When millions of people find themselves stymied by the idea of being the hero of their own life’s story, it is understandable if they might also have no concept of potentially being the hero of someone else’s. Most individuals, through the choices and actions they exercise, will get that first question answered while they’re alive. Many others, as so expansively fantasized in the 2004 David Mitchell book Cloud Atlas (and its equally daring 2012 film adaptation), may go to their graves unaware that one deed or moment in their time on earth could have impact decades, even centuries, later.
There is a particularly serendipitous and inspirational through-line of this caliber that makes such a trajectory from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 breakout western Django, through the film that boosted its profile beyond the oater demographic, Perry Henzell’s 1972 debut film The Harder They Come, and blossoming further in its most famous non-canonical offshoot, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained. All three films are enriched by the influence of real-world elements, and their observation and contribution to the very core of creating myth.
Myth is embedded into the very name of “Django.” It has long been cited as being a Romani term meaning, “I rise,” or “I awake,” and made world-famous by legendary musician Django Reinhardt, who was of a Romani family background, but whose Belgian birth certificate registered him as Jean Reinhardt. And some linguists have speculated his professional name may have been more about dialectical slang rather than direct intention, that among his friends Jean would be called “Django” the way that one might casually call their friend Edward “Ted” or Margaret “Peggy.” Guitarist Dennis Chang, who has conducted exhaustive research into Sinti history in general, and the differences in speaking and writing Romanes from one country to another in particular, presented his findings in 2015, and stated, “[Yes] there is a word for ‘I awake’ that is indeed ‘Django’ (keeping in mind that proper pronunciation is important), but does Django Reinhardt’s name really come from this word? Based on my research, the answer is inconclusive! The only one who probably really knew this was Django himself and his immediate family. Though, not necessarily his descendants, who might be influenced by modern Romanes, and/or who would only be too happy to associate their ancestor’s name with such a poetic provenance.”
“It’s finally time for me to cross that bridge. I’ve waited a lifetime… a lifetime to bury Django in this coffin. The gold will help me make him disappear forever.” – Django screenplay (Italian version)
Writer/director Sergio Corbucci had started his career as a journeyman in light comedy and drama, with the former cartoonist earning particular notice for his delvings into ancient myths of gods and strong mortals in two Steve Reeves peplum tales: Duel of the Titans in 1961, on the legend of Romulus and Remus, and The Slave in 1962, imagining Spartacus’ son leading his own slave uprising. Thus, when he stepped into his first western, shooting some scenes for the troubled 1963 Albert Band project Massacre at Grand Canyon, transitioning to the lore of the American West may have initially been just another practical trend-hopping excursion to keep working. His follow-ups Minnesota Clay with Cameron Mitchell and Johnny Oro with Mark Damon were still primarily taking cues from traditional American westerns, in telling boilerplate tales of revenge and greed, as well as the first wave of Italian ones spearheaded by Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, in creating heroes that were not so much virtuous as they were less willing to behave as ruthlessly as their antagonists. For the most part, like his sword-and-sandal adventures, traditions were upheld: treachery is punished, virtue is rewarded. But something about this genre clearly kicked Corbucci’s creativity to a greater level, as these early works displayed trace elements of his ability to put colorful details into the action, such as Johnny Oro’s literal golden pistol, or more strikingly, the macular degeneration endangering Minnesota Clay, leaving him practically blind in his climactic shootout.
It was the search to invent a similar sort of wart for an avenging hero that led to one of the most iconic choices in the history of modern westerns. Producer Manolo Bolognini had enlisted Corbucci to direct a Fistful of Dollars-esque project for him, on terms he found favorable enough to abandon completion of his previous film Johnny Oro, but was given very little time to create the story outline before going into production. With writing partner Piero Vivarelli, they conceived the story in reverse, first creating the finale, then contemplating an infirmity to overcome similar to the blindness in Minnesota Clay to make the finale memorable. As recounted by filmmaker and Spaghetti Western acolyte Alex Cox in an introduction for his BBC film program “Moviedrome” in 1993, when they hit upon the idea of the hero’s fingers being so broken as to be unable to normally operate a gun, Corbucci’s brother Bruno suggested naming their protagonist Django, paying homage to the aforementioned Django Reinhardt’s circumventing of his paralyzed fingers in playing guitar.
