Blogging “Django Unchained” (The Tennessee Chapters)
• In some sheltered rocky campsite on the road to Tennessee, Dr. Schultz is taking his clothes down from a laundry line and putting them back on, while Django eats by a campfire. The doctor asks Django what he intends to do after he has his freedom. Django says, “Find my wife and buy her freedom.” Schultz is surprised by this, asking somewhat naively, “Do most slaves believe in marriage?” Django says, “Me and my wife do. Old Man Carrucan didn’t. That’s why we run off.”
• A flashback filmed in overexposed colors shows us Old Man Carrucan (Bruce Dern), who has Django chained up and muzzled. The old man — who’s wearing an anachronistic pair of sunglasses with hinges in the lenses — says, “You got sand, Django.” He turns to the Brittle brothers and says, “The boy’s got sand.” He turns back to the slave and says, “I got no use for a nigger with sand.” Then he instructs the Brittles to brand an “r” on Django’s cheek, “and the girl, too.” Then he tells the Brittles to sell them separately at Greenville. “And this one you will sell cheap.”
• Going over to the fireside to pour Django some coffee, Schultz reasons that a record of the sale will be at Greenville, so they can find Django’s wife. He asks what her name is. Django answers “Broomhilda,” which makes Schultz do a double take. The name “Broomhilda” is an English-language corruption of the German name “Brünnhilde,” which itself is a corruption of the name “Brynhildir” from the Old Norse legends. We’ll go into further depth about this later, but for now Schultz asks if her masters were German. Django asks how he knows that, and Schultz informs him that Brünnhilde is a German name. Django further says that Broomhilda was taught German so she could speak to her first masters and that her last name is von Shaft, an obvious reference to the 1971 blaxploitation classic movie Shaft. Schultz can’t believe this is the case.
• There’s a golden-hued scene where we get our first glimpse of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), sitting on a swing and looking gorgeous as Kerry Washington tends to look. To no one we can discern, she says, “They call me Hildy.” She looks off-camera up at someone adoringly. Is this a happier flashback for Django? Anyway, there’s a transitional shot of Schultz and Django riding into a sunset.
• A title on an establishing shot tells us we’re in Tennessee, specifically a haberdashery in Chattanooga that advertises “House Nigger and Servant Uniforms.” Inside, Schultz sits with his back to the camera, but with his face reflected in a mirror as he gives Django acting advice: They’ll both be posing as other people when they visit those plantations looking for the Brittles. This is a common motif with Tarantino, characters approaching real-life situations as if they’re actors playing roles — check Holdaway’s monologue about acting in Reservoir Dogs, or the “let’s get into character” line from Pulp Fiction. Django is trying on different hats in the store, and he puts on a red top hat that sits awkwardly on his nappy hair. Schultz gives him a nonplussed reaction, and Django puts it back. When Schultz tells Django he’ll be playing a valet, Django asks what that is. This is part of the subplot in which Schultz teaches Django to read and to speak more articulately. It’s not fleshed out all that well, but Tarantino clearly regards it as important. When Schultz tells Django that he can choose his character’s costume, Django’s eyes flash at being able to pick out his own clothes.
• This made me laugh out loud, and I mean really loud, when I first saw it. Django is wearing electric blue knee pants and a matching fancy blouse as he rides through a cotton field. Had I the fashion expertise, I would have identified the outfit as a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. This is another anachronism, as the suit didn’t become fashionable until the 1880s. I’ve never been as sensitive as I’d like toward how characters dress in movies. If I were, maybe I would have picked up (as others did) that it’s kind of sad that Django thinks this is how a rich man’s servant dresses. Still, it makes one hell of an impact. Costume designer Sharen Davis really deserved an Oscar nomination for this film, as I said in an earlier piece. We hear “Lo chiamavano King” again on the soundtrack during all this.
• Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson) is wearing a rather remarkable ensemble his own self, an all-white outfit that, along with the man’s goatee, reminded many people of Colonel Sanders. Of course, the name Big Daddy comes largely from the Southern patriarch in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As Django and Schultz ride up to the main house, Big Daddy (standing on the second floor terrace next to a female housekeeper) greets them with, “It’s against the law for niggers to ride horses in this territory.” Schultz counters “My valet does not walk,” and protests that as a free man, Django can ride what he pleases. Schultz is being protective, but he manages to put his stance across as a “the customer is always right” attitude. When Big Daddy still cops the high hand, Schultz starts to remove his gloves and says, “Mr. Bennett, perhaps we got off on the wrong boot. Allow me to unring this bell.” He introduces himself, Django, and their horses, and Fritz does the trick where he bows his head, which makes the slave women laugh in amusement. Schultz goes on expansively about how they’ve ridden from Texas to meet Big Daddy, using the word “parley” again and concluding “I wish to purchase one of your nigger gals!” For those who think Tarantino uses that word willy-nilly, it’s worth noting that Schultz himself uses the word only when he wants to ingratiate himself with racist white people such as Big Daddy and, later, Calvin Candie. Anyway, Big Daddy mentions that they don’t have an appointment, to which Schultz agrees. “Well, what if I said I don’t like you or your fancy-pants nigger, and I wouldn’t sell you a tinker’s dam? Now what you got to say to that?” To which Christoph Waltz performs an outrageous twirl of his mustache and says, with mock surprise, “Mr. Bennett, if you are the businessman I’ve been led to believe you to be, I have 5,000 things I might say that could change your mind!” After a second’s pause, Big Daddy breaks into a wide smile and invites Schultz in for a cool drink. Ah, the spectacle of racism being overcome by the prospect of monetary gain! Heartwarming, isn’t it? Seriously, though, Don Johnson is really funny in this role. He’s most famous for starring on TV’s Miami Vice and something called Nash Bridges, but he can be an effective and dangerously charming foil for a leading man in movies. (See him opposite Kevin Costner in Tin Cup.)
• Schultz gets down from his wagon, ties up his horse, and mounts the stairs up to the terrace to talk to Big Daddy. As they meet, Schultz requests that a slave woman escort Django across the grounds while the white men talk business. This, of course, is a pretext so that Django can spot the Brittles. Big Daddy calls Betina (Miriam F. Glover) and repeats Schultz’ instructions to her. Quietly, Schultz also tells Big Daddy that Django can’t be treated as a slave. “Within the bounds of good taste, he must be treated as an extension of myself.” Obligingly, Schultz tells Betina that Django is a free man. “He can’t be treated like all the other niggers here, ‘cause he ain’t like all the other niggers.” The original script makes Betina out a sharp woman, but Glover plays her as really stupid, and it works in terms of the scene, which is all about pointing out how ridiculous racism is, especially when it’s as codified as it is in the South. Betina asks dimly if she should treat Django like a white man, and Big Daddy shuts her down quick. She calls up, “Then I don’t know what you want, Big Daddy,” and Mr. Bennett is forced to admit that he can see that. He asks the housekeeper for the name of the white boy who works with the glass and tells Betina to treat Django just as she would Jerry. We never see Jerry, but we can assume he’s second-class in some way.
• After a transitional shot of a young white girl in an upstairs room playing a gavotte on a violin, we see Betina walking with Django away from the main house. “That house we just left from is The Big House. Big Daddy call it that ’cause it’s big.” Please don’t tell me why he’s called “Big Daddy.” She then points out the pantry, where Big Daddy keeps his meat. “Po’ little squirrels.” She asks him what he does for his master, and Django repeats Schultz’ words that he’s free. Innocently, she asks, “You mean you wanna dress like that?”
• Django backs her up against a tree and asks her about the Brittles. She hasn’t heard that name, but he figures that they might be using a different name. She thinks before saying, “You mean the Shaffers?” He asks if she can point out one of the brothers. She calls his attention to one brother in a field a ways off. Django pulls out a telescopic lens and sees Ellis Brittle, a fellow with an eye patch, on a horse overseeing the slaves.
