Imagine, then, a film with 31 sequels. Is your mind boggling yet?
With the release of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, a new sub-genre was born: the Italian-made spaghetti Western. Shot in parts of Italy and Spain, the films provided a refreshing new take on the traditional American Western by introducing elements of violence and moral dubiousness, in a contrast to the simple tales of white-hats-versus-black-hats that had come before. Over 600 films were made in the boom years from the mid Sixties to the end of the decade, and Django was one of the most prolific anti-heroes.
At first sight, there is little about Sergio Corbucci's original Django (1966) to inspire such a endearing franchise. The plot is a rip off of A Fistful of Dollars, which was in turn a rip off the samurai film Yojimbo (1961). There are few memorable characters apart from the hero, the dubbing is clumsy2 and the production values are pretty poor.
In fact, there are only two things that really make Django stand out. The first is its eponymous hero (played by Franco Nero), a mysterious loner out for revenge. Making a striking entrance in the opening credits, the character is clad entirely in black, and drags a mud-splattered coffin behind him, from which he later produces a machine gun. Though a variation on the old stereotype of the lonely, taciturn gunslinger, Franco Nero gives Django enough weight and sympathy to make him a memorable character.
The second memorable aspect to the film is its violence. Although only mildly shocking by today's standards, the film contains scenes of mutilation, such as where the ear of a spy is sliced off3 and where Django's hands are pounded to a bloody pulp, leaving him struggling to hold a gun for the film's showdown.
The film was a cult success, except in those countries where it was banned for its violent content. It didn't make it to the UK until 1993, and it wasn't rated in America, but the film was incredibly popular across Europe, particularly in Germany.
And the cash-ins...
Italian copyright law being rather flexible in the Sixties and Seventies, there followed a flood of Westerns with the Django name, despite being unlicensed by Corbucci, starring different actors, and bearing little relation to the original. These films range from the surreal atmosphere and horrific violence of Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot (1967) to the z-list crossover flick Django Against Sartana (1970).
Spaghetti Westerns are often given different names across the many countries in which they are released, making it hard to give an exact number of Django films. For example, nearly every single Western starring Franco Nero was renamed as a Django film in Germany in order to cash in on the anti-hero's popularity.
Prequel, sequel and remake
Aside from these cash-ins, Django's back story was elaborated on in Viva Django! (1968), in which the starring role was played by Terence Hill. While the film wasn't ratified by Corbucci, it is unmistakably designed as a prelude to the first film, and is generally regarded as one of the best unlicensed Django films.
In 1987, long after the spaghetti Western boom had faded, film-maker Nello Rossati made a sequel to Django, unusually seeking Corbucci's permission to do so. Franco Nero returned to the role of Django for the first time, and the film takes place after the character has repented his violent ways and become a monk, calling himself Brother Ignatius. However, an old flame turns up to tell him he has a daughter, who has been kidnapped by a ruthless gang of Hungarian ex-soldiers. As you'd expect, it's not long before Django digs up his old machine gun and sets off to hunt them down.
Spaghetti Westerns have always been popular in Japan, where they are known as 'macaroni Westerns'. In 2007, Japanese director Takashi Miike released Sukiyaki Western Django4, a remake of the original film. Basically a Western set in Japan, made with Japanese actors and given an anachronistic historical gloss, the film has divided critics, particularly in the decision to have the Japanese actors speaking stilted English.
Django is not a household name or a typical hero, but that's not part of his appeal. He may not have a legion of fans, he may be part of a dead franchise, he may have his hands crushed or his friends dying like flies around him, but he endures - and everybody loves an underdog.