Django, released in most of the world in 1966, proved to be the significant pivot in Corbucci’s career. It is where he begins an ongoing indictment of the very toxicity of power that would continue through his later westerns. The title character played by Franco Nero is a scarred, weary veteran of the Civil War, whose arrival in a barren U.S./Mexico border town, funded only by prostitution, inflames an ongoing conflict between former Confederate leader Major Jackson and his Red Shirt terrorists against Mexican revolutionary General Hugo and his rebels. While Jackson’s Red Shirts are overtly evil, their first appearance presenting them attempting to kill Maria, a biracial prostitute, on a burning cross, Hugo’s collective soon reveal their own sadism, with the General forcing a turncoat reverend to eat his own ear, and his lieutenant Ricardo attempting to rape Maria after she and Django have helped them rob Jackson of his gold reserves. Here, Corbucci is not content to just present a hero caught between two corrupt factions, as in A Fistful of Dollars, he upends audience sympathies by taking the initially sympathetic Mexican contingent and demonstrating their eagerness to engage in the same inhumane acts as their sworn enemies as soon as they have the upper hand, and demonstrating that misogyny knows no single political affiliation. It is one of Hugo’s men who will smash Django’s hands in retaliation for attempting to make off with Jackson’s gold after Hugo refuses to give Django his share, only for the general and his entire crew to be massacred at the border by Jackson with the help of the very Federales Hugo had delusions of overthrowing. As Corbucci first envisioned in his brainstorming, Django will bring down Jackson at the end, but unlike most previous cowboy heroes to that point, there is no loot, no glory, no restoration of law and order to mark this victory; he has only enough luck to have Maria’s love and the clothes on his back as he leaves to an uncertain future.
While Corbucci may have usurped Django Reinhardt’s name for, as Alex Cox suggested, a sick joke, he nonetheless created a hero that bore spiritual kinship to his namesake. Reinhardt in his youth, living on the road in a series of encampments, had earned a reputation among his friends for being a good thief, obtaining food and other gear from unsuspecting quarry to sustain his itinerant living, though not pulling off a heist as grand as his fictional counterpart. Reinhardt likely embraced the nickname Django rather than his birth name of Jean in order to live off the grid, to not be traceable by the French government or be conscripted into the military, which the haunted soldier Django surely wished he could have done. And for a spell, much as Django flatters his former prison companion General Hugo while plotting to go off on his own, Reinhardt had managed to charm the occupying powers during WWII with his musical talent, keeping him safe from either being interned into forced labor by the French, or exterminated by the Nazis, while making two failed attempts to flee French territory. At the end of their respective stories, the real and the fantasy Django have survived, have arisen from the forces that tried to kill them, but will always be cognizant of the thousands of men just like them who did not.
Despite being banned in the UK until 1993, and not receiving any significant US release until 1972, Django was a worldwide hit with audiences, and elevated Corbucci’s auteur standing. From this point to 1974, all but one of the films he directed afterward were westerns, nearly all of them imbued with his unvarnished, unabashed left-wing politics. His best film of this period, The Great Silence from 1968, inspired by the murders of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, openly embraces the depression and nihilism of that moment, with a hero who begins the story already robbed of his voice, and an ending where the bad guys do more than win. Even in a light deviation like his 1967 spy thriller Moving Target, he suggests that after an individual literally saves the world by finding a microfilm and exposing a double agent, the so-called “good guys” will betray him and suppress his role in keeping the peace. Django, as a character and archetype, meanwhile, became a phenomenon. Due to lax copyright provisions in Italy, producers were able and ready to make their own unauthorized and non-canonical sequels; over 30 of them came to market. For years in Germany alone, many Franco Nero films of various genres and time settings had “Django” inserted into their titles in the belief it would increase audience interest.
