I recently went to see Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). Twice. I enjoyed it that much. In seeing this film, I couldn’t help thinking about the western genre and my attraction to this film genre over the years.
As a youth I was introduced to and enjoyed classic film, and this included westerns. I recall John Wayne films being amongst the first. I was specifically drawn to those directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks. All those iconic frames in striking contrast of shadows and light and profiles in doorways, across deserts and in canyons… especially all those gorgeous landscape scenes of Monument Valley. And spaghetti westerns- oh how I loved those raw yet exquisitely stylish Sergio Leone films. It made me feel like I was at home, somehow. I guess my rustic childhood and the fragrant scent of sagebrush in Taos, New Mexico influenced me in this way. But what also influenced me from my impoverished yet beautiful southwestern roots experience was a passion for social justice.
There are some key essentials that makes a western a western. 1. Right triumphs over wrong. 2. The protagonist hero has an unwavering thirst for justice by any means and 3. the style and background is always unfettered and beautifully rustic; be it “wild old west”, southwest, or otherwise. My childhood was the perfect prep course for appreciating westerns. And DJANGO UNCHAINED hits all these marks and then some.
With DJANGO UNCHAINED, Quentin Tarantino tackles the obvious moral cancer of slavery. Westerns need the elemental theme of right vs. wrong in the most simple, clear-cut and back-and-white sense. Slavery of African Americans in early American history is the perfect fit for this yet somehow so many westerns of past have failed to tackle this well-suited topic. The issue of slavery rivals few others in social justice historical struggles (other than say, Hitler’s Holocaust as depicted in INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (2009) or the near genocide of American Indians, although that reality of the true enemy was often turn-table flipped around on film).
Jamie Fox’s Django as the lead protagonist plays the perfect crusader against social injustice. He is believable, bigger-than-life forceful, and empathetic. But this film takes a new twist in adding a supporting sidekick role that parallels, if not supersedes, our protagonist hero role in Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz. Waltz’s Dr. Schultz is loyal, clever and profoundly moral. There are so many extraordinary performances in this film (Jamie Fox, Leo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson…) and Waltz is at the top of the heap. Django and Dr. Schultz make a force-of-nature team in battling the moral injustices of their time via sharp-shooting and battling wits in a violent world.
DJANGO UNCHAINED does a fine job in including the final element of the western in style. But Tarantino goes one further in adding direct nods to the spaghetti western genre. He adds the realistic component of violence and a signature musical score with an editing edge that recalls the Sergio Leone vibe. While I love westerns for my own reasons, I hope you’ll go see DJANGO UNCHAINED and appreciate it for your own reasons… like that it’s just SO Damn good.