Hard to believe I’ve been writing reviews for this long and have never tackled a Western (Spaghetti or otherwise). Why, you ask? Well, several reasons. The Western is a very special genre to me (Once Upon a Time in the West is in my top five of all time), and I was reticent to dive in on one because I wanted to do whatever the selection would be justice (time and about another nine hundred words will tell the tale on that one). Second, and more important, I wanted the film I wrote about to be worth the time. I had been hovering around reviewing Little Rita of the West (coincidentally, also a Ferdinando Baldi film), but that film’s run time made it a bit more difficult to squeeze into my schedule (you’d think a guy so devoted to film would make the time, but there you have it). Thankfully, Arrow Films have come through again with Django, Prepare a Coffin (aka Preparati la Bara! aka Viva Django aka Get the Coffin Ready aka Django Sees Red), so the choice was taken away from me. Their transfer is gorgeous, as always, though the special features are thin (yet filling), including a trailer and an overview of the Django films by Kevin Grant (author of Any Gun Can Play). Still, if you’re a fan of the genre, this film is good (notice I didn’t say great) but worth owning simply by virtue of the fact that it exists in such nice shape.
Django (Terence Hill) and his crew are ambushed while transporting a gold shipment. Django is shot, and his wife is brutally killed. Years later, Django is employed as a hangman, but secretly he is gathering the falsely accused people he actually doesn’t hang to help him get payback on Lucas (George Eastman) and his henchmen. And what has Django’s old buddy Dave Barry (Note: not the writer, but still played by Horst Frank) have to do with this (I’ll bet you can’t guess)?
I am a huge fan of Sergio Corbucci’s Django, and I realize that a cottage industry of films named for (but rarely having anything to do with) it enjoyed much success in Italy and abroad. Django, Prepare a Coffin is one of the handful of films that does actually relate to its progenitor, though it hews far enough away to be its own film. Mainly, this is a tonal difference, specifically, the difference between Hill and the earlier movie’s Franco Nero. Nero’s Django was a somber, haunted man. He dragged his own coffin around with him, and inside it was death (both his and other’s). He was as much the grim reaper as he was a man starving for (perhaps denying himself) peace. Hill’s Django is more amiable. He has a pal in Barry, and his big dream is to settle down and “wait for the last judgment.” More notably, this Django is happily married, a state which seems foreign to the character as depicted by Corbucci and company. Even after he sets himself on his path of vengeance, Hill gives the character a certain goofball charm, which, let’s face it, is Hill’s stock in trade. He plays with the local telegraph operator’s (his other friend) pet bird, offering it booze and conversing with it. He also has an openly virtuous spirit. While he is using his “deadman” gang to take revenge for himself, it feels as though he would have helped these people avoid the hangman’s noose, regardless. He’ll gun a man down, but he’s so not stoic it feels slightly out of character. It left me thinking that this was actually a prequel or origin story for the man from the 1966 film.
Prepare a Coffin likewise shares its screenwriter (Franco Rossetti), director of photography (Enzo Barboni), and producer (Manolo Bolognini) with Corbucci’s movie. This provides another throughline between the two films, but the character is clearly the same, just different. He still wears his heavy, dark Inverness coat (but significantly, he doesn’t don it until after his wife is gone). He still has his huge, belt-fed machine gun. He still suffers some hand injuries (though not nearly as mutilated as before) prior to turning the tables on his enemies. Mostly, he is still heavily associated with death. He figuratively buries himself next to his wife. He’s a hangman, a legal dealer of death. He is shown often digging graves. The finale of the film takes place in a cemetery (again). He’s as ghoulish as a man as can be, but Hill makes him goshdarned likeable. Unfortunately, the two tastes don’t quite taste great together. It’s tough to pull off being death incarnate and a swell guy at the same time, and this movie proves it. This Django rebels against his loner stereotype. He wants a family, he wants a community, he strives too stridently to not be alone in the world. He’s Django Lite.
The film still deals with Western genre themes. It primarily concerns itself with the struggle to civilize the frontier. What’s interesting here is its attitude regarding it. Dave Barry and men like him have an air of respectability to them (he is an elected representative at the film’s opening). He has money, he has status, and these give him power. He is civilizing the West and killing it. These aren’t cross purposes, they are the same purpose. The socioeconomic status of men like Barry and Lucas is directly proportional to the level of their turpitude. Moreover, it’s the greedy like Barry and Lucas who carelessly destroy the lives of the working men and women who actually endeavor to civilize the frontier in less exploitive fashion (of course, we can argue that such a feat is impossible), to live their simple lives. Moneyed land barons and the like are nothing new in Westerns, but Barry’s political background gives his villainy a more far-reaching touch. Guys like Garcia (Jose Torres) just want to be with their families. Nevertheless, once gold enters the picture it’s a short trip to becoming exactly like the opposition and rationalizing it. Naturally, only Django is incorruptible, giving his hanging fees to the men he emancipates. He, then, is the true civilizing agent, selfless and self-determined. He wants to give what was taken from him to others. The problem is, most other people haven’t (or won’t) come around to his way of thinking. And that’s life.
MVT: Baldi is a solid director. Though much of the film has a certain flat, stagy look (which harkens back to more traditional, classic American Westerns), it moves along nicely and has enough interesting turns to be worthy of its genre.
Make or Break: Django trying to get a bird to drink. It just doesn’t feel right.