An Irishman's Diary
I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film the same day that Warren Buffett announced his $23 billion purchase of Heinz. Which was an instructive coincidence. My guess is that the Sage of Omaha had also seen it recently, because you couldn’t emerge from Django Unchained without feeling bullish about the future of ketchup sales.
Even by the director’s usual standards, the stuff is splashed all over the set by the end. The effect is most dramatic in the slave-owner’s mansion around which the plot revolves. This starts out the colour of another Heinz product – mayonnaise – then gradually changes condiments.
I can’t have been the only viewer relieved to learn afterwards that no horses were harmed in the filming. This, by the way, probably explains why Buffett didn’t go out and buy a frozen-beefburger company while he was at it.
But Tarantino has told interviewers how, while making Inglourious Basterds, he personally strangled one of his actresses. Not fatally, of course: just enough to save her having to act the particular part. So it was reassuring to know that at least some of the defenceless creatures used in his movies are treated tenderly.
I only went to Django Unchained by accident, as it happens. It was Lincoln I was hoping to see, but it wasn’t on that night. Instead I watched Tarantino’s epic; then, 24 hours later, came back for Spielberg’s. And this juxtaposition was even more educational.
The two films are essentially about the same thing: the liberation of US slaves. There, however, comparisons begin and end. In every other respect, you would struggle to find two more diametrically different pieces of cinema.
Throughout his career, violence has been to Tarantino what water is to a duck. But again, even by his standards, Django is somewhat over the top. Bad as American slavery was in reality, it wasn’t bad enough for him. He had to invent phenomena unrecorded by historians – such as forced gladiatorial fights-to-the-death – to make it even more grisly.
If you’re looking for a moral in his film – a mistake, I know – it’s that violence must always be met with violence. A lesson, he implies, that slaves were slow to learn.
So, rather patronisingly, under the guise of espousing black liberation, he has his hero learn the art of slaughter from a white man (a Beethoven-loving German, at that). Who then watches proudly as the protégé embarks on a blood-soaked rampage. Eat his shorts, Martin Luther King.
In Lincoln, by utter contrast, all the violence is off-screen. This is probably a weakness of the film, although seeing it when I did, I’d had enough of ketchup for a while and Spielberg’s pacifism was a relief. He’s done his share of war, anyway: from Saving Private Ryan to Band of Brothers. It’s not as if he doesn’t know how.
Obviously this was intended to be a different kind of film: focused on Lincoln’s push for the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment in 1865. Even though the civil war is a constant backdrop, the only onscreen reference is a very sombre scene, post-battle, when the president surveys the dead after the fall of Petersburg.
Spielberg’s heroes this time, strange to say, are politicians. And not just Lincoln. Even the sleazy Republican operatives whose job is to buy the votes of wavering congressmen emerge with a certain nobility.
Occasionally, the film’s idealistic earnestness threatens to approach West Wing proportions, but it never quite crosses that line. As for Lincoln, if he was any less a saint than the director wants him to appear, he’s lucky to be played by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose typically brilliant performance leaves you both sympathetic and fascinated, so you want to read more about him afterwards.
As usual in this genre, there has been debate about the film’s fidelity to fact. As usual, too, some faults have been found. By Hollywood standards, these seem to be minor.
There is nothing so annoying as, for example, the cinematic Michael Collins having a double-agent called Ned Broy who gets caught and tortured to death, even though many people watching the film knew that the real-life Ned Broy survived the War of Independence, became Garda Commissioner, and lived until 1972.
If anything, Lincoln may have been too faithful to accuracy. It’s probably a bit wordy for some tastes, just as Django Unchained errs on the side of action. If you could cross-breed the two films, the result would surely be a classic. It would do for the subject of slavery what The Godfather 1 and 2 did for organised crime.