Like many of Tarantino’s previous films Django Unchained is filled to the brim with film references. Below I’ve attempted to guide you through some of these references and links to other films.
I’ve only seen the film once at a screening and am sure that given the opportunity to sit down with the film on Blu-ray I will undoubtedly find even more, so the following is in no way definitive but hopefully provides some answers to for those wondering what Tarantino was referencing in Django Unchained. Also, most importantly, hopefully it will lead you to check out some of the films in question.
The most obvious film reference in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is right there in the title. Django was a 1966 ‘spaghetti western’ directed by Sergio Corbucci and starred Franco Nero in the titular role. The film was a great success, particularly in Europe and Asia, and led to tens of unofficial sequels that featured the same character name but did not feature Nero in the lead role.
Django has always been synonymous with Nero though, so much so that it even led to some non-westerns which starred Nero being retitled abroad with ‘Django’ somewhere in the title. Nero appears in Django Unchained in a cameo role in which he asks Jamie Foxx’s Django about his name.
Tarantino has even previously appeared in a ‘Django’ film, with a cameo role in Takashi Miike’s 2007 film Sukiyaki Western Django, a film that is (spoiler) a prequel of sorts to the original Django.
Tarantino also has a cameo in Django Unchained as an employee of The LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. There are two other members of the Mining Co. that we encounter (played by Michael Parks and John Jarratt) and all three have Australian accents (Tarantino’s is utterly dreadful – perhaps deliberately). The choice to use Australian accents could well be a link to Tarantino’s love of Ozploitation or simply be related to the casting of Jarratt, who unlike Tarantino or Parks is actually Australian (he is probably most well known for his role in Wolf Creek).
The soundtrack to Django Unchained features tracks taken from the original Django soundtrack, including the incredibly memorable theme tune to the film, but the film ends with a track from the 1970 comedic spaghetti western They Call me Trinity, a film which starred Terence Hill in the title role. Hill also starred as Django in the unofficial sequel Django, Prepare a Coffin.
Zoe Bell also appears in Django Unchained in a role that was reportedly cut down and wears a red mask that is very similar to those worn in the original Django.
Tarantino makes reference and takes inspiration from Corbucci’s other westerns beyond Django in Django Unchained, including nods to Minnesota Clay and, Corbucci’s masterpiece, The Great Silence. A saloon near the start of the film is called Minnesota Clay, a film that features a scene in which a character shoots the ear off of another. This also occurs in the original Django and presumably at least one of these had some influence on the infamous ear mutilation scene in Reservoir Dogs.
The Great Silence appears to be a key inspiration for Tarantino with the snow filled scenes in Django Unchained being very reminiscent of the memorable winter setting of The Great Silence. Like Django Unchained The Great Silence also features a German actor, Klaus Kinski, playing a bounty hunter, but he plays a character who has none of the charm or manners of Waltz’s King Schultz.
Tarantino also uses an Ennio Morricone track on the soundtrack to Django Unchained which was taken from Corbucci’s 1966 western The Hellbenders, a film released in the same year as Django.
The film references in Django Unchained go further back in film history than Spaghetti Westerns too with the oldest reference probably being a nod to Edwin S. Porter, the director of the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, with a wanted poster for Edwin Porter appearing in the background in a scene. The Great Train Robbery was an important film due to the innovative techniques used by Porter but is probably most well known for a shot which features a character firing directly at the camera, a shot that has been referenced multiple times in films since, most famously by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas.
Tarantino also pokes fun at the Ku Klux Klan in one of the film’s funnier scenes in which a KKK group mount an inept attack on Django and Schultz. The attack is scored by The Ride of the Valkyries, undoubtedly inspired by its use in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Where Griffith opted to celebrate the KKK and portray them heroically, Tarantino ridicules them and uses the music to directly parody Griffith’s cinematic representation of the Klan.
Tarantino also undermines and ridicules Hollywood’s previous approach to civil rights when Django and Schultz enter Mississippi. The text ‘MISSISSIPPI’ fills the screen and scrolls from one side to the other. This is almost certainly a joke at the expense of Gone with the Wind, which opens with a very similar title sequence. Where Gone with the Wind portrayed a rather idyllic view of the South Tarantino lays the text over slaves trudging in mud.
