Django Unchained v Lincoln: Tarantino wins the shoot-out with his first Western

Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg both tackle slavery in their new films. But only one is an ultra-violent Western with a black cowboy lead. No prizes for guessing whose

There are two major new films concerning slavery in the US that will shortly be reaching British cinemas and they couldn't be more different. One is an earnest, high-minded and well-crafted costume drama and the other is directed by...Quentin Tarantino.

You simply couldn't imagine Tarantino making a film like Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln. Spielberg, for his part, wouldn't have the chutzpah to make a spaghetti Western/exploitation movie quite as extreme as Tarantino's latest effort, Django Unchained. Even so, the two movies are set within a few years of each other and have obvious thematic overlaps. Lincoln takes place in 1865 as the then President Abraham Lincoln fights a bitter political battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution that would ban slavery. Django Unchained is set in 1858, as an escaped slave turned gunslinger (Jamie Foxx) and a European bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) try to rescue the gunslinger's wife from a southern plantation.

As he approaches his 50th birthday, Tarantino is tackling a hugely contentious episode in US history and one that filmmakers have largely avoided since DW Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation (1915) with its underlying racism and notorious scenes celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. Tarantino being Tarantino, he is doing it in an utterly brazen fashion.

In interviews in the run up to the film's release, the director has been striking a typically contradictory note. On the one hand, he has suggested, shooting his first Western was a blast – so much fun that he doubted the Hollywood bosses would have let him get away with it if they knew how much fun he and his crew were having. On the other, he has insisted that he wanted to show the ugliness, brutality and “surrealism” that went hand in hand with slavery.

“I was always amazed so many Western films could get away with not dealing with slavery at all,” the director commented in a recent interview in Newsweek magazine . “Hollywood didn't want to deal with it because it was too ugly and too messy. But how can you ignore such a huge part of American history when telling a story in that time period? It made no sense.”

Lincoln (scripted by Tony Kushner) is full of sententious, brilliantly written speeches about human rights, democracy and the legislative process. Django Unchained is powered along by trash talk and Tarantino's familiar wisecracking, punning dialogue. It is one of the few Westerns with a black hero (Jamie Foxx.) In Lincoln, although the film is set in the middle of the Civil War, the reality of slavery is kept in the background. We see the corpses of the dead Union soldiers. Lincoln is shown visiting wounded soldiers suffering horrible disfigurements. The real conflict, though, is in the debating chamber as white politicians land rhetorical blows on one another. In Django, the violence is unrelenting. There are whippings, slaves wrestling one another to the death and dogs ripping slaves to pieces. The grotesquerie of a system in which white Southern aristocrats treat their slaves as chattels is made very evident. In Lincoln, there is a wise, folksy, cunning President (brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who uses his knowledge of human nature to push through political change. In Django, justice is administered through guns in slow motion, Sergio Leone-style action sequences.

Tarantino researched his subject matter extensively. However, he has made it very clear that he had no interest in making a history movie with a “capital H” (as he told a BAFTA audience last week).

Back in 1997, when Tarantino directed Jackie Brown, Spike Lee attacked him for his excessive use of the “n-word”. “I want Quentin to know that all African-Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick,” Lee was quoted as saying by veteran showbiz journalist Army Archerd. The use of the “n-word” is even more frequent in Django than it was in Jackie Brown. The light-hearted moments when Klan members can't see out of their masks or Django leaps aboard his horse as if he is Roy Rogers on Trigger, sit uncomfortably next to the scenes of slaves being tortured and abused. Tarantino talks about the toxic legacy of slavery in one breath and his love of Sergio Corbucci's Django films the next. Then again, that is his way. In Inglourious Basterds (2009), he took an equally lurid and tongue-in-cheek approach to Hitler and the Holocaust.

There is a sadistic element to Tarantino that hasn't dissipated since Reservoir Dogs with its famously gory scene in which Michael Madsen cuts off a cop's ear as we listen to “Stuck In The Middle With You”. Django has a similar scene in which it looks as if one of the leading characters is about to be castrated. He likes to make revenge movies in which the heroes get their hands very bloody. His justification is that it was cinema as well as the spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation and martial arts movies of the 1960s and 1970s, which were extremely violent too, rather than real life that formed his tastes when he was a movie geek, growing up in California and working in a video store.

His films are never simply pastiches of old genres either. He retains a flair for funny, self-reflexive dialogue. Whether it's Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs or John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or, now, Leonardo DiCaprio as the debonair young plantation owner in Django, he also excels in coaxing surprising performances from well-known actors in unfamiliar roles.

Tarantino has intimated that he would like to make more Westerns or perhaps try his hand at a 1930s-set gangster movie. Some critics are calling on him to “grow up” now that he is nearly 50. His fans, of course, hope for the reverse. It is instructive to compare his career with that of Steven Spielberg, who made genre movies like Duel and Jaws early in his career before going on to direct such weighty and mature efforts as Schindler's List, Amistad and now Lincoln. If you took the juvenile movie-brat enthusiasm out of Tarantino and got him making straight historical epics, he would be a pale shadow of the filmmaker that he still is. He is still a rogue Peter Pan figure, operating as profitably as ever in the illicit margins between arthouse and exploitation.

'Django Unchained' is released on 18 January. 'Lincoln' is released on 25 January

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine


Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform