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
“The Big Gundown” (1966)
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.
“Navajo Joe” (1966)
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.
“Django, Kill” (1967)
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.
“The Great Silence” (1968)
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.Quentin Tarantino’s recent comments about John Ford, and his post-Newtown comments about how “Django Unchained” follows in a “Shakespearean” tradition of represented violence, have predictably gotten a lot of people grumbling. Then again, Tarantino’s never been as articulate a defender of his movies as his fans would like him to be (hearing Tarantino splutter about “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in “A Decade Under the Influence” or rant about “Chungking Express” for his Rolling Thunder introduction is especially hard if you even like some of his movies). But Tarantino’s latest is also understandably attracting a lot of attention because it’s indebted to both spaghetti westerns and “slavesploitation” films. Unlike respectable, and respectful, movies about slavery, like “Roots,” slavesploitation films are by definition movies that offer crassly exploitative representations of oppressed slave protagonists. Tarantino’s revisionist action-comedy is inspired by such movies as “Mandingo,” which became controversial because of its titillating fixation with savage over-seers, over-sexed plantation owners, and nigh-superheroic field hands.
This list is not intended to reflect the “best” of the slavesploitation genre for a couple of reasons. Practically speaking, it’s hard to track down copies of films like “Slaves,” a now-impossible-to-find 1969 drama starring and scored by Dionne Warwick. It’s harder still to qualitatively evaluate many of these films since they are all to some extent hard to watch. Still, since slavesploitation narratives are a primary source of inspiration of Tarantino, here are a couple of noteworthy examples. They are organized chronologically.
5 ‘Slavesploitation’ Movies
“Goodbye, Uncle Tom” (1971)
“Goodbye, Uncle Tom” is definitely the most singularly sleazy movie on this list. Co-directed and written by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi (“Mondo Cane,” “Africa Addio”), “Goodbye, Uncle Tom” is a mockumentary that revels in dramatized scenes where naked slaves are abused and sexually mistreated. Ardent admirers of Federico Fellini’s films, Jacopetti and Prosperi aspired to a similarly carnivalesque atmosphere, best epitomized by musical composer Rizo Ortolani’s two main musical themes. Their film is much harder to watch than even “Satyricon” however, because it’s an ostensibly empowering film that also uses scenes where characters are graphically tortured, molested and humiliated for the sake of justifying a misguided cultural revolution. In the film’s concluding scenes, the diary of Nat Turner is read in voiceover narration as angry black men shoot and chop up white bourgies with guns and axes. This is after Busby Berkeley-style panoplies of naked slaves are shown in a ship’s brig while Jacopetti and Prosperi snicker via voiceover narration about how some slaves were force-fed yams and then made to live in their own diarrhea for days. The sarcastic and jeering pseudo-intellectual aspects of Jacopetti and Prosperi’s film are what makes “Goodbye, Uncle Tom” both so vile and so compelling. After a fashion, these filmmakers really did believe in the subversive power of their crass spectacle. So while Jacopetti and Prosperi’s invitations to incite a race riot are basically bullshit, the fact that they’re not trying to be benignly exploitative is also almost refreshing.
“The Legend of Nigger Charley” (1972)
The most controversial thing about “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” the first film in a trilogy, is its button-pushing title (its first sequel was also called, “The Soul of Nigger Charley”). But it’s also noteworthy as being a rare slavesploitation film starring an acknowledged blaxploitation star. Fred Williamson (“Black Caesar,” “Hell Up in Harlem”) stars as Charley, a slave that’s been promised his freedom when his master dies, but predictably doesn’t get it. Charley and two other slaves must then run away from their dead master’s vindictive son. Williamson’s lead performance distinguishes “The Legend of Nigger Charley” from other slavesploitation films. He doesn’t have much to work with, and he certainly doesn’t have much range, either. But he really makes “The Legend of Nigger Charley” work when it most needs to, as in scenes where Charley wonders aloud if there is in fact a fundamental difference in character between black and white men. If the film’s conclusion, in which Charley accepts that there is in fact an empowering difference, is at all effective, it’s because of Williamson’s charisma.
