HAPPY FRONTIERADO! As this edition of the holiday winds down, here’s one last seasonal post.
DJANGO: AN OPERA – Here at Balladeer’s Blog I love sharing my enthusiasms. My blog posts where I provide contemporary slants to Ancient Greek Comedies to make them more accessible have been big hits over the years, so now I’m trying it with operas. A little while back I wrote about how Philip Wylie’s science fiction novel Gladiator could be done as an opera. This time I’m addressing the 1966 original version of the Spaghetti Western titled Django.
IF YOU HATE OPERAS AND YOU’D RATHER JUST READ MY MOVIE REVIEW OF THE 1966 DJANGO, CLICK HERE
LANGUAGE: Spanish. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most of my fellow English-speakers find English-language operas to be silly. The prosaic nature of the forced rhymes in a language we are well-versed in does seem to rob opera of its mystique and its grandeur.
I fall into that trap myself. I’ve noticed I can never lose myself in a Gilbert & Sullivan work like I can with La Forza del Destino or Tales of Hoffmann or any other opera sung in a less familiar language. At any rate, I’ve chosen Spanish for this opera because so much of the story takes place in Mexico during the war to dethrone Emperor Maximilian.
SINGERS: A Tenor, 2 Baritones, a Soprano, 3 Basses and a Mezzo-Soprano
For Django, I’m making it a two-act opera as opposed to the three-act format I used for Gladiator.
ACT ONE: MARCH 1867. A STRETCH OF BARREN DESERT ALONG THE US/ MEXICO BORDER.
Scene One: The opera would open with a stage version of one of the most iconic visuals from the 1966 film. Our title character, DJANGO, clad in his long blue jacket with his well-worn Union Army uniform underneath it, slowly, wearily drags a coffin behind him as he walks along singing his mournful song. He pulls the coffin via a rope slung across one shoulder.
The coffin symbolizes the burden of grief that Django has carried with him ever since his wife was killed during the U.S. Civil War by Confederate MAJOR JACKSON. Django has pursued his ideological and personal enemy across the west and now to this battle-scarred border town.
The vile Major Jackson and his former Confederate soldiers have turned into outright Klansmen. Jackson and his men are among the former Confederate military men who took up Emperor Maximilian’s offer of land and citizenship in Mexico (where slavery was still legal). In exchange they had to fight to help Maximilian retain his throne.
Scene Two: Cut to the Democrat Major Jackson, pathetically trying to recapture the feel of his lost Plantation by abusing Mexican peasants … Even killing them for amusement like he’s some ancient feudal lord answerable to no one here in his personal fiefdom.
In the cries of the suffering Mexicans, Jackson malevolently tries to recapture and nurture in his mind the horrors he inflicted on his Plantation slaves before and during the Civil War. In the Major’s song it becomes clear that he cares nothing for his men who die in this war to aid Maximilian, just like he never cared about all the Southern men who died trying to preserve the privileges of slave-owners like himself.
Some of Jackson’s men drag a prostitute, MARIA, before the Major for punishment. Her offense? Selling her sexual favors to some of the Mexican rebels that Jackson’s men fight on behalf of the Emperor. Jackson and his Klansmen don’t like the thought of white men like themselves using a prostitute after she’s “soiled herself” with Mexicans and so he orders her taken out and whipped.
(Jackson and his men would not regard Emperor Maximilian as Mexican but rather as a white man, since he is really an Austrian aristocrat who was named Emperor of Mexico by France’s Napoleon the Third.)
Scene Three: Cut to the sadistic Klansmen whipping Maria in the barren borderlands. Django, still dragging along the coffin, happens upon the scene. Jackson’s men make it clear how much they loathe the Union Army uniform that our hero still wears. After an exchange of threats and insults Django wins the subsequent shootout, killing the handful of former Confederates.
Scene Four: Django and Maria arrive in the nearly post-apocalyptic Bordertown and check into the hotel/ saloon/ brothel. While our hero has a meal and a drink the BARTENDER, PROSTITUTES and BYSTANDERS ponder the coffin that Django has with him. They wonder what’s in it. Is it the dead body of the woman Django loved? Is it a coffin reserved for the vile Major Jackson when he at last falls to our hero’s guns?
While Django eats at a table in the saloon, Maria goes to their room upstairs. Some Jackson sympathizers deduce that our hero is the enigmatic Nemesis that the Major often rages about. They begin to lean on Django, who shoots down several of the gunmen while others flee the town to inform Jackson and his men about the Union veteran’s presence.
