By Simon Abrams | The Playlist December 28, 2012 at 1:00PM
It’s strange to think that it’s taken so many years for Quentin Tarantino to make a spaghetti western. Tarantino did previously describe “Inglorious Basterds,” the title of which comes from Enzo G. Castellari’s passable rip-off of “The Dirty Dozen,” as “my spaghetti western with World War II iconography” and "Kill Bill 2" has some brief homage-like nods. But “Django Unchained” is the first pastiche, defined as a work of fiction that appropriates elements of other genres for the sake of creating something new, that Tarantino’s done that’s primarily made of spaghetti western tropes. So when Franco Nero, the star of the hyper-violent original “Django” and many others, shows up in “Unchained,” it’s not just a smug wink to the audience: it’s Tarantino’s way of acknowledging the tradition of appropriation and exploitation that his movies come from.
More specifically, Tarantino’s use of anachronistic music, and fascination with amoral characters that re-fashion their identities for the sake of making what are essentially moral decisions—these are foundations of the spaghetti western, a genre characterized by blustery gore and surreal, lowbrow humor. This list is not representative of the films that most influenced Tarantino’s work however, but rather a sampling of what makes the spaghetti western, as a bastard genre, unique. The films are listed in chronological order.
5 Spaghetti Westerns
Directed by Sergio Sollima (“Face to Face,” “Violent City”), this densely over-plotted spaghetti western highlights the genre’s tendency of championing uncouth anti-heroes over corrupt authority figures. Lee Van Cleef plays Corbett, a (relatively) morally upstanding bounty hunter whose civic-mindedness makes him a weirdly viable senatorial candidate (he only stalks killers that threaten his state’s citizens). Corbett is interested in running for office, and subsequently enlists the help of local king-maker Mr. Brockston (Walter Barnes). Brockston agrees to help him but only if Corbett catches and/or kills Cuchillo (Tomas Milian, who became famous for playing Mexican bandits), a thief and accused rapist. Though much of “The Big Gundown” is a playful chase, the film turns into a Zapata western mid-way through the film (more on the Zapata western later). Cuchillo is revealed to be a bandit hero and his actions are (semi-)excusable. In fact, Sollima was so enamored of Milian’s character that he’s the focus of, “Run, Man, Run,” a semi-sequel that doesn’t include Corbett at all. But what makes “The Big Gundown” so much more exciting is its see-sawing narrative, which eventually alternates between Corbett’s hunt, and revelations about Cuchillo’s past. In that sense, “The Big Gundown” is a mutt amongst mutts.
Burt Reynolds stars as the titular Native American hero in Sergio Corbucci’s relatively straightforward action-adventure. Like the Man with no Name, Joe doesn’t flaunt his good intentions when he’s asked to defend a small town from marauding thieves. Instead, he exploits the fact that the town’s inhabitants, many of whom consider Joe to be a lesser man just because he’s a Native American, now need him. For each heavy that he dispatches, Joe asks for a dollar from each of the town’s inhabitants. Reynolds’s role as Joe was different than even some of the more psychologically-rich western roles Reynolds had previously played. “Navajo Joe” is also intriguing for the way that Corbucci forces his small town of bigots to rescue Joe midway through the film. Joe’s not invincible: he gets caught and beaten pretty badly after he gets outnumbered. In that moment, it’s unclear whether or not Joe will succeed in his mission, especially if you’ve seen other Corbucci westerns like “The Great Silence” (mentioned below). That decision is a good indication of what Corbucci likes about Joe: he’ll fail unless the ungrateful people he’s sticking his neck out for choose to help him, too. When Joe gets captured, hung up by his feet, and then viciously beaten, the film’s plot looks believably bleak. That moment of doubt is pretty memorable.
This surreal, not-quite-sequel to Corbucci’s original “Django” is part of a series of films that unofficially continue the legacy/capitalize on the success of Nero’s coffin-carrying antihero. Giulio Questi (“Death Laid an Egg”) directs this especially surreal follow-up, and Tomas Milian plays Django’s stand-in, “The Stranger.” Questi’s film is distinct from Corbucci’s insofar as it’s more excessive. As in Corbucci’s film, “Django, Kill” follows an amoral wanderer whose presence in a small town is the active catalyst for two local gangs to go after each other. But in “Kill,” the Stranger is fleeing from men that seek to kill him. Questi takes great pains to establish that Milian’s character is escaping one ordeal for a greater one: the men that are trying to kill him are brutally dispatched as soon as they arrive in town. In fact, Questi’s zeal for establishing the vicious nature of his gangs is apparent where one gang shows one of the Stranger’s pursuers ripped apart (by hand!) after he’s been shot up. They do this because they think the dying man’s been shot with gold bullets. Questi’s thugs are more decadent and more voraciously bankrupt than most others, as is shown/implied when one gang-rapes a young boy. After being forcibly recruited by the gang in question, the boy is surrounded by guffawing, drunken men (whose unbuttoned black shirts make them look like Billy Jack-themed male strippers), and then savagely taken. “Django, Kill” is in that sense indicative of the spaghetti western’s tendency towards creating monsters that are often more memorable than their counter-balancing (anti-)heroes.
Sergio Corbucci pops up on this list twice because, with the exception of Sergio Leone, few other filmmakers pushed the limits of the spaghetti western as far. While Corbucci’s “Django” is about a gun-fighting stranger’s interactions with a town with no sense of community, “The Great Silence” only seems more traditional in that it follows an endangered community in need of a champion/defender. Beyond that set-up, “The Great Silence” is one of the most bleak spaghetti westerns, a film where the Law is protected by a cabal of bounty hunters led by Klaus Kinski. Set in Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899, “The Great Silence” follows a legendary killer (Jean-Louis Trintignant, recently in “Amour”) that’s hired to avenge the death of one woman’s husband. Trintignant’s Silence is already a victim of the Law, having watched his parents legally murdered. So he’s automatically sympathetic to the widow’s request. Bear in mind: Mormons are, as an opening intertitle says, outlaws according to national law. So the real villain in the film isn’t Kinski’s leering villain but rather the implacable Law that says that a peaceful community can be murdered with impunity. Corbucci is, however, also fascinated by the idea that Kinski’s character, like Trintignant, who only shoots after provoking people to draw on him, can be a deputized lawman. That essentially amoral, and potentially vile aspect of bounty-hunting is also one of Tarantino’s thematic concerns in “Django Unchained.”
“Tepepa” is not only a superior Zapata spaghetti westerns, but also the rare western that stars Orson Welles. A slant-eyed and Fu Manchu-mustachioed Welles plays an oafishly evil aristocrat to counter Tomas Milian’s wiley scavenger hero. As with many Zapata westerns, a sub-genre named after real-life revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, “Tepepa” cynically concludes that any position of power is inherently corrupting. Milian’s character becomes disillusioned when he realizes that he’s only overthrown one tyrant for the sake of instating a new one. And yet, while everybody betrays Milian’s character, including Henry Price (John Steiner), a stoic, and seemingly upstanding German doctor, nobody comes out of the film looking good. Even Milian’s character is revealed to be, after a fashion, corrupt, leaving the film’s concluding ra ra go revolutionary scene much more ambivalent than it seems. To start over again, and really become revolutionary, everybody has to die, and the only surviving thing left has to be rhetoric. So the film ends with an image of a cavalcade of revolutionaries, led by a fanatic little boy, charging into the sunset. It’s a weirdly hopeful image for one of the most bitterly cynical, and radical spaghetti westerns.