• Another overexposed flashback, this one set to “Freedom,” sung by Anthony Hamilton and Elana Boynton. Ellis (Doc Duhame) is holding a whip and loosening up his arm, while Little Raj (Cooper Huckabee) ties Hildy’s wrists to a tree and Django begs to Big John (M.C. Gainey), trying to give him reasons not to whip her. Interspersed with this is a flashback within the flashback, as Django and Hildy make their run for freedom, with closeups of a terrified Hildy and then a shot of the two running across a field, with white men on horseback with torches gaining on them. Ellis cracks the whip, and Hildy screams in pain. He does so twice more, and while we don’t see any of the damage the whip is doing to her back, the expression on Kerry Washington’s face is enough to convey the brutality of what’s going on here. Django goes down on his knees as he begs Big John to stop. Big John just leans in close and says, “I like the way you beg, boy.”
• The crack of Ellis’ whip in the present jolts us back, as Betina asks Django if that was who he was looking for. He says yes and asks where the other two brothers are. She says, “They punishin’ Little Jody for breakin’ eggs.” Django tells her to point him in that direction, and she does so. He goes, calling behind her to “Go get that white man I came here with.”
• More brutality, as Little Rog drags Little Jody (Sharon Pierre-Louis) by her wrists, with her left ankle dragging along the ground and her face turned away from the camera. This is identical to a shot from Corbucci’s Django. While she begs for mercy, Little Rog ties her to a tree trunk and Big John cracks a whip in the air while reciting, “And the Lord said, ‘The fear of ye and the dread of ye shall be on every beast on the Earth,’ ” which is Genesis 9:2, a verse that establishes man’s power over the animals. I guess Big John is equating Hildy with an animal. Big John has Bible pages sewn onto his shirt, which is odd. The really odd thing is that this is a bucolic scene with golden sunlight streaming down and slaves sitting in carefree attitudes (one’s on a swing). It would look quite peaceful if not for the prospective whipping and Django grimly bearing down on it. We’re treated to this really tense musical cue by Bacalov from Django. Just as Big John prepares to administer the first lash, Django reaches the scene and shouts his name. The camera performs a slow zoom towards Django in his electric blue suit. Little Jody’s back is to this, but there’s a mirror placed in front of the tree for some reason, so she’s looking at Django’s reflection and can tell that there’s a man there, but she can’t see his face. Django asks Big John if he remembers him, then slides the single-shot pistol out of his sleeve and shoots Big John right through the Bible page that’s sewn over his heart. As Big John looks down at the bullet hole, Django says, “I like the way you die, boy.” Big John looks frankly shocked before he falls heavily on his face. Little Rog curses and tries to pull a gun, but he fumbles the thing and gives Django the time to pick up John’s whip and lash Little Rog at least a dozen times. We see slaves looking on in amazement, including a couple of boys from the loft of the barn behind Little Raj. The out-and-out rage on Foxx’s face is extraordinary to witness — as one critic said, you don’t even pay attention to what he’s wearing in this moment. Finally, with Little Rog curled into a ball on the ground, Django picks up his pistol. He sees that a crowd of slaves is now watching, and he says to them, “Y’all wanna see somethin’?” Then he empties the gun into Little Rog, at least five shots.
• As he does this, Schultz rides up on his horse as fast as he can, rifle in hand. He dismounts, looks at the two dead men, and asks, “Who are they?” It’s the first time we’ve seen Schultz behind the curve on something. Django tells him that they’re Big John and Little Rog. Where’s Ellis? Django points to him riding quickly across the cotton field where we saw him earlier. Fortunately, Schultz’ rifle is a long-range weapon with a sight. He trains it on Ellis and doesn’t take his eyes off the moving target while he asks Django whether he’s sure that’s the guy. “Yeah.” “Positive?” “I don’t know.” “You don’t know if you’re positive?” “I don’t know what ‘positive’ mean.” “It means you’re sure.” “Yes.” “Yes, what?” “Yes, I’m sure that’s Ellis Brittle.” Schultz pulls the trigger, and the blast punches a hole in Ellis’ chest, spraying the white cotton blossoms with blood. (Park Chan-wook did a similar thing near the end of his recent Stoker, but it’s more effective here.) Ellis falls from his horse. Django says, “I’m positive he dead.” That Django, he’s a quick study. Funny stuff, all of this.
