Navajo Joe (1966)

Cast: Burt Reynorlds, Aldo Sambrell, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Tanya Lopert, Peter Cross, Fernando Rey, Franca Polesello, Lucio Rosato, Chris Huerta, Lorenzo Robledo - Music: Ennio Morricone

poster for Navajo Joe

Apparently Burt Reynolds once said that this movie was only shown in prisons and airplanes, because nobody could leave. Good old Burt clearly didn’t enjoy his Italian experience. Admittedly the film didn’t do for him what A Fistful of Dollars had done for his friend Clint Eastwood, but you don’t have to worry about anything when you have planned to watch it, because it’s well worth ninety minutes of your life.

The premise of Navajo Joe is quite simple: Burt plays the Indian of the title, who vows revenge on the gang of sadistic outlaws, led by the Duncan brothers, who slaughtered the members of his tribe for the bounty of one dollar a head. Joe follows the gang, killing those members sent out to him by their leader one by one (or better: two by two). In town the gang is told that their services are no longer needed, but one of the citizens tells them about a half million dollars that will be transported to the next town of Esperanza. The Duncan gang assaults the train, kill all passengers, and start waiting for their ally, who knows the combination of the safe. But at night Joe kills the guards and rides the train and the safe into town. He offers his services, asking the sheriff’s star and one dollar a head of the town’s people. After he has hidden the gold he is captured by the gang and brutally tortured. But he is set free during the night and manages to lure the gang out of town, to the Indian graveyard where all people of his tribe are buried.

Navajo Joe is one of those Italian westerns that is easy to criticize and was therefore loaded with scorn when first released. It is neither realistic nor authentic. Duncan never sends more than two men after Joe, when Joe surrenders to Duncan he could have easily shot his brains out, Navajos lived in hogans (huts), not tipis (tents), and they were rather peaceful farmers, not fierce warriors, etcetera. But at the same time Navajo Joe is a tremendous action movie. Hardly five minutes pass without Burt shooting, stabbing or clubbing an opponent to death. He jumps off rocks, overthrows horses and riders, shoots his rifle from the hip and throws tomahawk and knife with utmost precision. For its time the movie is remarkably violent, with high body count and some very graphic killings. It’s sometimes suggested that it was an influence on Stallone, when he wanted to make a real superhero out of the rather gloomy and tragic Rambo character from First Blood. For the first time in Corbucci movie, the main villain (Sambrell) gets the opportunity to explain his repulsive behaviour. As a halfbreed from an Indian mother and a white father he has never been respected by anybody, therefore he hates both Indians and whites. This scene is echoed by Joe’s brief speech, in which he explains that he, as a Navajo, is the real American: his parents and ancestors were born in America, unlike the parents and ancestors of the town’s people, who refuse to give him the sheriff’s star because only ‘Americans’ can be sheriff. Such lines give some depth to both the characters and the story, but a little more could have been done with the racist issue and some other characters, notably Nicoletta Machiavelli’s. She complained afterwards that she was given hardly any text and had felt a little lost in the movie. The reason might well have been Burt Reynolds. When the project was proposed to Corbucci, the suggestion was made that Marlon Brando would play the Reynolds part. With Brando involved in it, the racist issue surely would have been emphasized more. But Brando didn’t come, Burt did, and the movie was turned into a straightforward action flick. After all, in ’66 Burt was not much more than an ex-football player and an ex-stuntman.

Navajo Joe DVD

The film was nearly entirely shot on location, mainly in Guadix and Colmenar Viejo (you’ll easily recognize the bank of El Paso!). Because the Laurentiis studios didn’t have a western town, and Colmenar Viejo no railroad, a tiny western town was built around an old railway station near Guadix. The set design looks marvelous, but working on location apparently robbed the crew from extras: the town often looks a little under-populated, which makes Joe asking one dollar a head for his services pretty funny. With the help of Reynolds, who supervised the stunts, Corbucci makes the most of the action scenes, with some cute angles, crisp editing and surprising camera movements. The use of the widescreen is really stunning. Way above average as a spaghetti western, Navajo Joe is not one of Corbucci’s best films. What the film lacks above all, are his practical jokes and touches of wry humour. I guess Reynolds is adequate, but there’s hardly any chemistry between him and Machiavelli and his ultra black wig is laughable. Sambrel has never been more convincing, and with guys like Huerta, Rosato and Robledo in your gang, it must have been great fun to be bad. Machiavella may have felt a little lost in the movie, her presence is of course much appreciated. Morricone’s score is one of the most bizarre of his career. It’s not bad, but with its piercing yells and whoops it almost sounds kitschy. You might all have heard that Tarantino used some fragments of it for Kill Bill Vol. 2

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