How To Do It: Django Unchained


(How to Do It’s primary objective is to create serious discussion on how to adapt various properties to the silver screen. It is not about a dream cast for a Great Lakes Avengers television show. But seriously, Ellie Kemper IS Squirrel Girl.)

You might have guessed by now that I’m a big fan of Sergio Corbucci’s Django. Maybe it was my Cult Club article which tipped you off. Or my ecstatic reaction to the news that Quentin Tarantino’s next film will be Django Unchained. Needless to say, the idea that one of my favourite directors is about to start shooting a film inspired by one of the all-time great Spaghetti Westerns has got me thinking about what I’d like to see in a new Django.

We know from a plot summary released earlier this week that Unchained is going to have a similar relationship with Corbucci’s 1966 film as Inglourious Basterds had with Enzo Castellari’s Bastards: neither a remake nor sequel, but heavily influenced by the original. Read on for what we know about Django Unchained so far, and my speculation as to how it could all turn out.

The plot summary for Unchained has been described on Indiewire as follows: ‘Django is a freed slave, who, under the tutelage of a German bounty hunter (played by Christoph Waltz, the evil Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds) becomes a bad-ass bounty hunter himself, and after assisting Waltz in taking down some bad guys for profit, is helped by Waltz in tracking down his slave wife and liberating her from an evil plantation owner. And that doesn’t even half begin to cover it! This film deals with racism as I’ve rarely seen it handled in a Hollywood film. While it’s 100 percent pure popcorn and revenge flick, it is pure genius in the way it takes on the evil slave owning south. Think of what he did with the Nazis in Inglourious and you’ll get a sense of what he’s doing with slave owners and slave overseers in this one.’

We’ll assume that summary is broadly accurate. Already there are a number of parallels which can be drawn with Corbucci’s original. The first is the racial themes: unlike Leone’s Westerns, Corbucci’s Django is heavily politicised and places a strong emphasis on a socialist representation of the poor being exploited by the powerful. One of the gangs in his film even dresses in much the same way as the KKK. The second parallel is the wife. In a film where morality is a matter of who shoots first and the rival gangs at the centre of the plot regularly torture people – one such scene inspiring the famous ear-cutting in Reservoir Dogs – women are treated, by Django at least, with a little more respect than in most Italian Westerns. Django’s motivation in the story is to avenge his wife’s death, and his (partial) redemption comes through a rescued prostituted named María.

If race is to be as big a part of this film as appears likely, it is also possible that Tarantino will be drawing inspiration from Elmore Leonard’s 1972 Western Forty Lashes Less One, which he owns the rights to. That novel has a black man and an Apache striking an agreement to be given a stay of execution if they can track down and kill five outlaws. Are you seeing the same patterns emerging here as I am?

Tarantino has called Django Unchained his ‘Southern’, which almost certainly means it will take place during or in the aftermath of the Civil War. If I were to bring all the familiar elements between Unchained and its inspirations together, my guess is that we’ll be looking at something like this…

It is nearing the end of the Civil War. The Union is advancing and only a handful of Confederate strongholds remain. Locked away in one of their prisons is Django, a slave sentenced to death for trying to kill his owner, who took away his wife for himself. While awaiting execution, he meets a bounty hunter condemned to the same fate. During a Union attack, the prison is taken with Django and the bounty hunter’s help. However, five generals escape capture, one of them being Django’s former owner. Django vows to go after him, and the bounty hunter agrees to help in exchange for the bounties placed on each man’s head. Django smuggles some Confederate weapons out of the Fort in the coffin he was once destined to lie in. He drags it behind him with the intention of one day burying his former owner in, once his wife has been rescued.

Being a Brit, and as you’ve probably noticed from the ‘plot summary’ above whose historical details are mostly pieced together from other Westerns and quick scans of Wikipedia, my knowledge of the American Civil War is not what you’d call extensive. However, if Tarantino is to take the same approach to Unchained as he did with Inglourious Basterds, I don’t expect that it will be too much of a problem. Is it possible that we’ll see Django gun down Robert Lee and Braxton Bragg in the same way that Donny Donowitz enacted some historical revisionism on Hitler’s face?

The challenge for Tarantino, should be choose to set his film during this era, will be in balancing the changing face of America at the end of the Civil War with the exploitation elements that accompany this kind of revenge flick. It worked in Inglourious Basterds because that film’s themes had relatively little to do with the Nazis per se, as much as cinema’s ability to rewrite history to how we’d rather see it. (No coincidence that the Germans were watching propaganda during the Basterds’ attack. And dare I at this point bring up Hollywood’s most egregious example of Americanising history in U-571?). If racism is to be the dominant theme here – and in recent years Tarantino’s writing has become increasingly sophisticated at working around certain themes – the danger will be that by revising history too heavily, he risks losing the impact of his setting.

The other big question will be who should be cast in the lead role. There aren’t many contenders among Tarantino’s regular crop of actors. Sam Jackson is the obvious choice should Django be an older character, which could be interesting as parallel for the transition between the old slave-trading America and the new land of the free (a nuance that Sergio Leone pulled off to moving effect with Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Gabriele Ferzetti in Once Upon A Time In The West, and Clint Eastwood repeated in Unforgiven), but even then Jackson may be a little too old if we imagine that any film called Django really ought to have a coffin being dragged at some point. For a younger character, Ving Rhames’ enormous frame might tip the film into self-parody.

For outside contenders, Michael Clarke Duncan might have the same problem, whilst Chiwetel Ejiofor, a wonderful actor, might not be intimidating enough. A good choice could be Michael Jai White, who has a powerful physique without being overly built and would satisfy Tarantino’s affection for comic actors without compromising on acting ability. As we know from the glorious Black Dynamite, White is a fan of blaxploitation, which would not only chime well with the director of Jackie Brown, but also means he’d have a handle on the exploitation elements to Django‘s tone. For all White’s talent though, my first choice would have to be Idris Elba. We know he can do accents from his stints on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, and he’s a top range actor who could sell the nuances of the role while staying credible as the lead in a revenge flick.

With all that said and done though, all I’ll need from this film to be the world’s happiest geek is a revenge story and a man called Django wielding a gattling gun – or maybe a chaingun this time, to the give the title some extra oomph? Tell Tarantino I’ll be waiting in the cinema.