• Big Daddy is now the head of a large party of armed men, both black and white, marching toward the scene. Also in this party are several women, including the housekeeper and Betina, as well as two black boys and the white girl we saw playing the violin. Spotting this, Schultz yells to Django, and our heroes both throw down their firearms and put their hands up as Schultz amusingly asks for calm. He explains that the previously mentioned Judge Laudermilk has signed a warrant for the Brittle brothers, dead or alive. Django tells Schultz that they were going by the name of Shaffer, which makes Schultz do a double take — the pseudonym is a corruption of the German surname Schäfer. He tells the posse that he and Django were within their rights to kill the Brittles. “I realize that passions are high, but I must warn you: The penalty for taking deadly force against an officer of the court in the performance of his duty is, you’ll be hung by the neck until you’re dead.” This makes the men lower their weapons. Schultz asks to reach into his pocket to pull out the warrant. Big Daddy lets him, and Schultz presents the warrant to him. He eyeballs Django a second before taking a long moment to read the thing, at the end of which Schultz asks for the document back. Big Daddy holds on to the paper a moment longer to tell Schultz, “Get off my land.” The German responds, “Posthaste,” and instructs Django to tie up the dead men and leave quickly.
• Later that night, we see that there’s a cavity in the tooth (see what I did there?) on top of Schultz’ wagon. Schultz is whistling the Django theme while using a key to unlock a compartment in the tooth, taking out a wad of bills, and putting in a bundle of dynamite.
• We see the wagon and an extinguished campfire from a vantage point on a hillside overlooking the site. That’s where Big Daddy and a couple of lackeys (one played by Jonah Hill) have crawled up to establish that they’re there. Then they creep away, and as they do, we see that there’s 30 men on horseback behind them, carrying torches and wearing improvised hoods made out of bags. As they ride down the hillside, the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem plays. The hammered chords in this piece of music often go with punchy editing (especially in sports highlights videos), but Tarantino films the ride in long, fluid takes. The music is terrifying in itself, but it’s even more so accompanying this thing. Big Daddy is a fool, but he’s plenty dangerous because he can call up a mob like this. As the riders circle the campsite, it looks very bad for our heroes…
• …but then there’s this piece of awesomeness. We flash back to just before the raid, as Big Daddy tells his men not to shoot unless they’re fired upon, vowing to whip Schultz to death and castrate Django. Then he puts a bag over his own head and says, “Damn! I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing!” Ah ha ha ha! He tries to enlarge the eyehole, but he rips the mask instead. Someone asks, “Who made this goddamn shit?” Willard’s wife is who. A man who’s presumably Willard says, “Well, make your own goddamn masks!” Big Daddy tries to smooth things over by saying everyone appreciates what Jenny did, but someone else says, “If all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!” Off to the side one rider asks another, “Can you see, Robert?” Robert answers, “Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good more or less, but when I start ridin’, the bag’s movin’ all over and I’m ridin’ blind.” While one rider spits out tobacco through his eyehole, Jonah Hill tries to fix his eyehole and promptly rips his mask. He asks if anyone brought any extra bags. Nobody did. (If you want to know why an Oscar nominee like Hill is taking such a small part, it’s Tarantino’s recompense for cutting out a much larger role made for the actor.) Someone asks Big Daddy if they have to wear the masks. Big Daddy responds “Shitfire!” (a new expletive on me) “If you don’t wear ‘em as you ride up, it just defeats the purpose!” One guy declares he’s not wearing the bag, and Willard (Christopher Berry) provides the comic high point of this scene as he throws a lifesaving hissyfit: “Well, fuck all y’all! I’m goin’ home! I watched my wife work all day getting 30 bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches, and all I hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!” Big Daddy tries to get the group back on task, but Jonah Hill asks whether the bags are on or off. Robert says, “I think we all think the bags was a nice idea, but, not pointin’ any fingers or nothin’, they could have been done better.” For a hate group, they’re really delicate when it comes to everybody’s feelings. He proposes that they wear no bags this time, but next time they “go full regalia,” a word that Tarantino uses advisedly. Big Daddy won’t hear it, though. Jonah Hill protests that nobody can see. Big Daddy says, “Goddamn it! This is a raid! I can’t see, you can’t see. The only thing that matters is, can the fuckin’ horse see? That’s a raid!” As I said before, I’m no expert on horses, but that doesn’t sound right to me. This sequence directly parodies the climactic sequence of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a seminal film in cinema history for its trailblazing work in film narrative, but also a movie that has the Ku Klux Klan riding heroically to the rescue of its white heroes against black villains. Tarantino throws a pie in that movie’s face, and it’s fantastic.
