Django Limited Edition 4K UHD Review and Blu-ray Comparison
4K Ultra HD Release: June 1, 2021
Video: 1.66:1/2160p/Color (Django) 2.35:1/1080p/Color (Texas, Adios)
Audio: Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
Run Time: 91:47 (Django) 92:04 (Texas, Adios)
Director: Sergio Corbucci (Django) Ferdinando Baldi (Texas, Adios)
A mysterious loner calling himself Django (Franco Nero) arrives at a mud-drenched ghost town on the Mexico-US border, ominously dragging a coffin behind him. After saving imperilled prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak), Django becomes embroiled in a brutal feud between a racist gang and a band of Mexican revolutionaries. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Following the brisk downfall of the Italian peplum/sword & sandal boom, spaghetti western idols such as the Man with no Name, Django, Sartana, and Sabata, replaced the likes of Hercules, Goliath, and Maciste. As had happened before, completely unrelated productions would be renamed in order to convince audiences that they were watching the continued adventures of their favorite character. The most extreme example was that of Franco Nero’s Django, whose name was dropped into several dozen random Euro-westerns, despite Nero only officially playing the character twice – in Sergio Corbucci’s original 1966 film and in Ted Archer’s belated 1987 sequel Django Strikes Again). There are an estimated 30-some unofficial Djangos, but the number is probably much higher if we consider all of the otherwise unrelated movies released outside of Italy as Django sequels (in Once Upon A Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers' Guide to Spaghetti Westerns [I.B. Tauris, 2006], author Howard Hughes estimates that the number is closer to 50).
At its base, Django is another variation of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark pop samurai film Yojimbo (1961), which itself drew inspiration from American westerns, and was also based loosely on Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest (pub: 1929) and The Glass Key (pub: 1931). Of course, Corbucci and his brother Bruno’s screenplay was really inspired by the massive box office popularity of a different and slightly more honest adaptation of Yojimbo – Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964). When Django proved to be just as popular as Fistful of Dollars (possibly even more popular), the Yojimbo model solidified its place as the fashionable story shortcut for rushed and lazy spaghetti screenwriters. One thing Django brought to the formula was the classic western motif of obsessive revenge. Eastwood’s Man with No Name brings justice to a small town, but he doesn’t really have any personal investment in the situation. He’s more of an aloof avenging angel. Django, on the other hand, disguises himself as a ruthless profiteer, aping the bounty hunter Eastwood portrays in Leone’s Fistful follow-up, For a Few Dollars More (Italian: Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965). Later, we discover that he’s secretly seeking bloody retribution on behalf of his murdered lover or possibly family member, like the bounty hunter Lee Van Cleef plays in For a Few Dollars More (in Cleef’s case, it is explicitly stated that he is avenging his sister). Corbucci is mum on the details and the plot point can easily be overlooked (Django is also very much in it for the money), but secret revenge schemes entered the Django rip-off lexicon, anyway.
1966 was a particularly transformative year for spaghetti westerns, including the release of the first two official films in the Zapata western canon (named for revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and largely set during the Mexican Revolution) European politics – Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti) and Damiano Damiani’s Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?). In his personal life, Corbucci skewed militantly left-wing, but he rarely made pointed political westerns like Sollima and Damiani. He tended to be more interested in challenging the myths of the American West in a particularly nihilistic fashion, instead of utilizing the Mexican Revolution as an allegory for contemporary European political anxieties. Django’s politics are framed largely through obvious moral lessons about xenophobia and racism, and a lot is implied through costumes – the title character dons a Union Army uniform and the bad guys wear red Klan hoods (assuming the film takes place directly after the Civil War, they’re seemingly a combined precursor to the Red Shirts and the KKK). In his book, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Apple Books, 2009), filmmaker Alex Cox (director of Repo Man , Straight to Hell , and Walker ) theorizes that Corbucci might have hidden some more pointed political commentary, specifically that the machine gun in the coffin is a reference to a NATO-sponsored fascist terrorist group known as ‘Gladio’ (1956-1990), who had buried 138 secret weapons caches, often in Italian cemeteries.
Two of Corbucci’s immediate Django follow-ups, Navajo Joe (1966) and The Hellbenders (Italian: I Crudeli; aka: The Cruel Ones, 1967), made somewhat open-ended, but definitively angry social statements, similar to what American audiences came to expect from Sam Peckinpah, who is, in many ways, Corbucci’s Hollywood equivalent. He eventually made two Zapata westerns – The Mercenary (Italian: Il Mercenario; aka: A Professional Gun, 1968) and Compañeros (1970) – but, despite ending on rousing calls to action, these functioned largely as comedies. Truly, Corbucci’s transgressive filmmaking philosophy was best represented in Django and his most nihilistic masterpiece, 1968’s The Great Silence (Italian: Il grande silenzio; aka: The Big Silence), which pushed sadism and melancholy to its absolute limits, because neither offers any respite or solution to society’s greatest horrors.
Django’s other novelties were its sadistic violence and gritty Gothic atmosphere. Leone’s films had their share of bloodshed (more on that in a moment), as did Corbucci’s earlier westerns, but they all still felt safe for mass consumption in the early ‘60s. Django sets the bar pretty early, when the title character pulls a Maxim machine gun from his coffin and dispatches a veritable wall of enemies, but really crosses a line when a gang member is force-fed his own ear and shot in the back. The bleak, mud-caked imagery was, according to cinematographer Enzo Barboni*, was a combination of concept and necessity, because Corbucci’s originally envisioned the film taking place in the snow, but the budget wouldn’t allow for it, so they compromised by flooding an established set. The mud instantly set Django apart from Leone’s sun-baked, dust-strewn westerns and set the stage for more overtly atmospheric spaghettis, like Giulio Questi’s Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! (Italian: Se sei vivo spara, 1967), Robert Hossein’s Cemetery without Crosses (Italian: Une Corde, un Colt; aka: The Rope and the Colt, 1969), Sergio Martino’s Mannaja (aka: A Man Called Blade, 1977), and The Great Silence, in which Corbucci was finally able/allowed to shoot in the snow.
Going back to the violence, spaghetti western heroes are often beaten and tortured to set the stakes for a final act showdown; again, calling back to Fistful of Dollars, where Eastwood is brutalized within an inch of his life. Critics tend to tie this back to Catholic Italian filmmakers’ compulsion to turn their heroes and antiheroes into Jesus metaphors. Corbucci took this a step further by having Django’s gun-drawing hands trampled by horses in a cowboy variation of crucifiction. Later, unable to operate his gun with his mangled fingers, he rests the trigger against the cross atop his lover’s grave, using it to surprise and kill his mortal enemy. Later spaghettis, including Questi’s Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! and Enzo G. Castellari’s Johnny Hamlet (Italian: Quella sporca storia nel west; aka: The Wild and the Dirty, 1968) and again in Keoma (also starring Nero, 1976), took the crucifixion imagery quite literally and even made it a part of their advertising campaigns.
* Bolognini discusses this during an interview for David Gregory’s genre documentary, The Spaghetti West (2005).
Depending on where you lived, Django was one of the easier to find spaghetti westerns during the VHS era and it had a healthy life on DVD, thanks to Blue Underground, who kept it in print until it was time to release their own Blu-ray version. From there, things got complicated. BU’s transfer was bright and colorful, but rife with the kind of telecine machine noise that soon defined too many early Italian-borne HD transfers. Later, as everyone’s eyes began to adjust to HD quality, BU was accused of mitigating the problem with too much DNR, then adding artificial film grain using a digital algorithm (something like this almost certainly occurred, but it has never been clear if BU was at fault or if they were handed subpar digital materials). To make matters worse, BU’s remaster was reused by other companies worldwide. To make matters even worse, when Arrow finally announced that they were working on the first new transfer in a decade, they found themselves trapped in a legal dispute between BU and the Italian rights holder, Surf Film, who sold distribution rights to Arrow. Following a nearly three year long battle with multiple starts and stops, from which some fans were able to score a copy, Arrow has finally been able to officially and widely release their version. Possibly the only good thing that came from the fiasco is the fact that Arrow opted to put Django out on Blu-ray and 4K UltraHD disc. This review pertains mostly to the 2160p, HDR10 compatible Dolby Vision release; though, since I can’t rip screencaps from a UHD at this time, (thanks to good friend Tyler Foster) I’ve included comparison caps taken from the Arrow Blu-ray (left) and the Blue Underground Blu-ray (right). According to the included booklet, the original 35mm negative was scanned at 4K and restored in-house by L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna. The footage was graded in 4K HDR/Dolby Vision at Silver Salt Restoration in London. The upgrade is, not surprisingly, huge on almost every level. Really, the only place the old HD master can compete is in color quality (I kind of like the bluer night skies on BU’s transfer), but, even here, the 4K’s superior dynamic range makes for more vibrant and natural hues (the prevalent browns and neutral colors in particular). The strange digital noise is replaced with natural film grain and the over-smoothed DNR textures are corrected. It’s also difficult to notice exactly how over-sharpened and over-brightened the Blue Underground disc was without comparing it directly to the even-handed and filmic Arrow remaster. Django is still an older film, shot on a low budget with cheap equipment, so there are still unavoidable artifacts, like inconsistency in grain, but the negatives have been thoroughly scrubbed of major print damage. Do note that the two transfers are also framed differently. I don't know which is more "accurate."
