DJANGO UNCHAINED -- Film Review
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx
It’s virtually impossible for any film to live up to the anticipation of whatever is the next Quentin Tarantino project, but DJANGO UNCHAINED makes a pretty good stab at it. The long-awaited ‘Spaghetti Southern’ would seem to owe as much of a debt to the Blaxploitation Westerns of the 60s and 70s as it does to the Spaghetti Westerns. But in truth, the black Westerns of that period were so uniformly lousy that the debt is pretty thin, whereas the skills of the best Spaghetti Westerns filmmakers – the Leones, Corbuccis and Castellaris – were so fresh and original that virtually all good Westerns of the last few decades owe them plenty, this one included.
DJANGO UNCHAINED is neither a sequel nor a remake of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 classic DJANGO, which established Franco Nero as
Europe’s greatest Western star. While to Americans, ‘Spaghetti Western’ has always been synonymous with Clint Eastwood and ‘The Man With No Name’, in Europe I am told that Nero and the character of ‘Django’ have always had a slight edge. (You can read my brief chat with Franco Nero about his Corbucci Westerns HERE ) This led to roughly forty so-called Django films, and I say ‘so-called’ because European copyright laws are different from the ones, meaning anyone can call their film and their character Django. U.S.
Franco Nero as DJANGO (1966)
Nero played many similar characters in other westerns, and a pre-TRINITY Terence Hill, made up to pass for Nero, played Django, but Nero only played Django once more, twenty-one years later, in 1987’s DJANGO STRIKES BACK, shot in Columbia, and co-starring Donald Pleasance. Fortuitously, the new interest in the original Django character stimulated by the Tarantino movie has created the possibility of Nero playing him once again (see last week’s Round-up HERE ).
Franco Nero in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
While Nero’s Django roamed the Spanish West dragging a coffin, and searching for his wife’s killers, Jamie Foxx plays a slave whose wife is very much alive, but after being caught trying to escape together, they’ve been recaptured and in a bit of cruel revenge, owner Bruce Dern sells them separately.
As the picture opens, Django is among a group of slaves being transported by brothers James Russo and James Remar. Dentist Dr. King (Christoph Waltz) meets up with them, offering to buy one of the slaves who came from a particular plantation – but it’s a ruse. He’s quit dentistry for bounty-hunting, and when they won’t sell Django, who can identify three high-bounty brothers for Waltz, the guns blaze.
Bounty hunter and slave become friends – their friendship is the heart of the movie – and strike a deal: Django will assist Dr. King, learning the trade, and when the change in seasons permits, they’ll go to Candieland, the brothel-cum-plantation of the thoroughly despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where they will try to liberate Django’s bride, German-speaking Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
From here the story is a swirling Techniscope kaleidoscope of beautiful vistas, invigorating action, unexpected humor, and a thirst for revenge. While the plot, in broad strokes, holds no startling surprises, there are plenty of jolts for seen-it-all western fans, both in stirring fond memories of favorite shootings, and I-never-saw-it-done-quite-that-way moments.
I’ll let the other critics point out each and every real and imagined reference to specific Spaghetti Westerns (“Is Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King a German in a nod to Klaus Kinski, or in a nod to the German Western stories of Karl May, or because Waltz has a German accent, and is he a dentist because Doc Holliday really was one, or because Bob Hope played one in THE PALEFACE…?)
DeCaprio, Waltz, Jackson, Foxx
As is true in the best Western work of Leone and Corbucci, and Peckinpah and Hawks and Ford for that matter, there is plenty of humor. Among the high points are a just-freed slave’s choice of clothing, and a pair of sequences, one beginning with a mixed-race visit to a saloon, and another, reportedly tacked on at the last minute, involving Klansmen and their hoods, that clearly contain a nod to Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES, even utilizing a Slim Pickens sound-alike.
All must inevitably lead us to Candieland, the Mandingo fighters -- slaves who fight to the death for the entertainment of the decadent plantation owners -- the rouse to try and liberate Broomhilda, and the film’s ultimate climax. There’s a lot of buzz about DeCaprio’s performance, and there is a lot to like in it. In fact, there is too damned much to like in it, and in much of the film. While Tarantino doesn’t present his story in chapters, as he has in previous films, there are several set-pieces, all of them good-to-excellent, and all of them a little too long. One of the toughest jobs for a writer is to tell when a scene needs to end, no matter how much more good dialogue you’ve thought up. There needs to be a sense of urgency to get to the next event, especially in a story where a man is trying to save his wife from ‘a fate worse than death,’ and the easy-going pace undercuts that urgency. It’s true that Spaghetti Westerns tend to run long, but in
Europe they were always shown with an intermission. DJANGO UNCHAINED doesn’t need an intermission, but it needs a half-hour of trims of the excessive good stuff.
