Violence Unchained – Quentin Tarantino Rewrites the Western

Django Unchained Poster

Article by Sean Callaghan.

Some thoughts on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained coupled with my own brief, alternative history of violence in the Western. (Note: Spoiler alert for Django, Django Unchained, and Shane – though by now I think most people are familiar with the poignant last scene of Shane.)

The Critics

Quentin Tarantino is at it again winning awards while stirring up controversy.  Despite his Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for best screenplay, he has been consistently under fire from critics since the release of Django Unchained.  This time, though, the usual criticism of his violent predilections has been flavored with notes of racial insensitivity.  Continuing an ongoing battle against Tarantino’s address of race issues in film that began back with Jackie Brown, filmmaker Spike Lee criticized Tarantino for making light of the history of slavery, tweeting “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.”  No, indeed, it was not.  But then, neither is Django Unchained a direct descendent of Sergio Leone films.  Rather, it draws its genealogical line to a set of films begun with Leone’s contemporary Sergio Corbucci and his uber-violent Spaghetti Western Django.  Of course, at this point, one could say we’re splitting hairs since both were produced in the same historical milieu, but I think the distinction is important as it offers us possibly a more nuanced way of engaging in the debate on race and violence that surrounds the film.

The Western has never been uniform in its treatment of onscreen violence.  In fact, I would argue that over time there has been an evolution of violent expression, and the evolutionary shift from the Classic to Spaghetti Western is just as important as the jump from something like Leone’s Fistful of Dollars to Corbucci’s Django. Which is to say, instead of treating violence as some monolithic entity populating our film histories, if we look at the historical development of violent expression in Westerns, we may come up with something far more interesting to say about Tarantino’s new film than banal criticisms about the dangers of cinematic violence on our children or its relation to racial politics.

The Classic Economy

From Shane (1953)
From Shane (1953)

The Classic Western in some sense speaks to our utopian imagination.  Where does it take place after all except at the frontier – where civilization and its exterior meet?  As such it is the perfect space to think the world as it could have been had the modern world’s staid realities not taken hold, a world carved from the blood, sweat, and tears of its inhabitants. At the same time, the frontier is a place in which law and civilization have not had the chance to arrange things in their proper order.  Idealists such as the farmers in Shane, or the lawyer, Ransom Stoddard, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, would have to share space with those who would take advantage of the absence of a civilizing code and do so at the barrel of a gun. Thus, the Classic Western reminds us that an experiment at the edge of the imagination is always one deeply implicated with the production of violence.

What is distinct about these early films, in contrast to the blood-soaked films that were to come, is that they seem to function according to a moral economy of violence, one that is pressurized by the different figures managing the tension that eventually explodes in gunfire.   The first figure of this economy is always the villain – our Jack Wilsons, Frank Millers, and Liberty Valances: men defined by violence while deriving pleasure in their acts of brutality. In contrast to these, our gunslinging heroes come to violence as unwilling participants – forced to commit acts of brutality in the face of injustice and villainy.  As in any proper economy these acts of violence come at a cost.  In the Classic Western, the ideal society has no tolerance for violence even if waged on its own behalf.  Violence is exterior to utopia.  The exchange for an act of violence by the villain is death.  The exchange for violence perpetrated by the hero is usually exile, since a truly utopian society could not tolerate the violent man.  This is best expressed in those closing poignant cries of young Joey in Shane, as our hero rides off into the mountains having shot down the brutal cattle baron and his hired gunman. “Shane! Come back!” Joey shouts, but of course Shane can never come back.  His violence was a necessary sacrifice, but a sacrifice nonetheless.

What is odd about this economy of violence is that the viewer occupies a contradictory position in that he or she identifies with the hero, but desires like a villain. After all, our fascination with the Western is completely predicated on our desire to see acts of violence.  What would High Noon or My Darling Clementine be without the final act gunfight? Their entire story structure is centered on that last blast of bullets.  Meanwhile we can only come to the pleasure of seeing the villain die by building our cathartic release on the brutal acts perpetrated by him.  The more brutal his acts, the more gratifying our pleasure when we see him brought to justice.  Everything else is just variations on a theme.

The Italian Spectacle and Its Excesses

Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966)
Franco Nero in Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966)

The Spaghetti Western turns this economy on its head, giving us instead violence as pure spectacle.  That is, the Spaghetti Western doesn’t worry itself about the proper moral economy of the violent act, and accepts that we have come strictly to watch men get shot down. In Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s classic of the sub-genre, violence is not something restrained until a final act gunfight, nor does it function according to an economy of exchanges.  Men shoot.  Men die.  We watch.  Nor are there any heroes or villains in the classical sense.  The unnamed stranger (or “Joe” played by Clint Eastwood) begins the film watching a man threaten a child with violence and does nothing.  Soon after, Leone lampoons the classic gunfight with its moralizing codes by having his stranger gun down four men for not apologizing to his mule.  How can we but delight in the irony?

Sergio Corbucci’s Django takes this spectacle to a whole new level. He brings us to its excess.  This excess in violent expression accounts for the reason the film gave birth to an entire sub-sub-genre of Spaghetti Westerns based on the Django character.  Dozens of Django films have been made since its release in 1966 including those by Japanese master of cinematic violence, Takashi Miike (Sukiyaki Western Django), and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino.  Meanwhile, at the time of its release Django was considered one of the most violent films in cinematic history.  It was banned in Sweden, and refused a rating certificate in Britain until 1993.