In a gag that really only works in the credits Tarantino credits Russ Tamblyn in Django Unchained as ‘Son of a Gunfighter’ (this name is not referenced in the film) and his daughter, played by Tamblyn’s real life daughter Amber, is credited as ‘Daughter of the Son of a Gunfighter’. Son of a Gunfighter was a 1965 western starring Russ Tamblyn and directed by Paul Landres. Landres was most well known for directing TV westerns, including The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, and the sheer volume of his credits is really quite extraordinary.
There have been a number of westerns that feature black actors in prominent roles and although Tarantino does not make explicit references to many it is not a stretch to imagine that films such as Boss Nigger, Buck and the Preacher, Charley One-Eye and Legend of Nigger Charley were not far from his mind when making Django Unchained.
The plot of Django Unchained also somewhat mirrors some of the elements of Hannie Caulder, a 1971 western starring Raquel Welch in the lead role. The character of Hannie Caulder is raped by three men who also murder her husband. Caulder seeks revenge and makes a deal with a bounty hunter to train her to kill the three men.
Blaxploitation films of the seventies are, unsurprisingly, another key reference point for Tarantino but the nods to this genre are often rather minor. When Schultz and Django first meet Calvin Candie, for instance, it is in the Cleopatra Club, perhaps a reference to Tamara Dobson’s character Cleopatra Jones, who appeared in the 1973 film of the same name and the rather weak sequel Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold two years later.
One of Candie’s slaves, who we are first introduced to in the Cleopatra Club, is called Sheba, again possibly a reference to another ass-kicking blaxpoitation heroine. Tarantino favourite Pam Grier played the title role of Sheba Shayne in Sheba, Baby, a character billed in the advertising as “Hotter ‘N’ Coffy, Meaner ‘N’ Foxy Brown”.
Most notably the love of Django’s life, his wife Broomhilda, has the rather unusual surname ‘von Shaft’, undoubtedly a reference to the 1971 blaxploitation smash hit Shaft.
When we are first introduced to Broomhilda she has been put in the ‘hot box’, a punishment for trying to run away from Calvin Candie’s plantation. This could also be a reference to another blaxploitation film, the somewhat lousy The Hot Box, a Roger Corman produced ‘Women in Prison’ film which featured a script co-written by Jonathan Demme. The logistics of the hot box in The Hot Box are very different to those of the one in Django Unchained though.
In the Cleopatra Club we also first introduced to ‘Mandingo fights’, a practice that was made famous by the exploitation picture Mandingo, directed by Richard Fleischer and released by Paramount Pictures in 1975. Tarantino has previously talked about Mandingo at length and it was almost certainly an influence that led to the inclusion of these scenes and the Mandingo fighting sub-plot in Django Unchained.
Samuel Jackson’s character of Stephen has been described by many to be a an ‘Uncle Tom’ character (a character type which gets its name from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and whilst Django Unchained bears very little similarity to Goodbye Uncle Tom, a 1971 faked documentary that explores slavery, it was almost certainly a reference point for Tarantino. The soundtrack for Goodbye Uncle Tom also features music from Riz Ortolani, who appears on the soundtrack to Django Unchained.
A number of pieces of music in Django Unchained are taken from the scores for other film, including cuts taken from Two Mules for Sister Sara, Hornet’s Nest, Under Fire, Day of Anger, The Last American Hero and His Name Was King. This last track supplies the theme tune for the character of King Schultz. The film His Name Was King was another western featuring Klaus Kinski, although he did not play the ‘King’ character.
The track ‘Unchained’, which is used to great effect in one of the film’s later shoot-out sequences, samples heavily from the track Payback by James Brown. Although Payback did not actually first appear on a soundtrack it was originally recorded for the Larry Cohen film Hell Up in Harlem, a sequel to James Brown scored Black Caesar. Reports as to why it was not actually used differ but it appears to have been due to a dispute over the cost of making the music James Brown supplied for Black Caesar fit to the film.
So, what have I missed? Let me know in the comments section below.
Django Unchained is out in UK cinemas now.