“Black Snake” (1973)
As with many exploitation films, “Black Snake” is mostly memorable for its stand-out scenes of explicit sexuality and cruel violence. Let it never be said that director Russ Meyer didn’t know how to pander to his audience. For example, the film is more focused on Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), the film’s cruel, whip-cracking white slave owner, than on any singular slave hero. Meyer’s film also anticipates and goes further in exploring some of the pseudo-moral questions in “Mandingo” by prominently featuring Bernard Boston as Captain Raymond Daladier, a cruel, French-speaking black taskmaster from Jamaica. Like many other grand guignol-inspired slavesploitation films, Meyer’s movie assumes that any character that has a modicum of power but fails to sympathize with slaves deserves whatever punishment they get. The slave uprising that concludes the film is perfunctory since the film is only ostensibly empowering. But the film’s main selling points, like seeing Hempel’s ample buttocks massaged in close-up, are certainly memorable, perhaps because “Black Snake” was Meyer’s first independent film after his brief stint making studio-produced films “The Seven Minutes” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” “Black Snake” is a slight movie, but it is a superior expression of the kind of ‘what-if’ scenario that Tarantino plays around with in “Django Unchained,” a comedy that effectively argues for the symbolic importance of historical role-playing in exploitation cinema.
A good part of why “Mandingo” remains a controversial film is that it was produced and distributed by a major American movie studio, specifically Paramount Pictures. The opening credits boast that an elderly James Mason stars in the film, though he only has a supporting role. Still, the fact that the studio could sell Mason’s star power in the first place is a reminder that the film was a major release. Director Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s novel may seem tame compared to some other films on this list, especially “Goodbye, Uncle Tom.” But Fleischer also doesn’t apologize for his film’s disreputability, as in an early scene where he films a slave’s exposed breast out-of-focus but directly in the foreground during an early bedside conversation. “Mandingo” is basically a racy feature-length soap opera that redundantly concludes that it was impossible for a slave to advance, even if he or she attracted the fickle attention of his/her master. Together with his father Warren (Mason), a doddering, rheumatism-afflicted plantation owner, young and cruel Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) becomes obsessed with his new slave Ganymede (Ken Norton). Ganymede is trained to fight other Mandingo slaves but he soon realizes that he only has a token position of power over other slaves. Within the context of a studio-produced film, relatively graphic scenes, like when a stripped slave is paddled until his buttocks bleed, are still shocking. But “Mandingo” is not otherwise sensational.
A sequel to “Mandingo,” “Drum” is more titillating than its predecessor because it goes farther in insinuating what was really wrong with slave owners. In “Mandingo,” Richard Fleischer suggests that slave owners’ interest in their slaves was primarily sexual in nature, but never as overtly as the creators of “Drum,” which features a scene where an openly gay older slave owner tries to force his male slave to have sex with him. In fact, in spite of how muddled “Drum” ultimately is, it’s more compelling than “Mandingo” because it’s also more explicitly concerned with presumed sexual promiscuity and deviancy. Ken Norton plays Drum, Ganymede’s 20 year-old son. Drum is predictably fated to not only follow in his father’s pugnacious footsteps, he also learns that there’s no way to enjoy the weird modicum of power that a favored slave is allowed. Warren Oates plays an older but not-much-wiser Hammond Maxwell, Drum’s master and probably the most sexually frank slave-owner in the film. For example, Hammond wants his daughter’s governess to be a prostitute so she herself doesn’t become a prostitute. Realistically, “Drum” is mostly just a strong variation on the themes that were previously sketched out in “Mandingo.” It has a stronger supporting cast, including Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto, and is certainly less unpleasant. But it’s ultimately more incoherent, albeit fitfully thoughtful.
How many have you seen? Thoughts? Weight in below.