Tuesday 15 March 2011

Django, Kill! (1967)

DJANGO, KILL! was directed by Giulio Questi in 1967 and stars Tomas Milian as the eponymous hero.  It was originally released in Italy as 'Se sei vivo spara' which means 'If You Live, Shoot'.  It is often called the most extreme spaghetti western, which is a bit like describing someone as the shortest dwarf at a dwarf convention.  It's one of the innumerable sequels to Sergio Corbucci's ground-breaking DJANGO (1966), which made a star out of Franco Nero.  Whatever else it might be, it's certainly one of the best spaghetti westerns I've seen - it has the usual quota of violent incident and quirky grotesques but it also uses a complex symbolism which belies its gruesome reputation.

The film director Alex Cox, who used to introduce BBC2 screenings of cult films, is a big fan of the spaghetti western and I suspect that is because they appeal to his political sensibility, which is sufficiently left-wing to warrant the description Marxist.  In my piece about Riccardo Freda's I VAMPIRI (1956), I described how it showed the influence of neo-realism in its class consciousness and contempt for the corrupt and idle bourgeoisie.  To an extent, that influence is also apparent in the spaghetti western.  As Cox has pointed out, the usual schematic of the spaghetti western pits a lone gunfighter against venal politicians and sadistic bosses on the one hand, and murderous bandits on the other.  He usually takes up the cause of some oppressed minority - be they farmers, decent homesteaders, Mexicans or decent Mexican homesteading farmers.  Thus a conflict is set up between the countryside and the town, as well as between the classes.

Tomas Milian as Django
In adopting that schematic they are essentially following the pattern established by Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) starring the great Toshiro Mifune as a masterless samurai who pits two warring factions against each other, which itself was influenced by Dashiell Hammett's novel "Red Harvest".  I'm ashamed to say I have not yet seen YOJIMBO or read "Red Harvest" so I can't really say precisely how closely the spaghetti western follows those models but it's indisputable, even from that outline, that they do.  Indeed, the film generally regarded as the archetypal spaghetti western, Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1962), is a virtual remake of YOJIMBO.

In the original DJANGO, the hero has to contend with both the Klan and Mexican bandits.  In this sequel, Django finds himself caught between no less than three factions: the treacherous gringos who stole his gold and murdered his compadres; the hostile townspeople who believe in swift and bloody justice as a means of keeping the peace; and the brutal landowner who covets the gold.  So far, so standard.

Mr Sorrow and his gang
Don't believe the hype about the violence.  This is no picnic, certainly, but there's nothing that much worse than the ear-slicing scene in DJANGO, or the inadvertent cannibalism in Lucio Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975).  For me, what makes the film stand out from the herd is its moral and political philosophising and its often startling religious imagery.  I'm not sure it's quite as simple as 'the hero as Christ figure' because there are at least three characters who are shown in Christ-like images.  First, there is Oaks - the American who betrays his partner Django and eventually killed by the gold-hungry townsfolk:

Oaks' body
Then there is Evan, the angelic son of the saloon owner (played by Anglo-Italian actor Ray Lovelock), who pleads with Django to leave the town with him and eventually kills himself:

Evan almighty?
And eventually there is Django himself who, in the obligatory masochism scene, is tortured by the boss and his henchman:

Religious symbolism at its most overt

The religious imagery here is quite apparent but which of these men, if any, represents Christ?  Well, I'm not sure any of them do, explicitly.  Rather I think they are three facets of the same man: Django.  The link between them is the wound in the side.  We first see Django crawling from the grave in which he has been left for dead by Oaks:

He is rescued by two Native Americans who tend his wounds and offer to accompany him in return for insight into what life is like beyond the grave.

Django is healed

Note the wound in Django's side.
This is a reborn Django and I think the other two figures represent what he could have become if he had continued on his life of crime (Oaks) and what he might have been had he not developed defence mechanisms against a hostile world (Evan).

The religious symbolism is carried further with numerous scenes of characters washing their hands or their heads.  One great example, which you'd only find in a spaghetti western, is a shot of Django washing his hands, framed by the bodies of two hanged men.

There is also a remarkable shot of a cherubic naked child, who silently observes Oaks and his gang as they ride, literally and metaphorically, into Sorrow's town:

Another character, one of Sorrow's private army of apparently homosexuals thugs, who takes a bite out of an apple as he malevolently watches Evan the young innocent:

Django, Evan and apple-eating henchman
Finally there is the contrast between the harsh desert from which Django emerges and the lush valley into which he departs:

The religious symbolism extends beyond the visual to the names of the characters: Evan (which means "God is gracious"), his father Mr Templer and the town boss, Mr Sorrow.

So, I hear you cry, what does it all mean?  Well, the honest answer is I'm not sure.  There's so much going on that I think I only caught some of it, and my Biblical knowledge isn't sufficient to pick up on a lot of the symbolism.  But I would suggest that Questi is drawing a parallel between the apparent godlessness of modern society, with its greed, corruption and brutality, and the hypocrisy of organized religion which he believes is as self-interested as any other group.  There is a key moment where Templer refuses to use his ill-gotten gold to pay the ransom for his kidnapped son Evan and the town preacher (who doubles as the store-owner) refuses to lend his.  I think this is an explicit criticism by Questi of religions that hoard money without ever putting it to good use, which is in keeping with the leftist political sensibility behind the best spaghetti westerns.

I was totally taken aback by DJANGO, KILL!  I was expecting a dumb gore-fest but got a subtle, intelligent and complex modern parable.  Sadly, Questi only made two more cinema features, including the giallo DEATH LAID AN EGG (1972), which I hope to review at some stage.  Tomas Milian of course is a genre legend and one of the few who has successfully crossed over into mainstream films.  The screenwriter, Franco Arcalli, also wrote LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), another film which hides its profundity beneath a notorious veneer, and 1900 (1976) which applies the urban / rural, working class / bourgeosie model .   Interestingly, Arcalli also worked as an editor, including on DJANGO, KILL! and the two aforementioned Bertolucci films.  There are plenty of writer-directors, there are a few director-cinematographers but he's the only writer-editor I can think of.

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