Western Movies

The Soul of Django Unchained

Examining the cinematic roots of Quentin Tarantino’s Western.


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Quentin Tarantino has called his upcoming film Django Unchained a “Southern,” as it takes place in the South, moments before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. His story of runaway slave Django (Jamie Foxx)

has been tied to Spaghetti Westerns as a major influence (certainly the title), but the cinematic roots of Tarantino’s project are more complex than just Euro Westerns, and these deserve to be explored.

Decades before Fred Williamson or football star Jim Brown made their Western debuts, directors Raoul Walsh and John Ford blazed a trail by casting black stars in major roles, which challenged audience expectations of the genre they helped invent.

Released in 1957, Walsh’s Band of Angels remains a bizarre mix of Civil War clichés and frank scenes about race and sex. Sidney Poitier plays the “house servant” who hates his master (Clark Gable) for killing him with kindness.  Poitier joins the Union Army and later confronts Gable and his woman (Yvonne De Carlo), a half-caste who he despises for betraying her race.

These raw scenes almost make up for Angels’ embarrassing “Old Massa” moments; but despite its faults, Walsh’s film took a significant step by addressing Poitier’s character’s anger.

While Poitier was becoming a star in modern subjects, a black lead in a major Western was years off. Ironically, John Wayne’s curmudgeonly mentor would be the one to launch a bombshell against the “Western Color Barrier.”

Coming after 1959’s listless The Horse Soldiers, 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge was Ford’s least appreciated masterwork. Anchored by Woody Strode’s superb performance as the Buffalo Soldier wrongly accused of killing a white girl, Rutledge lays bare racial and military hypocrisy.

Ford loved tradition, but he also embraced revolt; if he could upset the apple cart, he would. Rutledge explodes the cart by creating the first black hero in a studio Western; Ford honors the black cavalry while despising its treatment from command.

In 1960 audiences weren’t ready and Rutledge failed, but it...

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