Django the Bastard Review (Scherpschutter)
This movie hardly ever appears on people’s lists of favourite spaghetti westerns, but it has always fascinated critics and fans of the genre. It opens with a shot of water dripping in a mud puddle and a black-clad gunman entering a deserted town. We seem on familiar spaghetti western territory, but then, in a very disorienting scene, the gunman is filmed from above, as to give us some indication where he’s coming from. Very soon we find out that the man has supernatural powers: he appears out of nothing and may disappear without warning when people look the other way. Only two people are able to get in touch with him, and one of them, a woman, tells him the superstitious and frightened townspeople think he’s a ghost. “What if they are right,” the stranger says.
# The Plot
Way back in the Civil War, three Confederate officers, Hawkins, Ross and Murdock, have betrayed their own unit. The soldiers were ambushed and massacred by Union troupes. The stranger starts ordering crosses for Hawkins and Ross, planting them before their very eyes in the main street before shooting them. Murdock has become a powerful landowner with an army of henchmen to defend him, but the stranger eliminates them all in one terrible night. The next morning Murdock is killed in the same fashion as the other two, and the stranger leaves town as mysteriously as he had entered it.
# Look, it's his blood!
Django the Bastard was made in 1969, and there are similarities to Antonio Margheriti’s And God spoke to Cain, made the same year. Both movies are a fusion of western and horror, and both also respect the classic dramatic unities of time, place and action: it all takes place within twenty-four hours, in one single town. But while the avenger in Margheriti’s movie is made of flesh and blood, director Garrone and actor Steffen (who co-wrote the screenplay) deliberately cause confusion about the stranger’s identity. In some scenes he is undeniably presented as a ghost, but in others he seems human, and vulnerable. In one scene he is bleeding and the man who inflicted the wound – Murdock’s lunatic brother - shows the blood to the others, saying: “Look, it’s his blood, he’s real!”
# The Drifter, the Stranger and Harmonica
Django il Bastardo is often said (most readers will know this) to have influenced Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, which featured a character who had come back from the other side to avenge his own death. In one of the flashbacks of Garrone’s movie, we see how Django is killed, and when his victims are confronted with him, they inevitably say something like: “You were dead!”. But if he’s a ghost, what about this scene with the lunatic? In his book, Alex Cox draws a parallel between Steffen’s Django and Harmonica, stating that their behaviour on screen is similar: like Bronson, Steffen often slides into frame (*1). The final scene of Django the Bastard, is also reminiscent of the end of Once upon a Time in the West, that is the scene with Harmonica rejecting Jill. Alida, the wife of the (by then dead) lunatic, proposes Django to part with him, so they can live rich and happily ever after. Django rejects her by saying they won’t live forever, and then he’s gone, as if he went up in smoke (*2).
# The Other Side
Several people attending pre-release showings of Once upon a Time in the West thought Harmonica was a ghost, and it seems the controversial ‘nursing scene’ with Bronson making a sling for his wounded arm, was shot in order to convince viewers Harmonica was real (*3). Some say Leone even considered for a while to treat Harmonica as a ghost, but rejected the idea after ample consideration. Harmonica was so obsessed by revenge, that his behavior seemed no longer human. Asked for his name, he gives other people’s names, people whose violent deaths he wants to avenge. We have the feeling he has been on the other side, and has spoken to the death, who have asked him to set a few things right. In Django the Bastard this idea is pushed one step further: The stranger is a dead man, he literally has been on the other side, but he’s still obsessed by what happened during his last minutes on earth.
# Living between the Worlds
People have always been fascinated by the idea of a transitional phase between life and death, in which the souls of the deceased are prepared for the afterlife. The existence of such a phase, or place, seems to suggest that some kind of communication between the two worlds is possible. Dracula, the prince of darkness, leaves his tomb in search for the virginal blood he needs to travel between the worlds of the living and the world of the dead. In Greek and Roman literature we meet several stories about the living visiting the Underworld, the Greek equivalent of the Afterlife, talking to deceased friends and relatives, learning how they were slaughtered. The visitor is often asked to take revenge in their name. In the most famous revenge story of them all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of a dead man appears to his son, and tells him how he was betrayed and killed. In Django the Bastard the two people who really get in touch with him, are an epileptic and a gypsy (or at least a woman who’s dressed like one). Both epileptics and gypsies are often thought to have special gifts, such as second sight or the ability to talk to the dead.
There’s probably no definite answer in regard to the identity of the stranger. In debates about the ‘meaning’ of works of art, nobody can ever claim the last word. It’s nice to notice that my theory is close to Len Liu’s explanation on Fistful of Pasta (*4). Len’s interpretation is that there is a limit to his supernatural ability and that he is only a "semi-ghost". Note also that this is a horror movie, and that horror movies have their own inner logic. The undead, whether they’re zombies or vampires can be killed, at least (in the case of Dracula) temporarily, but it takes a professional, for instance a doctor, and a particular weapon. And don’t forget that spaghetti westerns were made in a Catholic context, which means the symbolism of the crucifixion and the resurrection is always imminent.
When I first saw Django the Bastard, I didn’t like it very much. Today my thoughts are more positive. It works best as long as it tries to evoke the atmosphere of a sixties horror movie. There’s one scene with Django’s dark figure outlined against a shiny white curtain, which seems to be taken from a Dracula movie. As a western it is less successful. It's rather static and it lacks a good villain. Luciano Rossi turns in a terrific performance as the epileptic/lunatic, but we feel a little sorry for him. Rada Rassimov is a fascinating gypsy, apparently always ready for some kinky sexual games (we spot her bound and gagged in one scene), but the actual villains aren’t really the kind of guys to scare the hell out of you. Maybe this is a side-effect of this strange combination of horror and western. If your hero is a ghost, it’s hard to find a more creepy opponent for him, unless you have Peter Cushing playing doctor Von Helsing.
- (1) Alex Cox, 10.000 Ways to Die, p. 256
- (2) I have never seen the Italian version, but Italian forum member Jonathan Corbett wrote that the dialogue is a bit different in Italian. Rada Rassimov says: "What a lot of dollars, they'll be enough for a life!". Then Stranger answers: "I already had a life" (and disappears).
- (3) Trevor Willsmer – Once upon there was the West … - Booklet added to the Paramount Special Collector’s Edition
- (4) Len Liu: Django the Bastard (1969), "More Ghost than Bastard", review on Fistful of Pasta. On the SWDb Forum, Len Liu is known as Col. Douglas Mortimer.
Director: Sergio Garrone - Screenplay: Anthony Steffen, Sergio Garrone - Cast: Anthony Steffen, Rada Rassimov, Luciano Rossi, Paolo Gozlino, Victoriano Gazzara, Teodoro Corrà, Jean Louis, Riccardo Garrone, Carlo Gaddi - Music: Vasili (Kojucharov) & (Elsio) Mancuso