Among the countries that enthusiastically received Django was Jamaica, as evidenced by many hit songs recorded in the wake of its release. As documented by writer Stephen Grasso in a 2013 essay for The Quietus, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry & The Upsetters released a single in 1968 called “Django Shoots First,” named from one of the first ersatz sequels, and then an entire album called The Return of Django in 1969. Concurrently that year, Prince Buster released a track called “Django Fever.” In a 2011 NPR story about the appeal of country/western culture in reggae music, Jamaican writer Colin Channer observed, “A lot of Westerns are essentially morality plays. And if you look at the way the church is so important in Jamaica, you can see how the way in which stories with moral themes, stories of revenge, stories of comeuppance would be popular there.” And perhaps, in the specific manner that Django the crafty guitar player, who despite dying in 1953, was still fresh in the minds of the Corbucci brothers, Django the cowboy struck a chord with Jamaicans still remembering a recently departed rebel of their own.
“I was here, but I disappear” – The Harder they Come screenplay
In 1938, 24 years before Jamaica obtained its independence from the British, newspapers in the then-colony began their coverage of someone they presented as a wild, unhinged criminal with a love of verbiage and a knack for eluding capture. He was born Vincent Martin in 1924, had used various aliases from popular culture such as “Alan Ladd,” but the two names that he was most known by were “Ivanhoe” and “Rhyging,” the latter a local colloquialism for “raging.” In the spring of 1948, he had escaped prison after serving two years, and as the press covered it, spent the summer eluding police, taunting the public, and embarking on an unprecedented spree of robbery, assault, and murder. Rhyging’s notoriety was cemented through letters he sent to police and papers, challenging their narrative about him, and through photographs published in The Daily Gleaner, images that had been believed to be commissioned by Rhyging himself, but as professor/historian Krista Thompson explored in a deep research piece for Art Journal in 2018, may well have been taken by a lucky amateur capturing him in an unaware moment. He was ultimately gunned down by police in what may have been an attempt to flee the country at Lime Cay on September 9, 1948; he was 24 years old. In contrast to the coverage he received in life, he was buried away from public view, his mugshot went missing from the Criminal Investigation Department, and over years of poor archiving, the newspaper photographs of him survived only in copies of copies so degraded as to barely make out his image. It was as if the British authorities still running Jamaica wanted him to be forgotten by the public.
Instead, Rhyging became Jamaica’s equivalent to Depression-era bank robbers in America, an outlaw hero whose crimes were framed as broadsides against the upper classes and their sycophants. Poems, plays, and songs were written about the prototypical “rude boy,” especially after 1962 when Jamaica became an independent Commonwealth realm. In the climactic days of his fugitive status, the authorities were overwhelmed with falsified sightings and messages from his fans, as well as decoys aware of his manner of dress showing up to complicate the pursuit. Much as the cinematic Django spurred dozens of imitators to fool moviegoers, it makes sense that the character was embraced in the country where there were previously dozens of Rhygings to fool the cops. Clive Ingram, a columnist for the journal Public Opinion, summed it up: “Martin’s success in evading the police is not wholly attributable to a lack of public knowledge of what he looks like…In breaking prison, in evading recapture for a long time, and in shooting his way to freedom through a police cordon when trapped; and then proceeding to wreak death upon those whom he thought to have been his betrayers; Martin did simply what his neighbours would like to do themselves. In their thinking it is the Law personified by the police that oppresses them, and [he] had outsmarted and out fought the law.” Rhyging’s legend just kept on rising.
