The Fastest gun in the South
In the pantheon of legendary Westerns, few films subvert our expectations and push the envelope as far as Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012). Compared to the classical westerns of say, John Ford [Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1956)], or spaghetti westerns like Once Upon a Time in The West (Sergio Leone, 1968), Django Unchained is like, one hundred trillion times better because it’s not as boring as those old movies. Nah I’m kidding, those old movies are good too, but the purpose of this essay is to talk about how Django is in another ballpark entirely. It’s really something new and exciting. To put it succinctly, it represents the pinnacle of post modern revisionist Westerns. For those not in the know, a post modern film is anything made after 1994. Okay, all joking aside, let’s cut to the meat of it shall we? The central theme underlining the bold direction of Tarantino’s latest effort is simple and sublime; classical Westerns are racist. Tarantino has not just redefined the Western for a new generation of filmgoers, but also spawned the birth of an entirely new sub-genre: the Southern.
Django Unchained does not take place in the West, nor does it feature cowboys and Indians, an untamed landscape, or a heroic lone gunman who saves the community. The central conflict of the majority of classical westerns deals with civilization’s struggle against wilderness. In contrast, Django deals with the issues of slavery and revolt against civilization, and a majority of the story takes place in the Deep South where civilization at the time has already mastered the wild. The main character is a freed slave; a dramatic departure from the typical white man who has never been held in bondage due to ethnicity. It should also be noted that most Westerns take place in a post-Civil War America, which is generally agreed upon by historians to be when the real “wild west” began to emerge. The wild west was mythologized only after abolition became the number one thing to tweet about in the 1860s, making it convenient for classical Westerns to side step any mention of the controversial subject.
When comparing and contrasting the differences between revisionist and classical Westerns, it is important to note the similarities. No western would be a true western without extreme long shots of wide open country spaces that dominate the characters. Django Unchained is full of them, especially in its establishing shots. Classical westerns use the motif to convey the overwhelming power the environment has over the characters. Here, Tarantino uses the technique for an entirely different purpose, and that is to establish the conventions of preexisting expectations in the audience in order for them to more easily digest the subversion of generic quality contained within the film. Westerns have rarely, if ever, dealt with the touchy subject of slavery, preferring to paint a colorful portrait of the virtuous lawman or vigilante outlaw (always a white man) fighting against either wild savages (Native Americans) or corruption within authority (other white men).
Tarantino takes the approach of showing a side never before seen in the Western due to its social taboo. The subject of slavery very rarely enters the framework of most Westerns, and if it does, it is only in passing. In Django Unchained, a freed slave is given the power to not only undermine, but strike back, and ultimately vanquish the powers of civilization which once controlled his existence. Such an idea is radical not just for its bold rewriting of history, but also for the implications; set two years before the civil war, Django may be single handedly responsible for igniting the entire conflict.
Such flights of fancy are nonsense when referenced to real history, but historical accuracy is not the point. The blatant disregard for accuracy is what makes it fun as well as thought provoking. It asks the question of “What if?” What if black slaves led a mass uprising against white slavers prior to the start of the Civil War? What if Adolf Hitler was assassinated before the Germans surrendered in World War Two?
This is what separates Django and Tarantino from Stagecoach and Ford. Imagination takes precedence over tradition, and although one form is certainly not better than the other, it is hard to argue which one causes more noise. The strength of Django Unchained undoubtedly lay in Tarantino himself. Many people would describe him as more of a DJ than a filmmaker; with his near encyclopedic knowledge of film, he takes bits and pieces from his favorite films, and many others, then remixes the separate elements into something completely different yet astoundingly familiar at the same time. It is art, in the purest sense.