On the surface, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is nothing more than a bloody revisionist Western. As always with Tarantino, however, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface that connects the movie to its precedents in film history as well as Tarantino’s own unique career. While some viewers may want to go into this one cold, others may want more context in order to sift through yet another dense text from the master of cinematic homage.
Here are 10 items to help demystify “Django Unchained.” If you know your stuff, feel free to share more nuggets of trivia in the comments.
Warning: this article contains mild spoilers.
The original “Django” isn’t the only spaghetti Western referenced here. That 1966 movie is only one of several off-kilter examples of the genre directed by Sergio Corbucci; according to this article about Corbucci’s films that Tarantino wrote for The New York Times, the filmmaker was also a fan of Corbucci’s far more serious “The Great Silence,” from 1968. Unlike the dusty landscapes that populate most Westerns, “The Great Silence” takes place in the wake of a blizzard that swept Utah in 1899, and so a blindingly white backdrop populates most scenes. In tribute, during a montage sequence in “Django Unchained” where the titular freed slave and bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) spend several months teaming up to take down various wanted men, they’re seen riding around in a wintery setting.
Christoph Waltz is Tarantino’s Klaus Kinski. The late German actor Kinski starred in a number of spaghetti Westerns, including “The Great Silence,” which makes the presence of a German bounty hunter in the Old West of “Django Unchained” less random than it would otherwise seem.
Not every Corbucci reference is so overt. The movie is littered with Easter eggs acknowledging the filmmaker’s oeuvre, some of which are extremely subtle. The saloon that Django and Dr. King visit in the first town they ride into is titled “Minnesota Clay,” the name of a 1966 Corbucci Western starring Cameron Mitchell in the title role.
Mandingo fighting isn’t a real thing, but it is a real film. When Django and Dr. King go to the Candyland ranch, they pretend to be experts in Mandingo fighting, which in Tarantino’s world is a bloody sport. In fact, the word refers to Richard Fleisher’s 1975 film about a plantation that trains slaves to fight each other.
Still, if you see one movie to prepare for “Django Unchained,” make it the original “Django.” The opening song (below) that plays over the credits for “Django Unchained” is directly lifted from Corbucci’s “Django,” which opens with the eponymous gunslinger dragging a coffin into town (blink and you’ll miss another “Django” reference with the appearance of a coffin near the end of the movie). Even the typeface of the credits for “Django Unchained” culls from the original “Django.” Finally, “Django” superstar Franco Nero shows up in a memorable cameo during the first scene at the Candyland plantation (when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character makes his initial appearance). It’s not much of a performance, but he does get to blatantly acknowledge his persona in an amusing exchange with Jamie Foxx.
Django and Broomhilda are the great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft. Or something like that. In another scene that acknowledges the movie’s ridiculous premise, Dr. King learns that Django’s wife is a German-speaker named Broomhilda von Shaft, otherwise known as Hildi and played by Kerry Washington. This is a direct reference to “Shaft,” the seminal blaxploitation movie. Just as that movie and others like it empowered black characters in the action genre, so too “Django Unchained” does it with Western motifs.
What’s with DiCaprio’s skull speech? Near the end of the movie, DiCaprio’s racist plantation owner Calvin Candie delivers a prolonged monologue in which he slices open a skull and delineates certain physical properties as exclusive to black people. According to Tarantino, this speech was DiCaprio’s idea, but he didn’t come up with it from scratch: The character’s description draws on a racist form of false science known as phrenology. According to interviews, DiCaprio gave a book about phrenology to Tarantino as a means of fleshing out the character’s ideology.
Tarantino shows up toward the end of the movie… as an Australian. You might be so focused on the director’s cameo that you don’t notice his Australian accent, which he uses in his brief role as one of three slave-trading Aussies whom Django encounters near the end of his adventure. Since Dr. King’s character already made this an international affair, it’s not so strange to see these other countries get some play. But why Australia? Tarantino has spoken recently about interest in shooting an upcoming project there, and since his movies tend to reflect his restless inspiration, this short bit may point to the director’s next move.
Why didn’t Jonah Hill have a bigger role? Originally, Tarantino intended to cast Hill in a bigger part, but the actor had to drop out due to scheduling that required him to appear in “The Watch” (one of the biggest duds of the year — so Hill’s probably kicking himself for that). Since he couldn’t commit to a longer production period, Hill surfaces during the funniest scene in “Django,” as a goofy member of the Ku Klux Klan unable to fit his mask right (Tarantino also cameos here).
Franco Nero isn’t the only spaghetti Western hero with a cameo. Well, not really, if you look beyond the people in front of the camera. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone (who scored Corbucci’s films as well as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) co-wrote a new, solemn melody with vocals performed by singer Elisa entitled “Ancora Qui.” Listen to it below.