Perry Henzell, a local ad executive and commercial director, was a teenager living on his family’s sugar plantation in Caymanas Estates when Rhyging’s story dominated the news – their compound was near a swamp where Rhyging hid out – and never forgot its impact. When he chose to transition to feature filmmaking in 1969, he specifically wanted to make an authentic Jamaican story after years of unrealistic depictions in American and British films, and many suggested a Rhyging-esque story would be ideal. He and writer Trevor D. Rhone came up with a modernized take on his saga, reimagining him as Ivanhoe Martin, an aspiring singer from farm country who comes to Kingston for a better life. To play “Ivan,” Henzell chose singer Jimmy Cliff, who had already drawn wide praise for his singles “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and “Vietnam;” Chris Blackwell, the founder of Cliff’s label Island Records, provided production funds for the otherwise friends-and-family backed project. Recounting the experience to Jeremy Sigler in 2001, he stated, “I set out to make a little action movie…I wanted a singer, of course. And Jimmy seemed like the most receptive person to direction…I wasn’t looking for actors, I was looking for people who carried a particular spirit. I wanted to cast somebody who knew more about the role than I did. Jimmy had come to Kingston as a youngster to make a career in music and had gone through the process…He wasn’t the [bad boy] type, but he certainly knew that life…I worked on the script for quite a long time. But I ran out of script and had to write some more. I kept running out of script and running out of money. By the end of the film I was shooting by myself – you know, a crew of one. As a matter of fact, the knife fight scene was shot in three different locations, 18 months apart, and half with a double for Jimmy.” Initially contemplating using one of his earlier albums Hard Road to Travel as a title, Henzell chose The Harder They Come, and Cliff wrote an original song to go with it, which became a central element of the story. After almost three years of shooting in fits and starts, the film was completed and released in 1972.
The case is made by The Harder They Come that just as Rhyging took cues from old movies and comic books, Ivan’s first thoughts of rogue behavior are stirred when he sees Django at a local cinema. Most likely, the director chose to use that film as the catalyst because it was cheaper to license than, say, a Clint Eastwood movie, but there are significant parallels that make the choice particularly ingenious. To begin with, neither film went into production with a completed script; sequences for both were often invented during shooting. Franco Nero was only 23 when he played Django, Jimmy Cliff would be 23 by the time Henzell finished shooting, and the real Rhyging died at 24. Django is an outlaw inspired by a musician; Ivan is a musician inspired to become an outlaw. Morality in the city is just as murky as a Corbucci border town as the people representing enterprise – pastors, record producers, cops – abuse him, and friends in similar straits as him casually betray him to save their skin. Django is high-hatted by his former friend Hugo, claiming he’ll get his gold share when the revolution is won, and Ivan is paid a paltry $20 by music mogul Hilton for his song, with empty promises of when he can profit. And Ivan is subject to corporal punishment for asserting himself, albeit in a less crippling manner than Django endured. Some meta-commentary even can be seen in that Django has a recurring non-diegetic ballad playing through its story, and Ivan’s “The Harder They Come” song becomes a radio hit after he becomes public enemy number one, meaning he is now effectively hearing and living inside his own theme tune. And in his last stand on the beach, as he fires at the officers, he imagines a cinema audience excitedly watching him on screen the same way he had watched Django, before he is quickly gunned down, with the closing credits playing over a dancehall girl gyrating to his song, keeping Ivan’s myth alive. The scenes of the cinema audience watching Ivan’s shootout also provide another meta-textual moment, sending an important message from Jamaica to the world: We do not need your second-hand heroes and myths, we will make our own now. Although ironically, for UK residents, the only way to see any footage of Django in their home country until 1993 would be from the clips featured therein.
The Harder They Come took almost as long to find a wide audience as it did to make it. It was a huge success in its home country; the director described its opening night saying, “There’s no excitement in a theater like people who are seeing themselves for the first time. And [this] was the first time that West Indians had ever seen themselves or their story on screen. The first night was like an explosion. There were thousands of people. You couldn’t see the end of the crowd surrounding this huge theater in the middle of Kingston. They beat the doors in, and when there were three people in every seat, we ran the film.” In other territories, drawing interest was more difficult, especially since despite everyone speaking English, the characters’ dialect and patois necessitated English subtitles. In England, Henzell initially had to release the film himself, single-handedly flyering the city during the winter to draw attention. In the U.S., Roger Corman’s New World Pictures picked up distribution in February 1973, but their first ad campaign, attempting to market it as an action movie in the vein of Shaft or Superfly, failed to draw interest and rankled Henzell with its misrepresentation. Nonetheless, in certain stateside markets, over time, the film earned a devoted following, playing for over seven years at the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and for over three years at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, California. By the late ‘70s, its soundtrack had become the gateway for millions to first discover reggae music, and the film was listed by critics/historians J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in their book (and later documentary film) Midnight Movies as one of the six most influential cult films of all time.
