History on Film: Lincoln vs. Django

16 Jan

DJANGO UNCHAINED and LINCOLN complement each other in many ways. Both deal with historical events from time periods that are very close to each other—DJANGO is set in 1858, LINCOLN in 1865. Both deal with the subject of slavery. Several of the important characters in DJANGO are slaves and the film shows what life was like for them on the ground. LINCOLN talks about slavery but never shows us a single slave. DJANGO offers a fanciful approach to history, with entirely fictional characters and events; LINCOLN recounts events that actually happened and uses actual historical figures as its main characters. DJANGO is like the eccentric substitute social studies teacher who comes in and throws out the textbook to offer students a revisionist history and wild stories about what “really” happened, while LINCOLN is the Establishment Historian who comes in with impeccable credentials and lays out a detailed view of the subject based on rigorous study of original documents and the actual written words of the participants. In terms of precedents of historical filmmaking, I would argue that Steven Spielberg, director of LINCOLN, follows in the tradition of someone like Darryl Zanuck, who made carefully wrought historical dramas a centerpiece of the 20th Century Fox film lineup for nearly 40 years (YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, WILSON, THE LONGEST DAY, PATTON), while Quentin Tarantino, director of DJANGO, adopts the more freewheeling approach to history taken in the past by Sam Fuller (I SHOT JESSE JAMES, RUN OF THE ARROW) and Larry Cohen (THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER), in addition to Sergio Leone and the other Italian filmmakers who offered a highly stylized view of western (and western movie) history in their films. Tarantino highly exaggerates to make his points, while Spielberg sticks to the historical record and dots all the i’s, crosses all the t’s and gets all the facial hair and suitcoats right. (As opposed to Django’s green vaquero-style “Little Joe” jacket, taken from “Bonanza.”)

Both films have their place. LINCOLN shows what it took to pass a crucial, game-changing piece of legislation (the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery) and all the arm-twisting, negotiation, chicanery and compromising necessary to press such a wild and unruly body of legislators into action. I found all the build-up to the vote on the Amendment to be rather slow-going, but once the vote started, I realized how important it was to show all that it took to get there. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen another film that dramatizes the messy work of democracy in such effective terms. I expect this film will be used in social studies and civics classes for years to come.

DJANGO UNCHAINED has a different purpose. Like the director’s previous film, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, set during World War II, it’s not a history lesson but a revenge fantasy served up in all its violent, cathartic glory. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is a trickster hero, a mythical, highly unlikely character, an empowered black man who is able to mete out justice to white slave owners and overseers (as well as their black confederates) and ride away free at the end. While the shootouts and bloodshed are mostly cartoonish, in a Spaghetti Western kind of way, there are moments of torture, killing and brutality that are lifted from the annals of slavery and presented in an entirely more serious and heart-wrenching manner, forcing us to be uncomfortable witnesses to the dark side of history, the kinds of things a film like LINCOLN would never show, not because Spielberg necessarily shies away from the more unsavory aspects of history (see the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), but because LINCOLN’s purpose was to show the positive side of history and government. (An interesting contrast to both films and somewhere in between them is Oliver Stone’s JFK, 1991, which used accounts and documents from the 26 volumes of testimony that accompanied the Warren Report, as well as transcripts from the trial of Clay Shaw and Jim Garrison’s own chronicles of his prosecution of Shaw to tell a version of history designed to counter the official story and dispute the claims of the establishment historians who closed ranks and dismissed Garrison’s efforts. I should also make note of Stone’s most recent endeavor, a documentary series for Showtime called “The Untold History of the United States,” which also counters the work of establishment historians.)

While Italian westerns, most notably Sergio Corbucci’s DJANGO (1966), provided much of the inspiration for DJANGO UNCHAINED, particularly in its look and feel, I would argue that the heart and soul of the film owe a clearer spiritual debt to Samuel Fuller, who demonstrated long ago how to craft historical film subjects with a pulp artist’s sensibility, particularly in I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949) and RUN OF THE ARROW (1957). The latter film finds a key theme in the issue of national divisions created in the past and how they manifest in racial policies nearly a century later. 1957 was the year of Little Rock and the first racial confrontation over school segregation to be watched closely by the national media and Fuller’s film looked back at the divide between North and South in the aftermath of the Civil War and how one renegade Confederate (an Irishman, no less), adopted by an Indian tribe, manages a feat of reconciliation following a battle between the U.S. Cavalry and the Sioux Indians. Fuller regularly visited the theme of racial divisions, whether in the midst of the Korean War (THE STEEL HELMET), contemporary Japan (HOUSE OF BAMBOO), Vietnam (CHINA GATE), an L.A. police unit (THE CRIMSON KIMONO) and, most memorably, an insane asylum (SHOCK CORRIDOR), in which a black man who’d been the first to integrate a southern university cracks under the strain and believes himself to be a Klan member.

