Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sarah Bond: A Classical Review of Django Unchained


     Quentin Tarantino’s “Southern Fried Caligula”: A Classical Review of Django Unchained



      In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Quentin Tarantino noted that one of the main characters in his new movie, Django Unchained, the slave master Calvin Candie, was meant to be a "southern fried Caligula". So how well did Tarantino do in creating his own antebellum Caligula? Let's take a look, based largely on the biography provided us by the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (born c. 69 CE). 

Tarantino's antebellum dominus, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained.


We can perhaps already see a bit of Tarantino-esque classical allusion in the naming of the character: Calvin Candie. While Calvin may itself be meant to evoke the "Cal" in Gaius Caesar's nickname from the troops, Caligula ("little boots"), the last name of Candie is perhaps meant to be an anglicized version of candidus or candida, which in Latin means "shining white". Indeed, Monsieur Candie (as the Francophile wishes to be called in the movie) is meant as a shining, horrid example of the white slaveowner in the antebellum South. Romans would have called him a dominus. 

We have seen the use of colors to denote characters in other Tarantino films as well, such as Resevoir Dogs, where Tarantino introduced us to Mr. White, played by Harvey Keitel. However, colors don't have the usual symbolism in Tarantino's fictions. As usual, Tarantino is all about polarities: good versus evil, black and white. Unlike the spaghetti westerns that so inspire Tarantino as a filmaker, the use of white in this film (e.g., the cotton in the plantation fields, Mr. Candie' himself) is cast in the role of evil, not purity and goodness. 

Togate Caligula from the VMFA (Richmond, VA) with break at neck from possible damnatio memoriae.
Mr. Candie is caught up in the world of social posturing, as was the emperor Caligula. In the film, Candie loves French culture and constructs a cultured veneer; one that projects himself as a cosmopolitan man of letters and refinement. In reality, Mr. Candie is but a barbarian dominus that cannot actually speak French. The man who can? The German abolitionist and dentist, Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz. Mr. Candie and Dr. Schultz together form a binary pair. While Mr. Candie can only affect the look of a civilized man, Dr. Schultz actually is one. Much like Candie, Caligula was indeed a slave owner, but was also uniquely insistent on being called dominus by the Roman people. Caligula was also famed for treating even aristocrats as slavish minions, and subjecting all to his whim, unlike his famed father and the hero of the Roman people, Germanicus.

The appreciation and enjoyment of torture and games is a central part of Mr. Candie's identity in the movie. He patronizes "Mandingo Wrestling" fights (although it is notable that there is little actual historicity to this) where slaves wrestle to the death for the masters' enjoyment. Similarly, Caligula was allowed by Tiberius (Suet. Cal.11) to witness torture (perhaps desensitizing him to it later), and became an avid patron of gladiatorial games. If Suetonius is to be believed, Caligula loved gladiatorial fights so much that he trained with them, and favored Thracian gladiators over murmillones (Suet. Cal. 54.1; 55.2).

Another similarity is the close relationship of Mr. Candie with his sister, Mrs. Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly. Caligula was accused of incest with his sisters (Suet. Cal. 24), Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla. In the movie, Mr. Candie is, let us say, very affectionate with his widowed sister. She is herself also highly flirtatious with Dr. Schultz, which may or may not be an allusion to the accusation that Caligula whored out his sisters and turned the imperial palace into a brothel while he reigned.

Orichalcum sestertius, Rome, AD 37-38. C CAESAR AVG GERMANICVS PON M TR POT, laureate head left AGRIPPINA DRVSILLA IVLIA S C, Caligula's three sisters with the attributes of Securitas, Concordia, and Fortuna (Source: Wikipedia Images). 

Much as Suetonius' biography of Caligula was meant to both amuse and to moralize, Tarantino presents his evil slaveholder, Mr. Candie, as a lesson to be learned---albeit in an incredibly gory and over-the-top manner--just two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Both Mr. Candie and Caligula are portrayed as people with little regard for human life or the natural rights of man by their biographers, and as men who abhorred civil liberties. In reaction to their tyrannies and crimes against humanity and society, both Mr. Candie (spoiler alert) and Caligula are assassinated. Mr Candie and many of his familia undergo an impromptu damnatio memoriae--a modern phrase used to denote the Roman attempt to wipe out vestiges of a person's memory--in the mode of conflagration. Similarly, Caligula was brutally assassinated and many images of him marred or recut (Varner, 25-45). In the case of Monsieur Candie and Caligula, the acts of damnatio memoriae are meant to reflect the people's rejection of the tyrant's rule.

Further Reading: 

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula: The Corruption of Power (Batsford, 1989).

Garrett Fagan, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge, 2011).

Sandra R. Joshel et al., (ed.), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Johns Hopkins, 2001).

Eric Varner, Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture (Brill, 2004).

Thomas E.J. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (Routledge, 1992).











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