With the quantum leap of home video that marked the ‘80s, whether through legitimate or bootleg channels, the numbers that took in the fictional origin story of Ivan Martin expanded significantly, and to a lesser extent, so did the awareness of the fictional Django and the other westerns of Sergio Corbucci; it’s safe to say between its longtime ban in the U.K., and less-than-muscular circulation in America, more people saw Django excerpted in The Harder They Come than actually saw Django in its entirety, until the new millennium. But thanks to zine culture, where any determined film lover with a typewriter and a copy machine could start putting their essays into others’ hands, and the later explosion of the internet and self-publishing, the myths of Ivan, Django, and the real-life people who inspired them rose exponentially, inspiring multiple generations of new artists. Including one very important writer/director to emerge from the video store culture…
“Every single word that came out of Calvin Candie’s mouth was nothing but horseshit, but he was right about one thing: I am that [one] in ten thousand.” – Django Unchained screenplay
[I] was working on a piece on Sergio Corbucci — a big, big piece. He’s the guy who wrote and directed the original Django. And I was looking at all of his spaghetti Westerns, and I got really enamored with the West he created, because it seems to me that the really great Western directors had their own version of the West that they presented. And the thing that really started jumping out from Corbucci’s cinema was that there was no West that was as brutal as his — as the characters, the bad villains who ruled the story. No archetype can perform their function, except in contrast to the villain or in relationship to the villain. And the villains had a sense of depravity about them that was off the scale, and the other characters had such a pitiless nature, and life was cheap as hell. Violence was surreal. And it really did seem like in his cowboy pictures what he truly was dealing with was fascism — which makes sense, as Italy was getting out from under Mussolini’s boot heel not so long ago — just gussied up with cowboy-Mexican iconography. Even when his outlaws would take over a town or something, it had the feeling of a Nazi occupation, and with Holocaust-like suffering to the victims.
So I’m writing all this, and part of the thing that’s fun about subjective criticism is it doesn’t really matter what the director was thinking. It’s about you making your point. So at some point I was like, I don’t really know what Sergio Corbucci was thinking at the time, but I know I’m thinking it now, and I can do it. And with that in mind, this violent, pitiless Corbucci West: What would be the American equivalent of that — that really would be real — that would be an American story? It was being a slave in the antebellum South. – Quentin Tarantino, interviewed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. for The Root, 2012
In the previous six films that Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed from 1992 onward, all of them involve characters who draw upon and openly refer to figures of popular culture, and involve one or more particular characters, shared stories of whom may not match the actual truth of their lives, who have earned an elevated stature among the others because of those tales. Reservoir Dogs has Big Joe Cabot, the crime boss that’s always avoided jail. In Pulp Fiction, both Marsellus Wallace and Winston Wolf loom large when their names are spoken. Ordell Robbie spends much time bragging about his cunning in Jackie Brown, seeding his local reputation. Kill Bill is effectively a violent bedtime story about the clash of two great warriors over their child. Death Proof again offers a villain in Stuntman Mike who creates his own scary campfire tale, fancying himself and his vehicle as an indestructible marauder of helpless women.
Most piercingly, in Inglourious Basterds, the titular squadron are clearly known by every Nazi officer, even Hitler himself, who refers to Donny Donowicz as a “golem,” yet it’s only a select few rank-and-file who have actually seen them and lived to tell about it, with the swastika scars and their unverified testimony to build their awareness. Similarly, ultra-confident Col. Hans Landa, who has been the subject of awe among the German military (which he happily self-promotes), practically creates a myth of his own when, amidst assassinating the Dreyfus family, allows daughter Shoshanna to escape – one could imagine a deleted scene where Landa tells a rapt audience about “the Jewess that got away” – and inadvertently facilitates her ability to destroy the Nazi brain trust years later. With this film, Tarantino starts demonstrating the creation process of mythic characters, and how those myths drive the behavior of others; there is reasonable convergence of Jamaican street punks being warned not to snitch on a friend lest Rhyging’s ghost come after them, and many S.S. officers being kept awake by wondering when and how the Basterds, especially that Bear Jew and his bat, will find them. More importantly, he expands on that idea to suggest that even if something or someone does not exist in the manner that has been professed, the belief in that lore can still change what would seem to be an otherwise ironclad fate.