The initial setup of the film is simple: a stranger comes into town having saved a young damsel from bandits.  The leader of the bandits, Major Jackson, comes looking for the damsel and revenge on her rescuer who shot a handful of his men during the rescue attempt.  He enters the saloon where Django is trying to enjoy a quiet meal only to have another handful of his men gunned down.  A showdown ensues.  The Major sends for all forty-eight of his men as Django drags a coffin he has been keeping with him throughout his travels to a spot behind a fallen tree outside the saloon. He waits.  In the final few moments before he is to be rundown by an army of men on horseback, Django pulls out something akin to a gatling gun from the coffin and mows down his attackers in an explosively violent gunfight climax.  And this is only the first half hour of the film.  Following this, the violence escalates beyond all expectation – we watch a man have his ear sliced off and fed to him, become witness to hundreds gunned down in one gunfight after the next, and cringe as Django’s own hands are turned to a bloody pulp by former allies.  At some point, the plot of the film becomes secondary. There is only the chaos of a violence that exceeds the spectacle of itself.  Violence takes on epic proportions, and we come to the end of the film feeling exhausted and sick in our satiation.

Tarantino’s Reboot

If the classic Western gave us an economy of violence that was overturned by the spectacle in the Spaghetti Western, and Corbucci’s Django pushed us into the excess of this spectacle, Tarantino’s Django Unchained teaches us a new grammar of violence spoken through the language of this excess.  Tarantino takes us through a funhouse ride of cinematic forms overturning everything about the Western, spaghetti or otherwise, using violence as his key mode of expression. In a brilliant overturning of the good sheriff motif of the classic genre – Django’s bounty hunter companion Dr. Schultz guns down the Sheriff of a tiny frontier town only to pull out a warrant for the dead man.  Apparently, he was wanted by the government, dead or alive.  Dr. Schultz punctuates the irony of the scene by asking for proper compensation having fulfilled his civic responsibility.  In a scene that perverts the idyllic utopias that make films like Shane and The Outlaw Josey Wales work, Dr. Schultz teaches Django something about the moral code of the bounty hunter as his protege pulls the trigger on a farmer tilling the land with his son.  So goes Shane’s ideal world and Josey Wales’ humble beginnings, a puff of smoke rising from The Father’s skull.  Violence is even made a thing of beauty in the killing of a proto-KKK leader, his blood splashing daisies a startling crimson as he tumbles, a dance of the dead, from his horse.  In this sense, Tarantino builds off the work of Corbucci as he develops violence to exceed the generic shock of the gunshot showing the viewer that it’s possible to laugh and cry as they cringe.  Violence exceeds its boundaries to infect the entire cinematic experience, and becomes the very means instead of the end of expression.  But where Corbucci pushed violence into mere excess in Django, Tarantino takes us to the limits of that excessAnd for good reason.  

Much as Corbucci’s story arc in Django comes to a climax in the first half hour, leaving us to be dragged through another hour of bloody excess, Django Unchained comes to a major climax with still an hour to go.  Tarantino loves to overstay his welcome in his films, because it is precisely in those extra minutes when all our desires for violence and narrative have been satiated that he can truly go to work on us.  After the Big Gunfight that ends the main storyline, we’re left with the question, where can this story possibly go?  What else is there to say?  In the twilight world of our refractory period, Tarantino finally reveals his hand.  Violence was not the end in and of itself.  It was just the language he spoke to get us to a wholly different plane of cinematic experience.   In the final moments of the film – much as in Inglorious Basterds when he did the unthinkable by ending his WWII flick turning the figure of Hitler to swiss cheese with gunshot wounds – Tarantino blows the lid off all thought about what the film was supposed to mean, where it was supposed to go, and how we were supposed to think of its history: the history of American slavery.   In a twisted homage to the film Mandingo, a blaxploitation flic from 1975 by Robert Fleischer, Tarantino takes the final shot – the iconic image of the plantation mansion marking for us the continuing remnant of American slavery in our imaginations – and blasts it to pieces.   At this moment, all possible expression has been exhausted, and we are left with nothing but the heaving intensity of our blown imaginations.  More than any other filmmaker we’ve seen, Tarantino reveals himself to be a true revolutionary – forcing us to face the real terror of a world in which the past and all its expectations have been obliterated.  He leaves us asking, what do we do at the end of violence and its history?

Perhaps he gives us a hint at an answer with the last image that takes us into our blackout: the silhouette of a woman on horseback, arming herself as she rides into an unknown future.  I couldn’t help but feel there was hope hidden in the threat of that final shot – the hope that oppression might finally exhaust itself, leaving us with nothing but an open breach through which we might find a different future unattached from a history hell bent on repeating itself.

————

Sean Callaghan earned his Ph.D. in Modern Japanese History and Literature from the University of Toronto.  He’s an avid film, anime, and TV series watcher (The Wire continues to top his list of all time favorites).   He’s become an avid fan of Westerns these last few months – Shane, Django Unchained, Silverado, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Wild Bunch filling up his top five favorites – and welcomes recommendations from readers for good westerns, Classic, contemporary, Spaghetti or otherwise. 

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