Django il bastardo – 1969 / Director: Sergio Garrone

Once upon a time in the West, before swapping his spurs for swastikas, Sergio Garrone, like most working Italian filmmakers of that period, directed a string of spaghetti. Although better known for his contributions to the dodgy cycle of Italian Nazisploitation of the 70s, Garrone’s efforts elsewhere are surprisingly able, though overlooked films that reveal substantially more to his oeuvre than the tacky exploitative pieces to which he attached his name  later on down the line . The film in question here, The Strangers Gundown  AKA Django il bastardo,  is a part of the inevitable Django cash in that followed in the wake of Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic and while it’s forgivable to assume that there’s nothing new here it is in fact a curious and welcome addition to the cycle that offers more than one might initially assume…

An avenging gunman (Anthony Steffen) seemingly returns from the grave to settle an old score with the traitorous Confederate officers who allowed his entire regiment to be slaughtered during a Civil War battle.

From the film’s opening shot -  a small dripping puddle in murky quagmire, Django il bastardo takes  it’s cue from the visual coda of Corbucci’s picture, planting  itself in the gloopy mud of a rotting frontier town, filled with cursing whores and coloured in rain soaked ochre.  The film makes explicit reference to it’s forefather but in fact, Sergio Garrone’s visual proposition is Django il bastardo’s best asset. Steffen is frequently found framed within a frame; be it the hole of an upturned barrel, the spokes of a carriage wheel or the slats of a beaten up fence. In shooting his protagonist in this way, the suggestion is that Django is being watched, observed by an unknown spectator or trapped within a landscape from which he is not yet ready to leave. Characters are frequently trapped behind objects which obscure their perception of what is happening – filthy windows,  hazy double vision and doors to which they cannot pass but can gather what is happening behind. All emphasise the uncertainty of what is real and what is perceived to be real. If this is not Django’s purgatory, no-one, not least we as the audience can be sure…

Made in the most violent year of the Vietnam War, it is easy to read Django… as a very european criticism of American colonialism gone mad. The cynical telling of military double dealing and betrayal is almost too transparent, but thankfully, Garrone’s interests lie within the Western revenge realm and avoid any true temptation to make an overt political statement.

As with Antonio Margheriti’s marvellous  And God Said to CainDjango il bastardo sits nicely within the Gothic Western sub cycle of the genre and is as well read as a ghost story as it is a western revenge movie. At the beginning of the film, the town’s bartender mutters “What the Devil?” and he means it. This question; Whether Django is a vengeful spirit or simply mortal flesh, is crucial in shaping the film’s tone and narrative. Steffen himself alludes to the former when prompted though the director, ultimately, opts to leave the answer open to interpretation.  Regardless, the heavy symbolism of crucifixion, the Hammer Horror sets and expressive use of lighting, differentiate the movie from other, straightforward  western romps and further embed an otherworldly, haunted environment as Spaghetti icon Clint Eastwood would choose to explore in the seminal American production, High Plains Drifter.

Anthony Steffen (who co-wrote the screenplay with Garrone) is flat footed and as wooden as the grave headers he carries – though his semblance to Franco Nero is passable, his portrayal is decidedly two dimensional and it is testament to the look and feel of Django il bastardo that this doesn’t actually do much to detract from the film. Instead, it is Luciano Rossi, as the vampiric Aryan brother of  Rod Murdok, who steals the show with his performance – one which lends wicked pantomime to proceedings. When he injures Django towards the end of the film, he wanders around town deploring on the townsfolk to witness his blood stained hands as evidence that the phantom is a mortal being “see?” he beseeches “he bleeds! Look! this is his blood, I hit him, he’s injured, he’s no ghost!”…

il bastardo… is a film at odds with itself. With it’s dour setting,  production values that yo, yo between the baroque and purely functional driven by economic austerity, it cannot avoid definition as second tier spaghetti, despite this, there is much to admire here. It’s no good as entry level for newcomers to the Italian Western, but  this is a criminally underplayed and genuine classic Western that brings more to the genre than people might initially give it credit for…