) gems while adding his flavor. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the director offers his own multilayered take on gangster flicks. Jackie Brown is his exploration of the blaxploitation wave of the 1970s. The Kill Bill double-dip fuses violent (female) revenge movies and the Eastern. Death Proof revisits the ‘grindhouse’ cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, while Inglourious Basterds is essentially a self-indulgent, fun version of films dealing with WWII.

Even the works Quentin Tarantino only wrote the screenplay for – Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Tony Scott’s True Romance, Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe, and, of course, Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn come to mind – are more or less an extension of this journey. Django Unchained draws deeply from the so-called ‘spaghetti western,’ the Italian version of the genre made famous by Sergio Leone’s classics starring Clint Eastwood, such as A Fistful Of Dollars, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, and Once Upon A Time In The West. It’s hardly surprising, actually. Quentin Tarantino has always had a soft spot for these movies, and elements of them can be found in several of his works, most prominently in the Kill Bill features as well as in Inglourious Basterds.

Additionally, his version of the tale is, in a number of ways, a remake of the Italian film Django by Sergio Corbucci from 1966. Just like Jamie Foxx’s ex-slave on a mission, the original character played by Franco Nero is a drifter and a gunslinger seeking revenge for what was done to his wife. Similarly to Django Unchained, the European movie is a mix between the (revisionist) Western and the Eastern. In fact, A Fistful Of Dollars, probably the earliest specimen of the Italian-style horse operas, is a restaging of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo. Tarantino might have gotten some extra inspiration when he appeared in Takeshi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, a film that toys with both the Eastern and the ‘spaghetti western.’

Now, the original Django played by Franco Nero was a nasty lone wolf and a maverick. In this sense, he differs significantly from his updated version. Foxx’s character is never on his own, as forsaken as he might look as a slave in chains when the film begins. Unlike the Italian gunslinger, he has something to fight for other than vengeance – his wife is still alive – and somebody helping him out of his misery. Franco Nero even gets a small cameo in Django Unchained, and it’s one of many highlights in the film. Jamie Foxx meets him while sitting at the bar on the Candyland ranch, leading to a funny exchange. ‘What’s your name?’ Nero asks the black bounty hunter. His answer is ‘Django. The D is silent,’ to which the original gunslinger merely replies, ‘I know.’

Jamie Foxx, incidentally, delivers a fine performance as a leading man. Like in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, however, it’s again Christoph Waltz who really steals the show here. Some facets of his Dr. King Schultz remind us of his role as nasty but charming Colonel Hals Landa, for which he got the nod as Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars in 2010. The German dentist from Django Unchained comes across as more endearing character than the ‘Jew hunter’ from Inglourious Basterds, simply because he fights on the right side of history. Schultz isn’t merely a survivalist like his Nazi counterpart. He only tracks down criminal fugitives who deserve their fate, helps slaves, and punishes their owners.

Waltz’s general nimble-wittedness, by the way, keeps Django Unchained from drifting too far into the realm of savageries and depicting the actual horrors of slavery. It also leads to a series of inspired exchanges with Leonardo DiCaprio, who is equally convincing as the malevolent but silver-tongued Francophile villain. His Calvin J. Candie belongs in the same group as former Tarantino characters, such as Vincent Vega, Hans Landa, or Bill. In their own way, each of them is contemptible yet, at the same time, as charismatic as it gets. The true bad guy, however, is probably Stephen. At least Django regards him that way, and he has his reasons. The house slave mistreats his fellow black men and women on the plantation just as badly as the white masters do.

Some have complained about the racism and use of the word ‘nigger,’ the weakness of the female characters, and historical inaccuracies. Not to sound like a Quentin Tarantino apologist, but some bits of Django Unchained aren’t as far-fetched as they may initially seem. Part of the criticism might have to do with the Western generally being a ‘genre of the father.’ It communicates a conservative, traditional ideology dominated by male whites. Racism is part of the everyday life in the societies depicted in these stories, with Asians often disrespectfully being called ‘chinks,’ blacks being harassed as ‘niggers,’ and, most famously, Native Americans of course being abused as ‘Injuns’ or ‘redskins.’