In a 2012 profile by Karina Longworth, the subject directly exploring mythic characters and their potential to impact reality began percolating in Tarantino’s mind when he was plotting his script for Death Proof, wanting to delve into a Rudy Ray Moore-style figure of street poetry named “Jody the Grinder,” a wrongly-hanged man whom the Devil himself expunges from Hell. While he abandoned this character for the film, he provided a hint to this inspiration in featuring Pacific Gas & Electric’s song, “Staggolee”, a variation on another long-traded folk legend that was based on a real-life figure: Lee Shelton, aka “Stagger Lee,” the Missouri gambler who shot and killed his friend Billy Lyons over a Stetson hat in 1895; like many songs based on Lee, P.G. & E.’s rendition proclaims that like Jody, he was capable of bringing even Satan to heel. Longworth elaborates:
[His] interest in that kind of “uber-masculine black male figure of folklore” carried over into the character of Django. Tarantino saw him as a kind of black Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, whose adventures would have been disseminated (and exaggerated) through “spoken history passed down by slaves, about this one guy, throughout the course of time.”
So Django Unchained became a superhero origin story, explaining how “the sixth slave from the seventh on a chain-gang line” becomes a free man legally employed to “kill white people and get paid for it,” grows into the “fastest gun in the South,” rescues his wife from bondage and ultimately evolves into a kind of angel of vengeance, wiping out anyone and everyone — white, black, male, female — who endorses, enforces, enables and/or is economically enriched by the institution of slavery.
Django Unchained easily delivers upon the aspiration to create an American version of the brutal poisonous Corbucci west. Not long after bounty hunter King Schultz liberates Django from his chain gang, the very first town they visit is supervised by a sheriff that is a wanted criminal, a revelation made only after Schultz shoots the sheriff down in cold blood. When Django demonstrates his own aptitude for snipery, Schultz assigns him to kill a fugitive who appears to have gone straight; any possibility of contrition is moot against a longstanding “Wanted: dead or alive” edict. In order to facilitate their plan to retrieve his wife Broomhilda from the Candyland plantation, he must assume the persona of a slave tracker, certainly the most traitorous occupation a black man could ever perform. During their visit to the plantation, they are made to bear witness to a captured runaway torn apart by dogs, a horror that Django, by his own life experience, is capable of holding a poker face to but which irrevocably changes Schultz. And the most dangerous enemy the two of them encounter is not Candyland’s banal and foppish fourth-generation owner Calvin Candie, but his lifelong house slave Stephen, who’s willing and keen to betray and send others to their death to protect his own comfortable station. There’s even a cameo by Franco Nero, not playing a rival Django, but a slave trader named “Amerigo Vessepi;” the aural allusion to Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci is somewhat obvious, but also consider that “vessepi” is a plural term for “vessel” in medical writing, thus presenting Nero’s cameo as literally an American conduit, perhaps metatextually for Corbucci’s previous storytelling or Tarantino’s specific saga, but on the character’s own brief terms, a foreign mercenary looking the other way at a genocide in order to make a dollar.
For all the spiritual ties Django Unchained maintains to Corbucci and his original Django, there are also potent spiritual ties it possesses to The Harder They Come; as Tarantino states in one of the quoted interviews, in subjective criticism such as this it doesn’t matter what the director was thinking, it’s about making a point. On a surface level, both Harder and Unchained tell a story of an abused black rebel who achieves folk hero status, and Jimmy Cliff and Jamie Foxx were both successful musical artists before playing these rebels. In the aforementioned Quietus article by Stephen Grasso, the writer observes, “In [one] sequence, Jimmy Cliff’s rude boy protagonist goes to the cinema and watches the original Corbucci Django film on the big screen. It is the segment where Franco Nero’s Django is cornered and hopelessly outgunned by a racist, red mask-wearing clan of outlaws – an obvious allusion to the Ku Klux Klan. At the last moment, Django flips open the coffin he has been dragging around throughout the film and produces a Gatling gun which he uses to spectacularly dispatch his aggressors. The inclusion of the footage both foreshadows the shootout at the climax of The Harder They Come, and seems to suggests something about the systemic racism and economic oppression faced by the character, and his gravitation towards gun violence as a means to overcome his situation. A theme extended to its natural conclusion in Django Unchained.” This can easily apply to either the attempted siege of Schultz’s dental wagon by the irritable pre-KKK “bag head” brigade after his and Django’s successful collection of the Brittle brothers from “Big Daddy” Bennett’s plantation, or Django’s one-man destruction of Candyland at the finale.