The performances are excellent – Foxx, Waltz, Don Johnson as a plantation owner, Dennis Christopher as DeCaprio’s consigliore. DeCaprio is particularly striking in his Ante Bellum metrosexuality – the epitome of the rich and privileged guy who surrounds himself with hired real men, and kids himself that he is one. Samuel L. Jackson, hardly recognizable, made up to look like the face on a box of Uncle Ben’s Rice, is chillinging real as the ‘old family retainer’ who terrorizes all of the other slaves. In fact, one of the very effective themes throughout the movie is the social position of blacks: free blacks versus house slaves versus field hands, and can any black man be allowed to ride a horse?
Two Djangos meet.
The cast not only of characters but of cameos was impossible to keep up with. Franco Nero makes much of his part, long on camera but with just enough dialogue. James Remar plays two characters, and while I caught Tom Wopat, Michael Parks and Tom Savini, I missed Russ Tamblyn, Lee Horsley, Don Stroud and Robert Carradine. I’ll try again on the next viewing.
In a movie world that largely believes that only the lead characters matter, Tarantino continues to think that all men are created equal – a capper line is as likely to come from an unnamed character as it is a star. He excels in directing actors and action.
Thrice-Oscared DP Robert Richardson does his usual magnificent job, as he has repeatedly for Tarantino and Scorcese.
The score is a mix of some new music, a new Ennio Morricone song, and others snagged from other sources, including of course Luis Bacolov’s original DJANGO theme, as well as his HIS NAME WAS KING theme, and one of the very best, Morricone’s theme from TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH.
I highly recommend DJANGO UNCHAINED. No, it’s not Tarantino’s very best, but what he does is always so good, and so off-center from the mainstream that its faults are forgiven. I’d just like to have seen what he could have done with less money and time.
Also, I feel I must comment on Tarantino’s recent interview, where he denounces D.W. Griffith, and says he’s no fan of John Ford. The
comment saddens me, because it’s kicking a man not only when he’s down, but when he’s dead and unable to defend himself. Yes, Griffith Griffith directed BIRTH OF A NATION, the nation in the title being not the , but the Ku Klux Klan. I certainly understand and agree with the criticism for glorifying such an awful organization. But it should be remembered that Griffith was widely denounced at the time, and not only apologized, but had his eyes so opened that he made the film INTOLERENCE as an apology, and a denunciation of man’s intolerance of man. One of his very last films was an excellent portrait of his former ‘villain’, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, starring Walter Huston, scripted by the great Stephen Vincent Benet. And while his artistry and contributions to the language of film can not be overestimated, U.S. ’s even had his name stripped from a Director’s Guild annual award. He didn’t murder anyone, and it’s been just shy of a century: will we never accept his apology? Griffith
As for John Ford, Tarantino criticizes him for being an extra in BIRTH OF A NATION, and playing a Klansman. C’mon! And despite what Tarantino may think of some of the portrayals of Indians in some of his films, even when they were playing the enemy they were always treated with respect. Certainly the Indian actors who worked for Ford loved the experience and we eager to do it again. John Ford is the one who made
AUTUMN, portraying the mistreatment of Indians by a hostile and contemptuous government who consistently signed and then violated treaties with the Indians. And as for his treatment of blacks on film, Ford made SERGEANT RUTLEDGE in 1960, when the story of a black sergeant falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman was unbelievably daring. CHEYENNE
MARK OF THE GUN – Film Review
One of the fascinating things about a time capsule is that, when someone opens it years after it was buried, the contents are a complete surprise. MARK OF THE GUN is such a time capsule. Made in 1966, forty-six years ago, this tiny, independent black & white Western was not only forgotten, it was as far as can be ascertained, never even seen!
Ross Hagen, a big, handsome tough guy with a trademark gravelly voice, was a prolific character actor in television and drive-in movies. On film he appeared with Elvis in
. On television he guested frequently on GUNSMOKE, THE VIRGINIAN, HERE COME THE BRIDES, LANCER, as well as on many cop shows. He produced, starred in, and sometimes wrote and directed, a number of low-budget epics like THE SIDEHACKERS, PUSHING UP DAISIES, BAD CHARLESTON CHARLIE and WONDER WOMEN. Apparently, the first film he produced and starred in was MARK OF THE GUN. Shortly before SPEEDWAY ’s death in 2011, he found the negative of this never-released oater. Director, producer and close friend Fred Olen Ray decided to snatch this film from the gaping jaws of oblivion, and give it its very first release through his company, Retromedia Entertainment. Hagen
One of the novelties of a period picture that was made some time ago is that it reflects two periods, when the story was set, and when it was shot, and that is a lot of the campy fun of MARK OF THE GUN. Set around the 1870s, but shot in the 1960s, all the girls have heavily sprayed hair, and many of the bad guys act more like juvenile delinquents than outlaws. This is backed by the anachronistic jazz score by low-budget music stalwart Jaime Mendoza-Nava. In fact, they treat the outlaws’ hideout so much like a nightclub that a girl gets upset that her sister won’t let her sing there, as if it’s a swank dinner spot rather than the hangout of the gang.
