Spaghetti Westerns have been defined by Sergio Leone's 60s output which focused on demystifying the American west while paying tribute to the films that inspired him as a youth - but while A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was the match strike for the genre, it wasn't the only film that captured international imaginations. Perhaps equally as influential, at least for the Italian film industry which went on to create dozens of unofficial sequels, was Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) which is filled with iconic imagery and features an enduring performance from Franco Nero in the titular lead. While lacking Leone's stylistic close-ups (for the most part), Corbucci brings his own style to a surprisingly filthy (with mud) and brutal take on the "man with no name" antihero.
A civil war veteran with a mysterious past, Django wanders into a mud-soaked, isolated border town dragging a coffin behind himself. Stopping into a near-deserted bar/brothel, he discovers a local war between mexican bandits and former confederate officer racists - led by the steely Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) - who clothe themselves with red scarves and KKK-like masks. After rescuing an escaped prostitute (Loredana Nusciak) who finds herself at odds with both groups, Django reveals a past with the Mexican general as well as the contents of his coffin: a machine gun with which he slaughters nearly all of Jackson's men. The two conspire to rob a nearby Mexican army fort to fund the bandits return to Mexico, and to help Django start a new life away from bloodshed - though things don't exactly work out as planned.
Far away from the pristine landscapes of the classic American westerns, Django takes place in one of the filthiest western towns imaginable, and the character of Django himself - who proves to be far more complex than his initial appearance suggests - starts out dirty and gets progressively moreso as the film progresses. This is a film that literally wallows in mud, and is all the better because of its embracing of this unique and hellish landscape. Corbucci lingers on the lone figure of Django from afar as he drags his coffin through the mud, to the point where he seems iconic before he's said a word. His first interaction with characters - watching the Mexican bandits whip Nusciak's Maria before then killing a group of Jackson's men who intend to murder her - show him to be quiet and brutal, while Nero's trademark blue eyes tell a different tale.
While notable at the time for its gruesome violence - this is still a couple of years before Sam Peckinpah re-wrote the rules with The Wild Bunch - it's Gatling gun massacres are fairly tame compared to the climax of that later film. Generally it's just characters clutching their chest and falling, with occasionally a spot of bright-red blood to accentuate things. However, a few scenes: the Mexican banditos severing the ear of one of Jackson's men and feeding it to him, Django's fate at the hands of the bandits, as well as the sheer body count, led to the film existing in numerous cut and truncated forms.
Corbucci never received the respect that Italian directors like Leone got, but his later output - particularly The Great Silence (1969) - shows an intelligence and eye for detail that raises his work above many of his contemporaries. Franco Nero has continued to have an eclectic and consistent career, appearing in a number of other westerns before managing to break into the U.S. as Lancelot in Joshua Logan's Camelot (1967). Since then he's worked internationally, as well as making appearances in U.S. films like Force 10 from Navarone (1978) and Die Hard 2 (1990). Notably, second-unit director Ruggero Deodato went on to have a notable career in his own right, particularly in exploitation films like the legendary Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
As is per usual in Italian cinema, the resounding success of Django led to dozens of rip-off, tributes and copies, often featuring the Django name in the title. Some of these are actually quite good, like Django, Kill! (If You Live Shoot!) (1967), but most are only tangentially related to the film if at all. I've yet to see the only official sequel Django 2: il grande ritorno (1987), which is the only film to return Nero to the role which made him famous.
Not quite reaching the artistic and stylistic heights of Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, Django remains a tightly plotted and violent piece of pulp cinema. The grim spectre of death which seems to lurk outside every frame, represented by the coffin which the film revolves around, can also be seen in later westerns like Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), while echoes and references can be seen in many facets of pop culture - from the notable ear-slicing scene in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) to Takeshi Miike's bizarre tribute (also featuring Tarantino) Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). A great piece of genre entertainment, and a terrific entering point for those interested in Spaghetti Westerns.