You might be asking yourself, what possible connection does Django Unchained have to the classical world?
Not one scene featured Russell Crowe or Kirk Douglas. And there was barely a gladius or toga in sight.
However, if we look closely at the movie there are actually several images that point to a larger connection between the film and ancient Roman culture.
When Django and Dr Schultz finally begin their plan of vengeance against Calvin Candie, they arrange a meeting at the ‘Cleopatra Club’…
The references increase as the characters are taken back to ‘Candieland’. Here, the traditional Southern plantation manor appears with an almost quintessential Roman temple facade. It even sports some Ionic columns.
A similar image is then seen when we see one of Candie’s thugs looking at a contemporary 19th century image of the Athenian Parthenon, clearly brushing up on her Classical architecture in her spare time.
Lastly, once inside ‘Candieland’ we are greeted with a sculpture reminiscent of classical wrestling sculptures, particularly one literally named Wrestlers.
But what do these references add, if anything, to our reading of the movie? Is there something else going on apart from a reflection of 19th century attitudes to Classical antiquity?
It certainly seems like there is a larger connection, even according to Tarantino himself. In an interview he gave for the Miami Herald he explained the connection between Django and Roman history…
‘Part of the idea behind Candie was he owns one of the biggest cotton plantations in the South, but he’s fourth-generation Candie. He does not care about the agriculture and the cotton anymore. The plantation runs itself by this point. So he’s this petulant boy emperor, this southern-fried Caligula. He finds hobbies and vices and pleasures to indulge in to keep him entertained.’
I love this quote, not only because it introduces the phrase ‘southern-fried Caligula’ to the world, but because it legitimises a Classical reading of Django. It certainly allows for a more in depth comparison between Calvin Candie and Caligula, one pointed out by Sarah Bond. While Tarantino more than likely bases his ideas about Caligula on the 1979 Malcolm McDowell movie (give it a watch, there isn’t really anything like it), much of the comparison can also be seen in the ancient sources.
Throughout the movie it is hinted that Candie and his sister have an extremely close relationship, perhaps bordering on inappropriate. When talking of Caligula, Suetonius doesn’t hold back on this issue, accusing him of incest with all his sisters.
Candie also enjoys torture and violence, making it a central part of his identity through his obsession with Mandingo Wrestling. This was also a huge part of Caligula’s identity, as not only did he love gladiatorial games so much that he trained with them, but the Emperor Tiberius allowed him to witness torture on a regular basis.
Increasing the connection between Candie and Caligula are Candie’s Classical tendencies. He is surrounded with and informed by classical culture throughout the movie, from the ‘Cleopatra Club’ to his Roman-like mansion. These tendencies reinforce the dichotomy between him and the lovable Dr Schultz.
Apart from the obvious conflict between the dentist Dr Schultz battling his nemesis, Candie…
…There is also a pitched battle between Candie’s Classical culture and Schultz’s German folklore. During the movie we see Dr Schultz re-frame Django’s tale through the story of Siegfried and Brumhilda. In much of popular culture, the idea of ‘civilisation’ is usually attached to the Classical tradition. But in Django this idea is flipped. Instead, we root for German folklore, in the form of Dr Schultz and Django, over the western Classical tradition, represented by Candie.
In fact, once we look a little closer at Candie’s supposed ‘civilised’ exterior, glaring errors become apparent.
The most obvious being that he loves French culture, but does not speak a word of French. Even the minor historical mistakes in the movie add to this exposing of Candie’s uncivilised nature. Nefertiti’s bust appears in the ‘Cleopatra Club’, despite not being discovered until 1912. And perhaps worst of all, the Ionic columns have no fluting. No fluting! Can anyone really be said to be civilised if their columns don’t have fluting?
This discussion of civilisation brings us to another classical allusion in the movie, its representation of gladiatorial combat. While not actually called ‘gladiators’, the practice of Mandingo Wrestling that we see in the movie is heavily reminiscent of both popular representations of gladiators and the historical reality. The scene is quite a harrowing one, with Candie and a Frenchman forcing two slaves to beat each other to death with their bare hands…
…And the illusion between these fights and gladiatorial games is made fairly explicit when the wrestling sculpture behind Candie almost exactly mirrors this fight to the death. But perhaps most importantly, these Mandingo fights never actually occurred. There does not seem to be an example in the historical record. Yet, we, the audience, accept it as perfectly plausible. We are easily willing to believe American slave-owners forced men to fight to the death for their own amusement.
This is where the comparison to Rome enters into the reading. By comparing the Mandingo fights to gladiatorial games, Tarantino highlights how similar 19th century America was to Ancient Rome. How the veneer of civilisation, with a dark underbelly of cruelty, did not change in the intervening 1400 years.
Yet, Tarantino doesn’t stop there. He brings the uncomfortable idea of the enjoyment of deathly violence much further than 1860s America. Django ends with an orgy of vengeful violence, with Django destroying every last vestige of Candieland and its inhabitants.
For almost twenty minutes at the end of the movie, blood coats the screen and men wail in pain. However, the audience has the complete opposite reaction to this violence compared to that seen in the Mandingo fight. This time, we are rooting for the violence. We cheer for the cruelty and pain Django inflicts on his enemies, since he is our hero and we are invested in his story.
Yet, what is so different about our enjoyment of this violence and the Romans’ infatuation with gladiatorial games?
We root for our fictional hero placed in a historical narrative, just as the Romans placed gladiators into recreations of historical battles (as seen in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator). The Romans drew their audience into a narrative and made them root for the heroes, all to support the watching of violence. Just as we do.
At the end of the movie, we are left to contemplate, through our enjoyment of vengeance, are we really that different to the Romans? And by extension, are we any different to Tarantino’s ‘southern-fried Caligula’?
Sarah Bond wrote a great blog post on the same subject and its where I got a few of the ideas. She also has a great section on Latin, colour symbolism, and Candie’s name.
For more on Caligula, go straight to the source. Suetonius is an excellent read for the history of the Roman emperors, and its all available for free at Perseus Digital Library.
To learn more about gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome, Donald G. Kyle’s book ‘Spectacles of Death‘ is an great introduction.