The English and Italian language soundtracks were restored alongside the image from the original optical negative and both are presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. As a reminder, the Italian westerns were shot without synced sound, often with international casts who are speaking multiple languages on-set. All language tracks are dubbed and the choice as to which dub to listen to can change from film to film and is largely one of personal taste. I often prefer English dubs, because the lead cast tends to be acting in English and, if we’re lucky, they dub themselves. Franco Nero was particularly good about dubbing himself, but not until after Django was a hit and, unfortunately, dubbing performer Nando Gazzolo’s voice doesn’t quite fit (he’s meant to sound like The Man with No Name). The rest of the English cast is solid, however, and the tone and dynamic ranges of the English track is slightly preferable to the tinnier Italian track, which also features more dialogue hiss and quieter music.
Luis Bacalov’s score is reminiscent of the rock-inspired music Ennio Morricone created for Fistful of Dollars, but also calls back to the symphonic Hollywood tradition. Its most memorable moments aren’t the guitar riffs, but the nerve-shredding, horror-like strings. The title song, written by Bascalov with lyrics by Franco Migliacci & Robert Mellin, was performed by Rocky Roberts and reused by Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained (2012), which featured a cameo from Nero (wearing white gloves, implying perhaps that he’s playing the same character and that his hands haven’t healed).
Disc one (4K UHD):
Commentary with film historian Stephen Prince – The author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (University of Texas Press, 2010) offers up a friendly expert track that focuses on laying out the story, discussing various technical aspects, and the film’s worldwide legacy.
Django Never Dies (26:07, HD) – In this brand new interview, Franco Nero discusses being cast as Django based on his face alone, the lack of a set screenplay, shooting the film in Spain and Rome, Corbucci’s methods, his castmates, stunts, and Django’s impact on his career.
Cannibal of the Wild West (25:48, HD) – Cannibal Holocaust (1980) director Ruggero Deodato chats about his time as assistant director under Corbucci (and other directors), focusing mostly on his time in Spain shooting westerns and, obviously, Django in particular. In all, this might be my favorite of the new extras, because Deodato has such a nice sense of storytelling and memory for anecdotes I hadn’t heard elsewhere.
That's My Life, Part 1 (10:16) – In this previously unseen archival interview, co-writer Franco Rossetti compares himself to the characters he writes and talks of his friendship with Corbucci.
Sergio, My Husband (27:48, HD) – Sergio's wife, Nora Corbucci, pulls no punches as she recalls the strife around making Django (culminating in him basically making no money off of his biggest hit), original casting options, Corbucci’s talent for directing actors, Corbucci’s philosophies, and The Great Silence’s impact of Tarantino’s Django Unchained, among other personal topics.
A Rock N' Roll Scriptwriter (11:03, HD) – Co-writer Piero Vivarelli discusses his career as writer and director across many genres, developing the Django script with the Corbucci’s (he claims credit for the character’s name and the machine gun being the object in the coffin), and shares some behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
A Punch in the Face (18:43, HD) – Stuntman/actor Gilberto Galimberti talks about his training, work on various films, poor treatment of stuntpeople in the industry, and staging Djanto’s big barroom brawl.
Discovering Django (23:33, HD) – Spaghetti western scholar and author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2014) Austin Fisher discusses Django from the standpoint of its cult appeal, place in the spaghetti western cycle, the history of renaming other westerns as Django films, and the movie’s counterculture appeal (such as an appearance in Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come ).
An Introduction to Django (12:04, SD) – The interviews are closed out with an archival introduction with filmmaker Alex Cox.
Image Galleries: Stills, posters, lobby cards, press, home video
Italian and international trailers
Disc Two: Texas, Adios Blu-ray
One Franco Nero spaghetti western is good, but do you know what’s better? Two Franco Nero spaghetti westerns. Here in the US, this limited edition Django collection (both the 4K UHD and BD) come with a second Blu-ray disc featuring Arrow’s 2K restoration of Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios (Italian: Texas, addio, 1966). I’m going to do a separate review on this disc and its extras, considering you can buy it directly from Arrow UK. Read all about it right here!
Limited Edition box contents:
Six double-sided collector’s postcards
Double-sided fold-out poster
60-page perfect-bound book featuring writing by Howard Hughes and Roberto Curti (Tonino Valerii: The Films [McFarland & Company, 2016]), and samples of original reviews
The images on this page are taken from Arrow’s 4K Restoration, 1080p Blu-ray and the original Blue Underground BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.