An even more forceful parallel, more so to the real Rhyging than to Harder’s Ivanhoe Martin, can be seen in the tense interval when an imprisoned Django is taunted by Stephen, who tells him, “henceforth till the day you die, all day, every day, you will be swingin’ a sledgehammer, turnin’ big rocks into little rocks. Now when ya get there, they gonna take away your name, gi’ya a number and a sledgehammer and say, ‘Get to work!’ One word of sass, they cuts out your tongue…They gonna work ya, all day every day, till your back give out. Then they gonna hitcha in the head with a hammer, and throw your ass down the [hole], and that will be the story of you, Django!” This chilling monologue is certainly the same level of vehemence and dismissal the British-crown-backed police hurled at Rhyging, believing that they could eradicate his inconvenient crime wave from Jamaican memory once he was apprehended and/or dead.
Where Unchained makes a pointed deviation from its predecessors is the manner in which it sees off the hero. At story’s end, Django has done the grand gesture that will be spoken of in awe for generations to come, in the manner that the previous Django faced off against Major Jackson or Ivan defied the police, and like both of those endings, a closing song serenades the audience to drive home that their legend is bonded. However, this hero is not just allowed to survive, unlike the vanquished Ivan, or walk off with the girl but penniless and infirm, as his original antecedent, but to leave fully triumphant, with his love, his bounty, and a long healthy (if dangerous) life ahead of him. Even the song choice bears this out – it is not Rocky Roberts’ mournful “Django” ballad or Jimmy Cliff’s melancholy “The Harder They Come,” but the upbeat anthem “Trinity” by David King, which had been the theme song to Enzo Barboni’s 1970 comedy western They Call Me Trinity with Terence Hill, and had been presented in that film over scenes of its titular hero in repose rather than in attack preparation. Interestingly, lyrics to both “Trinity” and “Django” were written by Franco Micalizzi. Tarantino’s break with Corbucci’s fatalism declares that while this hero may not full-on prevent the Civil War from happening as some critics have interpreted the ending to suggest, his success here means that he, and many others in thrall to what he represents, may well alter how that battle for America’s soul will unfold. A new history can arise.
[My goal] was more about evoking the West that Sergio Corbucci constantly dealt with in his movies as opposed to Django movies and all the Django rip-offs and knock offs which I’m proud to say I am now one of. This movie fits very nicely in the line of Django rip-offs that have nothing to do with the original movie. – Quentin Tarantino interview with That Shelf, 2012
“You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”
“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence screenplay
Django Reinhardt was certainly aware he had a fanbase during his short life, but he would have not foreseen that decades long after his departure, his professional nickname would go on to become synonymous with not only extra-dextrous artistic expression, but also the pursuit of personal and social justice, and that scholars would continue to wonder whether he wanted to send a message with that nickname or just to enjoy a special endearment as his calling card. Vincent Martin was certainly seeking a level of infamy in his even shorter life, was able to see his nicknames become the talk of the press in his prime, and maybe fantasized that like the American and English pulp characters he lifted aliases from, his stories would continue on, but even he would not have foreseen how his spree of aggrandizement would inspire one of the most enduring fusions of filmmaking, music, and Jamaican culture, or that it would resonate worldwide, decades long after his departure. And while both Sergio Corbucci and Perry Henzell were able to reap years of rewards from the enduring films they made inspired by the persons who preceded them, even they would not likely have forseen that one day, another filmmaker long imprinted by their creations was going to build upon the templates they established, and dream larger.
And for all that anyone who creates in this time and place can fathom, who knows what and how a future artist will expand even more upon today’s fantasy, and rise up further?