Last week, Spike Lee, while explaining his outrage over Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, tweeted, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.” What Lee presumably meant was that slavery was too important to be turned into violent entertainment in a disreputable genre. But disreputable genres are sometimes the ones that can do the best justice to moral horror. In his review of Django Unchained, David Edelstein perceptively labeled the spaghetti Western “a degenerate genre … best savored for its subversiveness.” Indeed, despite their reputation as a vehicle for cheap thrills and badly dubbed Eastwoodian one-liners, many spaghetti Westerns turned the iconography of the American West inside out and revealed it to be full of lies. Nobody should be surprised that Django Unchained, in its homage to this most subversive of genres, fully adopts its revolutionary spirit and moral outrage.
While politics did peek through in Leone’s films — there’s a pretty clear anti-big-business through line that runs through Once Upon a Time in the West, for example, and one of the heroes of Duck, You Sucker! is an IRA bomber — it wasn’t as prevalent as it was in many spaghetti Westerns made by his contemporaries. In the original Django, Leone’s friend Sergio Corbucci took the template of A Fistful of Dollars — a mysterious stranger plays off two warring factions in a town — and gave it a darker, more socially relevant edge. Django (Franco Nero) essentially walks into a race war: The bad guys on one side are racist Americans who wear red hoods and use Mexican peasants for target practice; on the other side is a brutal Mexican gang. Django, who himself looks more like a downtrodden Mexican peasant than the cool, calculating (and decidedly white) gunfighter played by Eastwood in the Dollars films, allies himself with the Mexicans briefly, at first; clearly the Americans here are the worse of two evils.
Of course, Corbucci’s Django is more about violence (there are massacres galore, and the film was banned in some countries for decades) than it is about making a statement. The same can’t be said for the director’s following movies, which he called “proletarian fables.” In films like The Mercenary and Companeros, the heroes are Mexican peasants and revolutionaries rebelling not just against their own oppressive governments but also against foreign intruders from the U.S. When they weren’t overtly political, Corbucci’s films were even darker: In The Great Silence, a group of ruthless bounty hunters lay waste to a snowbound Utah town full of poor villagers who have been marked as outlaws because they’ve been reduced to stealing (sort of a spaghetti Les Misérables); the film famously ends with a lawful slaughter of the good guys, thus revealing the utter uselessness of the law in dispensing social justice.
Meanwhile, other directors were also using the genre to political ends: Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown featured Lee Van Cleef as a white bounty hunter trying to track down a Mexican peasant accused of rape and murder, only to realize that the real villains are the racist businessmen who hired him. A subsequent Sollima film, Face to Face, was a tale of fascism in microcosm, portraying a mild-mannered professor falling in with a group of outlaws, and his eventual embrace of brutality and control. Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General was an allegory of U.S. involvement in Latin America, co-written by Franco Solinas, a Marxist who had earlier written Gillo Pontecorvo’s explosive anti-colonial film The Battle of Algiers. Tonino Valerii’s The Price of Power even tackled the JFK assassination, with its tale of a bunch of disgruntled, racist ex-Confederates who set out to murder President James Garfield. Even films that weren’t supposed to be political wound up being so by default: Mario Caiano’s The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe, a kung-fu/Western hybrid, is more explicit about the racism the Asian hero experiences than most ordinary American films could ever have been.
The Western itself, of course, has a long history of political engagement, though it’s an understated one. True, the early Westerns were the usual good-guys-bad-guys-and-sometimes-even-worse-Indians stuff, but the genre eventually developed a genuine social conscience. Films like The Ox-Bow Incident, High Noon, and Johnny Guitar, for example, obliquely referenced the political issues of their day. (And not always so obliquely; John Wayne once called the anti-McCarthyist High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”) But they had to do it subtly, as the Western was sacred for many Americans, a de facto creation myth that depicted the pioneer spirit thriving against outlaws, Indians, and other destructive forces. (They were also, let’s face it, answerable to the Hays Office, which until the sixties reviewed every movie for not just sex and violence but also for social and political subversion.) So while, for example, 1950’s Broken Arrow made waves for presenting heroic Indian characters or 1954’s Silver Lode presented another anti-McCarthyist allegory, they also still indulged in a very woozy-eyed and American kind of tough-guy posturing. Maybe that’s why so many Western stars were also right-wing icons, from John Wayne to Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood.
But the Italians who made spaghetti Westerns didn’t put much stock in the philosophical (and decidedly American) intangibles of the Western genre. You will not find many paeans to the frontier spirit in these films (except, occasionally, through stylistic flourishes borrowed from John Ford, as in Once Upon a Time in the West). Spaghetti Westerns weren’t made by people trying to open a window into or glorify their own collective pasts, so the civilizing forces to be found in many American Westerns — the women, the communities, the cavalry outposts full of jolly Irish jokesters played by Victor McLaglen — are usually absent or corrupted in their own dark ways. Created by non-Americans, the America depicted in the world of the spaghetti Western is a place of chaos, devastation, racism, and destructive self-interest.
Which brings us to Django Unchained. In the way that these earlier films did away with frontier myths, Tarantino seems determined to do away with myths of Southern hospitality and the genteel iconography of the antebellum world. In so doing — and in making the one decent white person in the film a German, not an American — the director consciously adopts the view of an outsider. At one point, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie remarks to Django (Jamie Foxx) that King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) seems a bit “green around the gills,” our hero replies, “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is.” Tarantino chooses to include this bit of dialogue in what may well be the film’s most brutal scene, as a runaway slave is torn to pieces by a pack of German shepherds. In this one moment, his embrace of a disreputable foreign genre to take aim at American history becomes crystal clear. Maybe the question shouldn’t be whether the holocaust of slavery could be a spaghetti Western. Maybe it should be: Could it be anything but?