This year, Quentin Tarantino’s Christmas present to the world is “Django Unchained,” the violent story of a slave (Jamie Foxx) on a mission to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from the plantation of the man who owns her (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino’s biggest influences for the film, he says, were not movies about American slavery but the spaghetti westerns of the Italian director Sergio Corbucci. Here Tarantino explains how Corbucci’s movies — including “Django,” which lent its name to Tarantino’s title character — became the inspiration for his own spaghetti southern. (Interview by Gavin Edwards.)
Any of the Western directors who had something to say created their own version of the West: Anthony Mann created a West that had room for the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper; Sam Peckinpah had his own West; so did Sergio Leone. Sergio Corbucci did, too — but his West was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre. His characters roam a brutal, sadistic West.
Corbucci’s heroes can’t really be called heroes. In another director’s western, they would be the bad guys. And as time went on, Corbucci kept de-emphasizing the role of the hero. One movie he did, “The Hellbenders,” doesn’t have anybody to root for at all. There’s bad guys and victims, and that’s it. In “Il Grande Silenzio,” he has Klaus Kinski playing a villainous bounty hunter. I’m not a big fan of Kinski, but he’s amazing in this movie — it’s definitely his best performance in a genre movie. The hero of “Il Grande Silenzio” is Jean-Louis Trintignant, playing a mute. By taking his hero’s voice away, Corbucci reduces him to nothing.
And “Il Grande Silenzio” has one of the most nihilistic endings of any western. Trintignant goes out to face the bad guys — and gets killed. The bad guys win, they murder everybody else in the town, they ride away and that’s the end of the movie. It’s shocking to this day. A movie like [Andre de Toth’s] “Day of the Outlaw,” as famous as it is for being bleak and gritty, is practically a musical in comparison to “Il Grande Silenzio.”
“Silenzio” takes place in the snow — I liked the action in the snow so much, “Django Unchained” has a big snow section in the middle of the movie.
Corbucci dealt with racism all the time; in his “Django,” the bad guys aren’t the Ku Klux Klan, but a surreal stand-in for them. They’re killing Mexicans, but it’s a secret organization where they wear red hoods — it’s all about their racism toward the Mexican people in this town. In “Navajo Joe,” the scalp hunters who are killing the Indians for their scalps are as savage as the Manson Family. It’s one of the great revenge movies of all time: Burt Reynolds as the Navajo Joe character is a one-man-tornado onslaught. The way he uses his knife and bum-rushes the villains, rough-and-tumbling through the rocks and the dirt, is magnificent. I heard he almost broke his neck doing the movie, and it looks it. Before “The Wild Bunch” was released, “Navajo Joe” was the most violent movie that ever carried a Hollywood studio logo.
As I was working on an essay about how Corbucci’s archetypes worked, I started thinking, I don’t really know if Corbucci was thinking any of these things when he was making these movies. But I know I’m thinking them now. And if I did a western, I could put them into practice. When I actually put pen to paper for the script, I thought, What will push the characters to their extremes? I thought the closest equivalent to Corbucci’s brutal landscapes would be the antebellum South. When you learn of the rules and practices of slavery, it was as violent as anything I could do — and absurd and bizarre. You can’t believe it’s happening, which is the nature of true surrealism.