Django Unchained and Blazing Saddles

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I see from this video mashup that I’m not the first one to notice the connection between these two movies, but just to run down some of the similarities: Django Unchained is set right before the Civil War and concerns an escaped slave who becomes a bounty hunter, teamed with a wisecracking white guy. Blazing Saddles, a slapstick comedy set shortly after the Civil War, is about a black railroad worker who becomes a sheriff, teamed with a wisecracking white guy. Both were criticized for extensive use of the n-word and other vulgarity. Both feature a bit of German. And Django, while not an outright comedy, includes one very Mel Brooks-style comic scene with Klansmen who can’t see through their hoods.

None of this should be a surprise, because Westerns are possibly the most self-referential genre on the screen. Blazing Saddles (1974) was largely a parody of Destry Rides Again (1939), which was itself somewhat of a parody of the genre. But even setting aside comedies, it’s actually hard to think of a great Western that wasn’t in some way a reappraisal of the “standard Western myth.” Tarantino’s beloved spaghetti westerns of the ’60s (including the original Django), were of course largely a reaction to the Golden Age Westerns before them, with morally ambiguous heroes, more realistic violence, and so on. But many of these themes were already present in the best Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s. If you look at the AFI’s all-time list of the greatest Westerns, the top five — The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven and Red River — are all more like elegies for the stubborn loner gunman than celebrations of him.

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In that respect at least, all the commentary about how Django “turns Western mythology inside out” has it backwards. There’s nothing morally ambiguous or elegiac about the two heroes, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, though well acted, is as stock a villain as you can get. The audience is on the protagonists’ side from the beginning and is never given much reason to doubt them. I think that’s part of what makes the movie fun — we’re so used to brooding antiheroes in Westerns that it’s a breath of fresh air to see the good guys just cheerfully mowing down the bad guys.

I’m not even sure if Tarantino’s doing this on purpose. It’s just that when your genre has only one real set of reference points, and everyone keeps making stylized homages to the previous generation of stylized homages, after a while the ironic distance becomes so great that you’ve come full circle and you’re back at the start (albeit with a lot more blood and guts). We’re now so many layers removed from the first generation of Westerns, the silent films of Tom Mix and William Hart, that the only thing really left to do is start remaking them. The “frontier myth” has been dismantled so thoroughly by so many great movies that there’s nothing left to deconstruct.

(This doesn’t seem to happen with other self-referential genres like noir or gangster movies, possibly because they’re constantly refreshed by real events. Crime and gang warfare haven’t gone away. But the old American West was already long gone, both the myth and the real thing, by the time they started making movies about it.)

Of course, most of the discussion around Django has been about its treatment of race and slavery, but this question of where it fits as a Western is part of that too. Blazing Saddles, while a comedy, was making at least one serious point about the shameful absence of black protagonists in the genre. But Tarantino has a more specific criticism. “Westerns all the time bend over backwards not to deal with slavery,” he says. Actually, it’s a little worse than that. There have been many Westerns dealing with the Civil War, but they tend to be about the aftermath, not the war itself, and as this article points out, their standard protagonist is a sympathetic Southern veteran who’s portrayed as more or less a victim of Reconstruction. There’s nothing wrong with this story in any one movie, but when it recurs over and over, you’ve got to wonder why that particular character is so easy for filmmakers to empathize with.

So I see Tarantino’s movie, like Blazing Saddles, as more of a challenge to the Western movie canon than a “reinvention” of it, especially given the choice of a foreign immigrant as Django’s partner. Django Unchained is not the first successful Western since Blazing Saddles with a black lead actor (that would be Wild Wild West, I think) but it may be the first ever to tackle  slavery head on. Whether or not it deals with the subject successfully, to introduce it at all is more of a rebuke than it may seem, because of the way that other Westerns leave it out of their depiction of the war. Think of one of those tough-but-“complicated” Confederate vets from classic Western films, like John Wayne’s characters in the The Searchers or True Grit, and imagine him in Django as a younger man before the war, getting mowed down like cannon fodder by the heroes. See what I mean?

Even the Westerns that don’t feature that particular character tend to adopt a pox-on-both-their-houses view of the war, as something that happened to white people in the Confederate states, not something they were really implicated in — which was certainly true for some, but it’s not telling the whole story, and belaboring that narrative is kind of missing the point. Maybe the culture of the Western slave states and territories was not as directly implicated in the Confederacy as that of the deep south, but the Confederacy was still an evil institution, and this seems to be the first major Western that remembers why.

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