By Jill Hardy
In his essay “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism,” T.S. Eliot wrote “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Calling Quentin Tarantino a “poet” of the movie world may not sit well with all film buffs, but for those who appreciate his style and talents, understanding where he has drawn inspiration from adds depth to experiencing his motion pictures.
The limited run of Django at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art gave me a chance to do just that, and it also gave me the opportunity to give The Spaghetti Western another chance to win me over, as a genre.
I grew up with a grandfather who loved John Wayne movies. To me these always stood in stark contrast to the darker, grittier Spaghetti Westerns. John Wayne movie plots were simple, bad guys wore black, and hardly any good guys died; flesh wounds in an extremity could have a colorful bandanna tied around them, and all would end up well in the end. In a Spaghetti Western, there was more brutality, more ambivalence, and even though the “good” guy usually did at some point act for the greater good, there were moments designed to make you wonder.
Released in 1966, Sergio Corbucci’s Django may not have enjoyed the commercial success in the United States that Sergio Leone’s movies (A Fistful of Dollars, et al) had, but it developed a cult following that has stood the test of time. Tarantino cites it as one of his influences (along with other Spaghetti Westerns, and samurai movies—from which the directors of Spaghetti Westerns often borrowed heavily), and the actor who played Django, Franco Nero, had a cameo in Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Django’s plot is typical of a spaghetti Western; a drifter saves a woman from brutalization, and then sets about gaining revenge on the local baddie. The standard images are there—ruggedly handsome outlier, voluptuous hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, pernicious villain—but Django also has some unique charm. The mystery of the coffin that Django drags everywhere with him, the surprisingly progressive message about the menace of racism…several things make this movie special, among all the Spaghetti Western standards.
The darkness for the time (when you view it through the lens of the 1960s, it’s pretty violent), and the reluctance of the hero to be heroic are pretty standard now, but in the era it was produced, this was graphic and groundbreaking.
Sort of like Tarantino.
Django can be viewed and interpreted on several levels. As a Tarantino fan, you can easily see where he’s borrowed (and flat out lifted) elements, and appreciate it as an inspiration.
But as someone simply wanting to watch a story, you can sit down in front of it and be drawn in as well. By the cartoonish characterizations, the campy theme song, and the timeless elements of a stranger coming into town to settle scores, stand up to injustice, and ultimately—reluctantly—become the hero.
John Wayne movies with their sappy sweetness will always have a place in my heart, but Django opened my eyes to the rough appeal of the Spaghetti Western. Life can be ugly, but it can also turn around. Tyrants can be toppled, and sometimes the best hero is the one that is deeply flawed.
For more on the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s film series, visit www.okcmoa.com/films