• We’re back to the raid itself, and now we hear several riders complaining that they can’t see as they ride up. Big Daddy tells his men to drag Django from underneath the wagon, but the guy tasked with this finds that what looks like Django’s sleeping body is in fact just a lot of luggage covered by a blanket. Where are our heroes?
• They’re in a tree some distance off, as Schultz aims the same long-distance rifle we saw him use earlier. Bidding them “Auf Wiedersehen,” he shoots the dynamite-loaded tooth, blowing up the wagon and sending dead men and dead horses flying everywhere. As Big Daddy’s men flee (some of them falling off their horses because they can’t see), Django looks on with unrestrained delight — he’s probably never seen a dynamite blast. Big Daddy himself is lagging behind his men because he’s trying to get back on his horse. Schultz aims at him, but then hands the rifle to Django and asks if he wants to do the honors. Django takes aim, following Big Daddy, who’s now back on his horse and riding away. Schultz taunts him that the man is getting away, but Django calmly fires at his target. With the camera focusing on the horse’s feet running in slow motion, we hear an exaggerated zip of a bullet on the soundtrack striking home. A few seconds later, we see Big Daddy fall from the horse. As the white horse rides away, we see its neck covered in its rider’s blood. In the tree, Schultz marvels, “The kid’s a natural.” Django looks like he can barely believe the shot he just made.
• At a different campsite in the hills late one night, Django asks Schultz how he knew Broomhilda was German. Schultz explains the name’s German origins, and that she’s a character in a legend that every German knows. Django puts aside his food and sits at Schultz’ feet expectantly, and the dentist realizes he’s waiting for the story. So he begins that Brünnhilde is a princess, the daughter of Wotan, who has disobeyed her father for some reason that Schultz can’t remember. The campfire casts a reddish glow on the rock face behind Schultz as he gestures with his right hand, explaining that Wotan exiled Brünnhilde to a mountaintop. “It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there Broomhilda shall remain, unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.” Django asks if that happens, and Schultz says yes, there’s a hero named Siegfried. “He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of it. And he walks through hellfire, because Brünnhilde’s worth it.” Django simply says, “I know how he feel.” This is extraordinary, and not just because of the acting by Waltz and Foxx. Schultz isn’t recounting the plot of the Nibelungenlied, which was the form in which most Germans knew this story in 1858. Instead, he’s reciting the plot of Richard Wagner’s operas, specifically Siegfried, the third opera in the tetralogy. Wagner was still working on the Ring cycle in 1858, and because he was living in exile in Switzerland, his efforts weren’t being widely reported. So Schultz couldn’t have heard of it unless he met Wagner, and it seems unlikely that they’d run in the same circles. Tarantino is drawing parallels to the operas because he’s trying to subvert them, no less than he’s trying to subvert The Birth of a Nation. Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite who believed in the superiority of the “German race,” and he’d be flipping over in his grave knowing that his story inspired a black slave to rise up against his oppressors, or inspired a German to help him.