Amazingly, this tiny black & white orphan of a movie is photographed by none other than the great Hungarian-born cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Just before he made his mark shooting TARGETS for Peter Bogdonavich, EASY RIDER for Dennis Hopper and FIVE EASY PIECES for Bob Rafelson, Laszlo shot a number of soft-porn, biker, and no-budget horror films, although as far as I can determine, this is his only black & white feature. He does a marvelous job composing his images and, as the great cameramen always did, using rich contrast in place of color.
Not willing to risk the audience making any mistakes about who to root for, the opening credits announce, ‘The Hero – Ross Hagen. The Villain – Brad Thomas.’ The other actor title-cards are headed, ‘The Girls’, ‘The Gang’, and ‘The Law.’ There aren’t a lot of familiar names and faces, but there are at least a few: the goofy member of the gang is comic character actor Buck Kartalian, the man who, in the original PLANET OF THE APES, said of Charlton Heston’s behavior, “Human see, human do,” and then sprayed him with a high-pressure hose. Another outlaw, Ned Romero, has played many an Indian, cowboy, and the occasional Klingon. Tony Lorea, yet another outlaw, has played many a bartender, and specializes in Humphrey Bogart characterizations. Under ‘The Law’, Paul Sorenson had a long career playing cops, deputies and gunmen, and ended up as a regular on
, playing Andy Bradley. Among the ladies, Rita D’Amico did a lot of television in the 1960s, but only pretty blonde Gabrielle St. Claire is familiar, and she was Ross Hagen’s wife, usually acting as Claire Polon, and seen in many of Ross’ films. DALLAS
The story begins with Ross getting the crap beaten out of him by Sorenson, as two deputies watch, until he gives them the slip. He ends up at what he takes for an inn, but it’s actually the hideout for a gang of bank-robbers. Being an outlaw himself, he fits right in, and they decide to take him into the gang for the next job – they’re down one man since he inadvertently shot one. But there are problems within the gang. There may be a spy in their midst – the last couple of jobs they cased were pulled off by a mysterious rival gang using their same plans. Also, there are too many women around, which leads the men to constantly fight over them, and when Ross goes after pretty young Abigail, he is sternly warned off by her older sister, who owns the house.
Claire Polon as Abigail
When the gang heads out, they start fighting amongst themselves, and then they reach the scene of the planned crime just in time to see the rival gang pulling the heist. Naturally, all Hell breaks loose.
The budget being tiny, most of the film takes place at the hide-out – they don’t head out for the bank robbery until halfway through the movie. And when they get to the town, apparently the Iverson Movie Ranch, they don’t actually enter town, but watch it from above – I’ll bet money they didn’t pay the Iversons!
The horse riding is professional, the rural scenery attractive, and the gun- and fist-fighting is good except when it’s bad. I won’t pretend MARK OF THE GUN is a great Western. Author Earl Graves never wrote anything again, to my knowledge, and director Wally Campo quickly went back to what he did best – acting in Roger Corman movies. But it’s a fun,
, and everything that’s wrong about it makes it fun to watch, especially with friends. Included in the special features are a collection of trailers for some of Ross Hagen’s wildest films, and an excerpt from his action-comedy PUSHING UP DAISIES. It’s available from Retromedia Entertainment and Amazon. camp Western
HARRY CAREY JR. DIES
THREE GODFATHERS - Harry Carey Jr. flanked
by John Wayne and Pedro Armendariz
Sad news -- a last link with the films of John Ford is gone. Harry Carey Jr., son of silent Western star Harry Carey, was a fine actor and a good man. He appeared in sixty-nine television series and nearly ninety movies, the majority Westerns, and he always brought an understated integrity to all of his roles, serious or comic. He wrote an excellent book, A COMPANY OF HEROES, about the John Ford stock company. I met him at several signings, but actually got to know him better through e-mails. Some years ago, seeing that it was his birthday, I emailed him, wishing him well, and commenting that my wife and I always knew a movie that he was in was worth seeing. Within minutes I’d heard back from him: “You obviously haven’t seen BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA.” He was not exactly crazy about his work in it, but he was proud of his mother, Olive Carey, who played the mad scientist in it. We exchanged a number of emails after that, and he was always warm, funny and insightful. Then a year or so ago, an email bounced back with a message that he wasn’t up to answering emails anymore. All of us fans of Westerns, SPIN AND MARTY, and everything in between, will miss him. Here’s to you, Dobe!
ENCORE WESTERN FANS UP IN ARMS OVER CHANGES
Encore Western Channel’s Facebook page is full of angry comments over two series being dropped from the line-up; RAWHIDE and WAGON TRAIN. The good news is that METV will begin showing WAGON TRAIN on Saturdays, although they’re dropping BRANDED to make room for it.
HAPPY NEW YEARS, ROUND-UP ROUNDERS!
All Original Contents Copyright December 2012 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved