Welcome to Prep School. Here we’ll guide film fans towards those important movies of the past that’ll help you to get the best out of any future cinematic releases that might benefit from a bit of extra knowledge. This time, it’s Quentin Tarantino‘s upcoming spaghetti western Django Unchained.
It’s well-known that Quentin Tarantino’s movies are greatly enhanced through the eyes of a dedicated cinephile. Not to say that your average audience member can’t enjoy his movies greatly, but the Tennessee-born director’s flicks are made for movie geeks by the world’s biggest movie geek. Really, they’re just vibrantly-written, densely-realised pastiches. Homage-clad exercises in genre deconstruction. And for somebody familiar with all the puzzle pieces that Tarantino assembles his movies from, sitting in a theatre for the runtime can become a deeply rewarding experience on a whole new level. You’re in on the joke, so to speak.
After deconstructing the blaxploitation, samurai, pulp and slasher movie genres, Tarantino has finally come around to his fully-fledged western. The western genre actually happens to be the most influential genre on Tarantino’s entire career: even his movie Inglourious Basterds was a western cloaked in WW2 iconography, and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 wasn’t far from being a labelled a western in itself. Just look at all those Ennio Morricone tracks/Sergio Leone camera tricks that Tarantino is so desperate to showcase.
So, given that Django Unchained is out in theatres in just over a month, here’s our list of ten movies you should watch to prepare yourself for what promises to be one of the most entertaining movies of the year. No doubt there will be references to all of these movies somewhere in Django Unchained‘s blaxploitation/spaghetti western blender. In the words of Quentin Tarantino himself: “I only work in homages.” Let’s check ‘em out, then.Next
10. Death Rides A Horse (1967)
Death Rides A Horse is one of those low-budget spaghetti westerns that manages to inhabit so many of the key traits associated with the genre, it’s become a definite example of its stylings. Not only does it cling to a simple revenge plot (a small boy witnesses the massacre of his family at the hands of a notorious gang and he grows up to exact vengeance on them), it also has a brilliant Ennio Morricone soundtrack, spaghetti western icon Lee Van Cleef at the helm, and the kind of crude construction that bridges the gap between genuine artistry and… well, the cheap.
It’s extremely thin, pulpy and it ain’t clever, but Death Rides A Horse is a blast to behold because it’s just out to give you a good time and nothing else. That’s the kind of philosophy that Tarantino has always adhered to, isn’t it? He’s referenced this movie a few times before already in his Kill Bill series: the flashing red sequences that appear when the Bride spots her targets are taken straight from Death Rides A Horse. And the title track was used in the first volume, when the Bride confronts O-Ren Ishii at the House of Blue Leaves.Previous Next
9. Mandingo (1975)
Django Unchained is unique in its attempts to tackle themes of slavery, blaxploitation sass, and spaghetti western lore, all in one movie. According to the trailer (and the script, if you’ve read it), a large portion of the film is based around “Mandingo fighting” – if you’re unfamiliar with the practice, it consisted of two black slaves being pitted against one another in a fight to the death. 1975′s Mandingo showcases the ins and outs of this horrible blood sport, whilst telling the story of a ruthless Southern plantation land owner and his family.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie may have started life as with influence from a character here played by James Mason, but it’s the melodramatic aspects that bring Mandingo closer to Django Unchained. Because beneath the surface, Django Unchained is a simple love story between two people who just happen to live in Hell. Mandingo is also bloody, crude and unashamedly trashy, just as Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie promises to be.Previous Next
8. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Many consider Sergio Leone’s last western to be his best effort in the genre, though he tones down the goofy humor that embodies his other spaghetti westerns and turns in a soaring operatic masterpiece. Once Upon A Time In The West takes its time developing its story, inching slowly (but surely) through remarkable sequences of beauty, sadness and sudden violence, each one rendered with painstaking attention to detail.
Never was Leone’s camera used to such effect in telling this tale of a former prostitute who comes into contact with three men – a mysterious drifter, a railroad baron and an outlaw. The remarkable thing about Once Upon A Time In The West is that it was constructed in exactly the same way that Tarantino constructs his own movies today: using bits and pieces from other flicks. The entire plot takes its lines of dialogue, set pieces and motifs from westerns that Leone admired.Previous Next
7. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Though this isn’t a blaxploitation movie or a spaghetti western in any sense, it’s a movie that Quentin Tarantino himself holds in particularly high regard (despite the fact that he was put off watching it for years because he hated the inaudible dialogue in the first scenes). McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a western, though, and the best film that Robert Altman ever made. It’s a revisionist western in the sense that the origins of the genre are deconstructed and played around with: there is no room for happy ends or heroes here. It’s a haunting story, brilliant told, and one of very few westerns that genuinely seems like a snapshot from history.
Django Unchained seems to have borrowed a lot of McCabe and Mrs. Miller‘s aesthetic qualities, especially its shots of snow-covered plains and muddy makeshift towns. Although it probably won’t have heavily influenced the narrative technique of Tarantino’s movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the best westerns ever made and (if you haven’t seen it) deserves your attention nonetheless.Previous Next
6. A Fistful Of Dollars (1964)
This is the one that started it all: Clint Eastwood starred as the iconic “Man With No Name” in spaghetti western master Sergio Leone’s remake of Japanese samurai flick Yojimbo, and brought attention to the new genre in the west. It’s easy to understand why A Fistful of Dollars was so successful. Eastwood is effortlessly cool in this story of an outsider who manipulates two rival families (who are tearing apart a small community) into killing one another. The music, action sequences, tension and fun factor come at you relentlessly. It’s a simple story, perfectly executed.
Sergio Leone’s style wasn’t as fully developed here as it would be in the sequel (For A Few Dollars More), but the director proves just how much visual flair he can pack into 90 minutes – especially since most of it was done to make up for the low-budget. The fast zooms and quick camera work on show here have heavily influenced Tarantino’s own style, and many Leone-like shots can be glimpsed in Django Unchained‘s trailer. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack, too, has been sampled in a whole host of Tarantino films already.Previous Next
5. Hannie Caulder (1971)
On the surface there might not appear to be many similarities between Hannie Caulder and Django Unchained, but there’s proof in the mentor-type relationships that the title characters share with those men who take them in. It’s Robert Culp here, who trains the beautiful Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch) as a gunfighter after she’s raped and beaten. Together they set out to reek revenge on three outlawed brothers who did the ill deed, the same plot point that brings Django and Dr. King Schultz together in Tarantino’s flick.
Christoph Waltz even seems to be channelling some of Culp’s mannerisms and sensibility in his own performance. Whether or not that’s an intentional detail is anybody’s guess, but Hannie Caulder is an assured, entertaining little western that blends both spaghetti western stylings with the popular “women rape revenge” movies of the 70s. Luckily, it takes the best from both genres and comes out guns blazing.Previous Next
4. Boss Nigger (1975)
Despite its wince-inducing title, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Boss Nigger, which saw Fred Williamson in a role that seemingly parodied and played homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name.” A bloody cross between the blaxploitation and spaghetti western genres, this one is bound to be close to Tarantino’s heart, and a sure-fire influence in his decision to make a western that doubles over as an examination on issues of slavery.
Whereas many black westerns were either criticized in the 70s for their over regard or disregard for race relations, Boss Nigger was applauded for seemingly make sense of both. There’s heaps of style here, a funky title track, and a blaxploitation tagline worthy of the best of ‘em: “White man’s town… black man’s law.” Though the crude themes and the title are sure to put most people off, it’s a worthy and highly interesting edition to both the western and blaxploitation genres. And is it me, or is Jamie Foxx’s sporting a hat in Django Unchained highly similar to that of Fred Williamson’s one in this movie?Previous Next
3. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
In my mind, this is the best “team-up” western ever made, given the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef’s rival bounty hunters. They spend half of the movie getting on each others nerves, before making a peace that brings the two of them together for a blazing final hour. This was Sergio Leone’s second “Man With No Name” movie and here his skills as director are honed to absolute perfection.
For A Few Dollars More is considered another staple spaghetti western from a time when hundreds of the things were being made each year. But this one stands out as perhaps the first spaghetti western that pushed itself further, flying free from its cheap, pulpy origins and emerging as a work of genuine art. It’s rarely anything but gripping and beautiful to watch, and will no doubt – as it already has done in many his other pictures – find itself referenced in Django Unchained.Previous Next
2. Django (1966)
The movie that gave Django Unchained its badass title, Django is one of the most famous spaghetti westerns ever – it’s even spawned a nearly uncountable number of unofficial sequels since it was first released in 1966, each one further adding to the legacy of its titular character: Tarantino’s own Django incarnation played by Jamie Foxx just adds another layer to the ongoing legend. Especially since I’m pretty sure that Django has never been played by a black actor.
The plot, rather similar to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, isn’t of much consequence, but director Sergio Corbucci loads the film with style and heaps of personality. Franco Nero, who plays Django in this original, is set to make a cameo in Django Unchained (you’ve probably seen Foxx’s “the D is silent” scene in trailers already). And just like in this movie, the KKK are to be featured as the bad guys. You can’t get enough movies kicking it to the KKK, can you?Previous Next
1. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Tarantino’s favorite movie ever, and the motion picture he also considers to be “the best directed movie of all-time”, there’s absolutely no doubting that The Good, the Bad And the Ugly will play a huge part in the make-up of Django Unchained. Set during the American Civil War, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece follows three treasure hunters, each played to perfection by Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef, whose rivalry eventually brings them to the greatest mexican stand-off ever conceived in cinema.
It’s impossible to list all of the influences that this spaghetti western has had on Tarantino’s body of work, but details such as music, camera work, lines of dialogue, and even sense of humor have all been drawn from this seminal film. Simply put, you wouldn’t have Quentin Tarantino as we know him today without The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Not only is this the best western ever made, it’s a worthwhile candidate for best movie of all-time, too. Flawless in every sense of the word… and we’re bound to get a whole bunch more nods to it when Django Unchained hits theatres on Christmas Day.
Honorable Mentions: Skin Game (1971), Charley One-Eye (1973), Drum (1976), The Great Silence (1968), The Big Gundown (1967), A Day of Anger (1967), The Return of Ringo (1965)