Scene Five: Cut to Django in his upstairs room with Maria. She and the other patrons have made it clear to our hero that Major Jackson and his men will surely seek him out to kill him as early as the next day. Django is fine with that, since he wants to bring his years-long feud with the Major to an end one way or the other.
Maria’s latest song pleads with the gunslinger to put the war behind him since killing Jackson won’t bring back Django’s dead wife. His emotional scars run as deep as her physical scars from the whipping. She urges him to take her away from this hellish, war-torn landscape to someplace back in America where they can try to make a new life together free of their painful pasts.
Django’s answering song makes it clear that it’s not that easy. That the Civil War refuses to die. Back home in America the Ku Klux Klan and other Democrats refuse to let it end. They continue terrorizing and preying on the freed slaves and other blacks. That vileness has now spread below the border in the form of the Major and other Confederate soldiers wanting land and slaves in Mexico.
Scene Six: Cut to Major Jackson being informed about Django’s arrival in the Bordertown. It becomes clear that, just as our hero feels hounded by his memories of what Major Jackson did, Jackson feels hounded by the inescapable stories of the gunman in Union blue who pursues him everywhere, dragging a coffin behind him.
Just like Django, the Major feels that he will never be rid of the phantasmal images that haunt him until a final confrontation is forced.
ACT TWO: THE FOLLOWING MORNING AT THE BORDERTOWN.
Scene One: Django drags the coffin out into the street and positions it behind a fallen tree amid the other wreckage in the battle-scarred town. He sits waiting patiently while exchanging sung dialogue with Maria and BROTHER JONATHAN, one supporting him and the other taunting him.
Major Jackson and his hooded Klansmen, dozens of them, ride into town and dismount. While more hooded men ride into the Bordertown from the opposite end of town behind Django he calmly opens the coffin lid and putters with something inside.
Major Jackson rejoices that his Nemesis, hopelessly outnumbered, is sure to be exterminated. Meanwhile the hooded Klansmen approach Django, taking time to enact their ugly ritual of cross-burning. The townspeople huddle indoors, terrified of Jackson and his men and assuming our hero is as good as dead.
Django brings the singing of the cross-burning Klansmen to an end, revealing that his coffin concealed a Gatling Gun which he assembled while puttering in the coffin. He uses the Gatling Gun to slaughter Jackson’s hooded soldiers in a virtual ballet of mass murder.
Major Jackson, who hung back while sending his men toward Django, turns to flee. Our hero shoots him, but only wounds him, causing him to fall into the mud, but the former Confederate officer still makes his escape. Maria and the Bartender tell Django that Jackson’s next move will no doubt be to request actual Imperial troops from Emperor Maximilian. And they won’t be taken by surprise now that our hero’s hole card – the Gatling Gun – has been revealed.
Scene Two: The following day finds the panicked Major Jackson pleading for help with the nearest Imperial officers he could reach. The officer in charge of that particular stronghold of the Emperor’s forces makes it clear to Jackson that, with his men all dead now, he himself is virtually useless to them.
He had a certain status with them as the leader of a battle-hardened veteran army unit fighting at their side. Now, however, while he is certainly welcome to stay as an officer in Maximilian’s army, he’s just another officer now.
The Commandant scornfully tells Jackson that he cares nothing about the blood feud between him and Django, but in the name of the Major’s past services to the Imperial Army he’ll lead a detachment of men to kill Django, but mostly so they can take his Gatling Gun. Such a device has a lot of value at this point in the war, with both sides scrambling for every weapon they could lay their hands on.
(In fact Emperor Maximilian would be deposed and executed within just a few months.)
Major Jackson, in a fit of pique – or maybe cowardice – refuses to ride with the Imperials. He wants to reach the Bordertown and hide, planning to kill Django if he somehow survives the battle with Maximilian’s troopers.
Scene Three: The Bordertown, where Maria has used her connections with her rebel “clients” to summon the nearest rebel officer – GENERAL HUGO RODRIGUEZ.
Rodriguez meets with Django and – in exchange for our hero serving with the rebels and giving them his Gatling Gun – agrees to let him ride with Hugo’s men toward the Imperial-held area that Major Jackson likely fled to. With this being Django’s only lead to his hated foe’s location now, he agrees.
Scene Four: The next scene opens with Django, Hugo and the rebel troops setting up an ambush for the Imperials, along a narrow trail their enemies would need to cling to since it is surrounded by long stretches of quicksand.