• Schultz tells Django that it’s too dangerous for him to go alone to a slave auction town like Greenville. Instead, he proposes that Django partner him. There’s a bit in the original script that elaborates: Schultz is working the Tennessee hills because many outlaws hole up in the hills for the winter, and with a partner he can take down much larger gangs and make much more money. I wish Tarantino had retained those lines. (You should definitely check out the original script, which contains many interesting things that were nevertheless cut out for mostly sound reasons. It also contains myriad spelling errors by Tarantino.) All we see is Schultz proposing that Django work with him for the winter, giving Django a one-third cut of the profits and promising to go with him to Greenville to track down Hildy. Django asks, “Why you care what happen to me?” Schultz says, “Frankly, I’ve never given anybody their freedom before. And now that I have, I feel vaguely responsible for you. Plus, when a German meets a real-life Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal. As a German, I’m obliged to help you on your quest to rescue your beloved Brünnhilde.” And now Hitler’s flipping over in his grave along with Wagner. It’s a clever move of Tarantino to make Django’s white mentor a non-American. An American at this time would have been intimately familiar with the institution of slavery, even if they were indifferent to it. This way, it’s more credible that the mentor isn’t ensnarled in the prejudices that many Americans were carrying, and when he encounters the ugliness of slavery, he’s as horrified by it as we are. Of course, many Europeans knew about slavery and were for it or against it, but Schultz comes to it as someone who dislikes it in general terms until he sees it up close and sees how evil it is. He offers his hand, and Django shakes it to signal their partnership.
• I love this next bit. As Django comes out of a store wearing a good-looking olive-green jacket that he’ll spend much of the rest of the movie in, we hear Jim Croce’s 1973 song “I Got a Name” on the soundtrack. The song was a staple of 1970s radio, but Tarantino’s not just using it to be ironic. The lyrics fit blissfully with Django’s situation: “Like the pine trees linin’ the open road, / I got a name, I got a name. / Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad, / I got a name, I got a name, / And I carry it with me like my daddy did, / But I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid. / Movin’ me down the highway, movin’ me down the highway, / Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by.” Along with the clothes, Django gets a beautiful new saddle with a “D” etched into the leather, and he and Schultz ride out of this Tennessee town, toward the mountain, and across snowy plains. As Django bathes in a river, he has a vision of Hildy standing in the water naked, beaming at him silently.
• This next scene has Django and Schultz crouched down on a hilltop overlooking a farm, with Django aiming the long-range rifle at the farmer, who’s helping his horse plow his field along with his young son. Django’s reluctant to shoot the man while he’s with his boy. I don’t feel that this scene is particularly successful at introducing moral ambiguity into our hero’s quest — we’ll get much more memorable instances of that later. This scene is here mostly because it’s important to the plot. Schultz tells Django to put down the rifle and pulls out the handbill describing the crimes of the man, whose name is Smitty Bacall. “Consider this today’s lesson,” he says, because he’s teaching Django to read. As Django reads the handbill, he stumbles over a few words, but he’s clearly better versed than he was earlier in the story. Schultz points out that the man’s crimes included murder, and that his corpse is worth $7,000. Tarantino admits to taking a big historical liberty with the prices here — actual bounties on fugitives were much lower in the 19th century, while prices of slaves were much higher. Tarantino fooled with this to conjure a world where human life is cheap but death is expensive. Anyway, Django shoots Smitty Bacall, and Smitty’s son laughs at first seeing his dad keel over before running over to him. Schultz tells Django to keep Smitty’s handbill, saying it’s good luck. It’ll be more to Django than that later in the movie.
• A montage of Django taking target practice is set to Riz Ortolani’s “I Giorno dell’Ira” from the 1967 Western Day of Anger. This is the second musical selection so far about the day of judgment, and it is surely coming for the slaveowners here. Django has built a snowman, and he’s shooting it in the eyes, nose, mouth, and in a bottle placed in the crotch. He’s an accurate marksman and a fast draw. Later, the two of them shoot a bunch of guys on horseback, triangulating their fire. The bad guys die. Schultz doffs his hat so that a shell casing that has kicked up into the brim can fall out. Tarantino just loves filming cool people doing cool things.
• Django and Schultz ride up to a cabin in the snow with a squirrel hanging outside. A marshal named Gus (Lee Horsley, who starred in the 1980s TV show Matt Houston) comes out to greet them. He sees that they have a couple of horses tied behind them, carrying the bodies of the men we just saw, presumably. Gus doesn’t know who they are, even after Schultz identifies them as the Wilson Lowe Gang. Gus invites them in for coffee and cake anyway. Feels like there’s material missing here.