DJANGO UNCHAINED, for its part, lays bare not just the racial divides between black and white, but also those among the black population that were established as a result of practices by slave owners in the centuries preceding the Civil War. We see this in the way one plantation owner’s house slave, Old Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), wields power over the other slaves and immediately pegs the “uppity” Django as a serious threat when he enters the scene. It’s quite a bold theme for a white filmmaker to tackle, but Tarantino is nothing if not audacious and he manages to treat the subject with surprising emotional power amidst the exploitation film trappings of shootouts, bloodshed, gallows humor, cameos by TV stars and character actors, and traditional western elements with baroque flourishes. It’s an alternate universe as only Tarantino can conjure.

I would also compare DJANGO to Larry Cohen’s THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (1977), another cinematic epic of pulp history. Shot on a low budget but filled with a great cast, the film managed to squeeze in, along with Hoover, an array of towering historical figures from the middle decades of the 20th century, including the likes of John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph McCarthy, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Earl Warren, and Richard Nixon. Many of them come off as even more corrupt than Hoover. It’s history told in bold face, like newspaper headlines passing before us, but with quick glimpses behind the scenes at the things these men did when the reporters either weren’t there or weren’t talking.

Both LINCOLN and DJANGO UNCHAINED had distinguished casts of supporting actors, but DJANGO’s was the more notable for star-spotters like me, who had no trouble picking out James Russo (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA), Russ Tamblyn (WEST SIDE STORY), Tom Wopat (“The Dukes of Hazzard”), Lee Horsley (“Matt Houston”), Bruce Dern, Michael Parks and, of course, the original 1966 Django himself, Franco Nero, although I was unable to recognize other significant cast members under all their facial hair when they appeared, including James Remar, Don Stroud, Michael Bowen, Ted Neeley and Robert Carradine. And Remar plays two roles, one of them quite prominent. LINCOLN’s lineup, in addition to its major supporting actors (David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook), included Jackie Earle Haley, S. Epatha Merkerson, and a few whom I didn’t recognize–James Spader (who’s changed quite a bit since SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE), John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, and Jared Harris (as Ulysses S. Grant). I found one actor who’s in both films–Walton Goggins (“The Shield,” “Justified”), who plays Billy Crash, a vicious henchman, in DJANGO and Clay Hawkins, a hesitant congressman in LINCOLN. Connections to the other historical films I mentioned include Tommy Lee Jones, who played Clay Shaw in JFK (a performance that would have worked just as well in the Leonardo DiCaprio part in DJANGO) and Michael Parks, a Tarantino regular who plays a mine foreman in DJANGO and played Bobby Kennedy in THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER. Too bad I can’t find anyone from a Sam Fuller cast who’s in either film, although Ulysses S. Grant is a character in both LINCOLN and RUN OF THE ARROW.

I thought both films were very effective and I see no reason why people can’t enjoy both. DJANGO, of course, is more “fun,” while LINCOLN is, like a generous helping of broccoli, “good for you.” I fully expect LINCOLN to win the Best Picture Oscar on February 24, but I’m glad DJANGO was at least nominated.

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3 Responses to “History on Film: Lincoln vs. Django”

  1. Ed Rampell January 17, 2013 at 3:28 AM #

    Full of Mr. Camp’s usual insights that show off (in the best sense of the term) the wide expanse of his cinematic and genealogical knowledge. Great catch re: the sole actor who appeared in both pics!

    It would have been interesting to compare the 2 films’ main female characters: Mary Todd Lincoln and Brunhilda (sp?). I just saw “Shock Corridor” for the first time and as its title indicates, it is indeed quite shocking. I wish I knew as much about directors like Sam Fuller as Mr. Camp, the King of the Bs, does. Over all, a thoughtful delight to read.

  2. Brandon January 20, 2013 at 2:25 PM #

    This is great, Brian. Thanks for writing this. I have yet to see Lincoln but, so far, Django is my favorite film of the year (I haven’t seen many).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Oscars 2015: Shorten the Speeches, Amp Up the Stars | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - February 27, 2015

    […] DJANGO UNCHAINED and Steven Spielberg made LINCOLN, two films which I compared in a piece here on January 16, 2013 and which competed for Best Picture against the eventual winner, the more topical thriller, ARGO. […]

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