The ambush is launched, but Hugo turns out to be nothing but a blustering, tin-pot “General” and not a competent commander after all. The Imperials, even outnumbered and taken by surprise, outmaneuver and overwhelm the rebels, killing most of them while the others flee.
Django, unwilling to let his Gatling Gun fall into the hands of Major Jackson’s allies (and possibly Jackson himself), kicks it into the quicksand where it sinks before Maximilian’s men can salvage it.
Angry that Django kept the valuable weapon out of his hands, the Commandant has his men break the wrists and several fingers on our hero’s hands. He then spitefully tells him he can find Major Jackson back at the Bordertown, where Django will have to face him while unable to hold a gun.
Scene Five: Cut to the Bordertown, where Major Jackson is waiting in the saloon to see if his Nemesis returns there IF he survives against the Imperials. Maria hides from Jackson, terrified he’ll kill her if he learns she helped Django.
At length some of Hugo’s defeated and fleeing rebels pass through the Bordertown on foot, grabbing some quick drinks and stealing a horse or two before resuming their flight. Major Jackson is thrilled that Maximilian’s men won and hopes that Django is dead.
One of the fleeing rebels curses “Django’s woman” for causing them to get in that battle they just got massacred in. The sadistic Major Jackson perks up at the mention of Django’s woman and relishes the thought of finding her and killing ANOTHER woman close to his hated foe.
Amid Maria’s song of fear and Jackson’s song of predatory anticipation, the woman eludes the villain, who can never quite catch sight of her. A saloon patron shows up and announces that Django has arrived and, with broken and bloodied hands, is in the hillside cemetery.
Major Jackson is even more delighted now. Django’s hands have been mangled, giving him (Jackson) a presumably insurmountable advantage if he confronts him now. Jackson heads for the cemetery.
Scene Six: We join Django in the cemetery and, just like in the film, he painfully and awkwardly struggles with his pistol, trying to rest part of it on the crucifix over a grave and hoping that he will be able to use his battered fingers to jointly pull the trigger.
Time and again – like in the film – Django’s mangled hands cause him to drop the gun just as it nears a position where he can rest it on an arm of the crucifix.
Suspense is building up this entire time because from off-stage we can hear Major Jackson approaching, singing the predatory song he sang while looking for Maria, only with new lyrics since it is his old foe he is now closing in on and will presumably kill.
Just in time Django succeeds in resting the pistol, aimed at the gateway entrance to the cemetery. As the seemingly triumphant Major Jackson, still singing, appears in the gateway, Django manages to squeeze off a couple shots, killing the overconfident Jackson and sardonically completing his song for him. Ironically, Jackson hadn’t even bothered to draw his gun yet, so convinced was he of final victory over his handicapped enemy.
Having heard the gunshots Maria arrives in the cemetery, fearing Django has been killed. She and our hero embrace and in a reprise of their earlier song, Django agrees to go back to America and build a new life with her. After all, not only is the foe he hunted for the past few years finally dead but – even when his hands heal – he won’t ever again be the quick and deadly gunfighter he had been before.
The pair symbolically leave behind the cemetery, that place of the dead, now that Django is prepared to at last rejoin the living with his newfound love.
COMMENT: As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum here at Balladeer’s Blog, Django is one of my favorite Spaghetti Westerns, second only to Once Upon A Time In The West.
I had long loved the many themes in the story. Westerns made in the U.S. at the time (1966) were far from willing to deal with the direct connection between the fallen Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. I have never understood the fixation so many people have on the ridiculously romanticized version of the Confederacy. It’s like the fixation so many people have on the PR version of the animal Che Guevara. Or the absurdly romanticized version of the 1960s.
Other themes are in play besides just the way the ghosts of the Civil War haunt the nation to this very day, with one being the forever-dysfunctional nature of Mexico. I know we have plenty of issues here in the U.S. but Mexico has been so chaotic it almost defies belief.
In the ugliness of “Emperor” Maximilian’s reign in Mexico you also have the theme of European intervention in other nation’s affairs. Napoleon the Third took advantage of the fact that a Civil War-torn America was in no position to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and set up his ally as the ruler of a nation whose language he supposedly could barely speak.
No matter WHICH side you’re on regarding the themes I just laid out, the fact remains that the story in the original Django movie definitely resonates. Right down to the way the people battered by war often spend the rest of their lives trying to escape the memories.
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