Photography: BRC/Tesica/The Kobal Collection
Photography: BRC/Tesica/The Kobal Collection

Before Django was unchained, we had the influential spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci.

It’s the sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment designed to delight movie buffs in general, and western devotees in particular, who know the story behind the story.

At one point in Django Unchained, his uninhibited homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and early ’70s, writer-director Quentin Tarantino offers a scene that has the title character, a slave turned bounty hunter played by Jamie Foxx, bellying up to a bar and conversing with a stranger. “What’s your name?” the stranger warily inquires. Django dutifully identifies himself, even spells his name and helpfully explains: “The ‘d’ is silent.”

If you can’t understand why some people seated around you in the theater are guffawing at this exchange, here’s the reason: The inquisitive stranger is played by none other than Franco Nero, the cult-fave Italian actor who, back in 1966, essayed the title role in Django, the legendarily violent and enduringly popular flick often cited by fans as one of the very best spaghetti westerns released during the heyday of the genre.

Django Unchained is by no means a remake of the ’66 feature, which was arguably the greatest achievement of the late Sergio Corbucci, a journeyman Italian filmmaker best remembered for his stylized Wild West shoot’em-ups (among his other credits: Navajo Joe, a bloody 1966 revenge saga starring Burt Reynolds as a taciturn warrior on the trail of savage scalp hunters; and The Great Silence, a startlingly nihilistic 1968 western that ends with the mute hero, a gunslinger played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, unceremoniously gunned down by the bad guys). But Tarantino has proudly proclaimed that his film is intended in part as a respectful tribute to Corbucci, a director whose influence he frequently has acknowledged.

“Corbucci’s heroes can’t really be called heroes,” Tarantino told The New York Times. “In another director’s western, they would be the bad guys. ... [H]is West was the most violent, surreal, and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre.”

Indeed, Corbucci’s Django was banned from exhibition in Great Britain for nearly three decades, partly due to an explicit scene — one that Tarantino subsequently referenced in his own Reservoir Dogs (1992) — in which the chief villain slices off the ear of a priest who has displeased him. Elsewhere in the movie, some callous varmints pass the time by forcing frightened Mexicans to frantically run, one at a time, toward a far-off horizon, so they can be used for target practice. Any resemblance between this violent episode and the scene in which the Nazi colonel whimsically opts not to hit his human target in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) probably isn’t coincidental.

Nero’s Django is a former Union soldier who’s still wearing his military uniform — and inexplicably dragging a large coffin — when the audience first sees him wandering through a wilderness somewhere near the Mexican border. (The movie, like many other spaghetti westerns of the period, was shot on location in Spain and Italy.) During the opening minutes, he impressively demonstrates his gunslinging prowess by dispatching several vicious thugs who have horsewhipped a prostitute. The body count mounts when Django reveals what he has stashed in that coffin: a Gatling gun that allows him to even the odds in his favor when he tangles with an army of outlaws led by the rabidly racist Maj. Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo).

The plot of Django — which bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the 1964 classic credited with kicking off the spaghetti western craze — has something to do with Django’s temporary alliance with bandits to steal gold from a Mexican army fort, and something else to do with Maj. Jackson’s campaign to eradicate Mexicans with the help of flunkies wearing red hoods. (In Django Unchained, the flunkies, including Klansman-style Regulator Jonah Hill, prefer white hoods.) But, really, the scenario is just an excuse to have Django be a subzero-cool badass while killing as many bad guys as possible.

Django was such an enormous box office hit that it spawned about 30 unauthorized “sequels” that had nothing to do with Corbucci’s film. A few of these spinoffs, recalling Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and other all-star monster mashes of the 1940s, team Django — or some unreasonable facsimile thereof — with variations of Sartana, a popular antihero introduced in 1968’s If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death.

Nero reprised his Django character in the only legitimate sequel, a 1987 reboot known variously as Django 2: il grande ritorno and Django Strikes Again. And now Nero is back in the saddle — if not in the Wild West, then in the antebellum South — for Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

The new film, Tarantino says, does more than simply borrow the name of a spaghetti western icon and employ plot conventions from the genre. Like the original Django — and even more like Corbucci’s Navajo Joe, with its Native American hero in conflict with white outlaws who scalp Indians — Tarantino’s movie focuses on a protagonist battling bad guys who are all the worse for being sadistic racists.

Tarantino told The New York Times that, while preparing to write Django Unchained, “I thought the closest equivalent to Corbucci’s brutal landscapes would be the antebellum South. When you learn of the rules and practices of slavery, it was as violent as anything I could do — and absurd and bizarre. You can’t believe it’s happening, which is the nature of true surrealism.”

With, in this case, the flavor of a spaghetti western.

From the January 2013 issue.