As for strong female characters – they’re probably not on Quentin Tarantino’s agenda anymore. In a way, he’s already dealt with them in the Kill Bill movies and in Death Proof, which, in his cinematic universe, might be as close to a revenge of the amazons as possible. Both the Bride and the threesome of Abernathy, Kim, and Lee retaliate upon men for the cruelties and injustice done to them and to women in general. Kerry Washington as Broomhilda Von Shaft is a more subdued character. It’s not a coincidence that her last name hints at one of the stars of the Blaxploitation wave, and thus, by proxy, at Tarantino’s own Jackie Brown. Somehow it’s a testament to her strength that she’s still alive despite the brutal treatment she’s been exposed to on a daily basis.

Broomhilda’s first name refers to a German famous medieval epic called the Nibelungenlied, or Song of the Nibelungs, about the dragon-slaying hero Siegfried. One of the characters is the Icelandic queen Brünhilde, whom Django’s wife was christened after by her erstwhile mistress. The fact that Tarantino lets Schultz tell his bounty-hunting partner that Siegfried saves Brünhilde is, in fact, inaccurate. He only releases her in Richard Wagner’s operas, but these are based on an Icelandic legend and didn’t appear before 1876. So there’s no way Schultz could have known them in 1858. A more cinematic faithful adaptation is, naturally, Fritz Lang’s classic two-part silent movie Die Nibelungen.

That being said, these artistic liberties actually work well in Django Unchained, because they add some aura to the protagonist. A former slave becomes the ‘chosen one’ who is not only supposed to set his wife free but his whole people. After all, the American Civil War is just around the corner – and Schultz’s first name, of course, establishes him as a sort of precursor to Martin Luther King. The whole German angle may seem somewhat ridiculous to modern viewers initially, but there were actually quite a many immigrants from that country in the United States at the time. They came to America seeking greener pastures thanks to famines, a bad economy, and because many of the more liberal Germans fell out of favor with the conservative authorities after a failed democratic revolution. If he was a real person, Dr. King Schultz would probably have been one of them.

So what to make of Django Unchained? First of all, it’s a typical Quentin Tarantino movie, and a good one at that. The film has all the elements we’ve known and loved from the director’s former works. Of course it’s highly stylized, self-indulgent, and violent – maybe to a fault. Then again, what else do we expect from Quentin Tarantino? He’s never been one to beat about the bush. It probably comes with the territory, and his witty trademark dialog and offbeat characters are all part of the Django Unchained experience as well. So is his patented use of music, although you can make a compelling case that, here, he’s not always as sharp in this regard as in his other movies.

These minor quibbles aside, however, Quentin Tarantino delivers again with Django Unchained. He even goes the same distance as in Death Proof to add specks of dirt and use color saturation to make the movie artificially look older and more worn out. The same is true for the shootouts, which happen at a much faster speed than the famous ballets of death in the classic ‘spaghetti westerns.’ To a certain degree, a more apt comparison is probably the swords fights in the two Kill Bill movies – at least in the way Tarantino stages them. As usual in his films, the costumes and demeanor of the characters also stand out. It helps, of course, that some familiar faces, such as Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, or Zoë Bell, appear in smaller parts – the former two in a hilarious parody of the Ku Klux Klan –, or that some of the henchmen even squeal like pigs when Django Unchained goes about its blood-splattering violent business.

Although Quentin Tarantino’s own ‘spaghetti western’ is not on the same level as his his early masterpiece Pulp Fiction, it’s still a great addition to his body of work and a fine piece of moviemaking. Django Unchained is basically two films in one. The first part can be described as a Western meets black comedy completely dominated by Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz. Django, aptly named ‘Freeman’ by that time, is nothing but a sidekick at this point. Metaphorically speaking, he’s still waiting to become unchained. It’s only after the German dentist has gone to the happy hunting ground that the former slave is allowed to take over and become the center of his own revenge movie. Both protagonists, Schultz and Django, undergo their very own kind of transformation in the course of the film. Jamie Foxx’s initially subdued acting works will in this regard. His character first has to learn the ropes of his craft from the more seasoned bounty hunter before he can finally become a star in his own right and take over the entire show.

Who knows if Quentin Tarantino will ever be able to trump his sophomore work, but Django Unchained is another five-star effort by the director, if a little unbalanced occasionally. We’ll see if the Academy agrees and will give the man at the helm and Christoph Waltz the same awards – Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, respectively – they already received at the Golden Globes earlier this year. The film is nominated in five different categories, the others being for Robert Richardson’s fantastic camerawork, Wylie Stateman’s sound editing, and Best Movie. After the Oscars ceremony on 24 February 2013, the Django Unchained cast and crew and we will all be a lot wiser.

Seen at CineStar Metropolis, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on 21 January 2013.