When Burt Reynolds died earlier this month at age eighty-two, I went directly home to watch Navajo Joe. Not Deliverance. Not White Lightning. Not even Smokey and the Bandit, which Amazon Prime loaded up only the week before. Nope, none of the classics. Instead, I went to a 1966 Italian Western that Burt Reynolds rarely had anything positive to say about.
When he hit the talk show circuit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Reynolds liked to joke about Navajo Joe as a movie only shown in prisons and on airplanes because the audience couldn’t walk out. He often told a story about how he thought he was signing up for a film directed by Sergio Leone when he accepted producer Dino de Laurentiis’s offer, only to discover it was Sergio Corbucci. “Wrong Sergio,” he’d crack.
Apologies to the late legendary star, but it wasn’t the “wrong” Sergio at all. At the time, there were three Sergios making Westerns in Europe: Leone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West), Corbucci (Django and The Great Silence), and Sollima (The Big Gundown and Run, Man, Run). Leone was the most famous, but you couldn’t go wrong with any of them. Navajo Joe isn’t the finest Sergio Corbucci movie, but it’s immensely entertaining and gave Reynolds an unusual hero character to play who contrasts with the laconic “good ol’ boy” characters from his peak career.
The Indian-centered Western was a popular theme in pre-Fistful of Dollars Eurowesterns, such as the “Winnetou” series in Germany. Although Navajo Joe has a Native American lead, it’s more a revenge/lone gunfighter film similar to the ones swarming Italian theaters in 1966–67. (One in particular was hugely popular in ‘66: Sergio Corbucci’s breakthrough Django.)
The idea for an Indian hero came from producer Dino De Laurentiis. The concept didn’t fire up Corbucci, however: the movie has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans. White killers scalp them, and Joe gives a speech in a saloon to a sheriff about how he’s more a “true” American than a man whose parents were born in another country. Otherwise, Corbucci positions Joe as a standard lone avenger. Although Joe is a Navajo brave (the title sorta gives it away), Corbucci appears to have based him on Apache characters from Hollywood Westerns—except made as a hero instead of a villain.
Joe is on the trail of a troop of bandits under the leadership of Mervyn “Vee” Duncan (Leone favorite Aldo Sambrell). Joe wants Duncan’s band dead because they murdered his woman and massacred his tribe. Although the dialogue reveals this late in the story, the prologue showing the massacre of Joe’s tribe makes it obvious the hero’s motives. Joe stalks and picks off the bandits, often leaving the victims with a double-triangle symbol carved onto their foreheads.
Duncan’s band loses its lucrative trade in the town of Peyote, which has no more interest in paying for the scalps the bandits take from slaughtering Native Americans. But a mysterious man visiting the town proposes Duncan seize a train carrying a consignment of cash to the needy town of Esperanza. The bandits ambush the train and kill the guards and civilians aboard, but Joe then seizes the train himself and drives it and the money to Esperanza. When the bandits come to take back their loot, the townspeople look to Joe to protect them from a massacre. Joe agrees, setting up a strange situation where the outsider Indian volunteers to save the money of white settlers. It’s an odd trade-off for Joe’s vengeance.
The action of Navajo Joe makes it worth watching. This is one of Corbucci’s most straightforward films, with little meaty material outside of the set pieces. Thankfully, the movie only takes a few breaks from Joe stealthily stabbing foes, leaping onto them from rocks, or pumping out shotgun shells in a frenzy from close range. The bandits’ assault on the train is an excellent lead-slinging update on the attack on the ranch from Corbucci’s first good Western, Minnesota Clay (1964). And it wouldn’t be a Corbucci film (or any Italian Western, really) without the hero receiving a sadistic beating. But Joe himself also deals out a helluva a smack-down to the villains. In the climax, Corbucci pulls out a fantastic in-the-face kill as an exclamation mark on all the action. In total, Joe kills fifty people in this movie—a body-count close to those from 1980s over-the-top actioners.
The movie manages a touch of transcendent beauty in its closing moments. The more emotional Sergio Corbucci who loves wistful and bleak endings emerges here—the one who would direct The Great Silence. It’s a shame more of this passion didn’t spread over the rest of the film. It might have turned into one of the director’s masterpieces. Instead, it settles for being a solid action Western.
Reynolds’s performance is a split one. He’s wobbly with his dialogue scenes, and his post-dubbing sounds uninspired. If his voice weren’t so recognizable, I might assume another actor dubbed him. Whenever Joe has to remain still for any stretch, the actor’s discomfort with the part becomes obvious. But when in action (i.e. killing), Joe is a sight to see. Reynolds throws his whole body into making the character a lethal, acrobatic slaughterer. Joe could be a distant relative of John Rambo in First Blood: a stalking hunter at home with nature and a knife.
Mervyn Duncan is a rare depraved baddie in a Eurowestern who has developed motivations. He’s a self-loathing half-breed who hates the “bastard” side of himself to the point that he’s made a career of scalping Indians and selling them for a dollar a scalp. Sambrell, a Spanish actor who appeared as bandits in most of Sergio Leone’s films, had a chance at a meaty role here and he doesn’t waste it. He puts great intensity into the part and delivers the movie’s best performance.
The cast has more women in major roles than usual for Eurowesterns, with the three saloon girls from Peyote who learn about the bandits’ plot playing key parts. The credited lead actress, the gorgeous Nicoletta Machiavelli, has screen-burning charisma; but her character of the half-Indian Estella is so insubstantial it seems the part was hacked down in rewrites until almost nothing remained. Estella would be Joe’s romantic interest if Sergio Corbucci were the sort of director who permitted such things.
The highest-profile actor in the supporting cast is Fernando Rey, who gained fame in the US as the slippery French drug lord in The French Connection. Rey does nothing important here, however, as the town priest of Esperanza, and the dubbing takes away anything interesting he might have done with the bland part.
This was Ennio Morricone’s first score for Corbucci, credited under the pseudonym “Leo Nichols.” This would turn into as successful a collaboration for Morricone as that with Sergio Leone, peaking with the brilliance of the music for The Great Silence in 1968. Morricone established a different style for his scores for Corbucci. Navajo Joe’s music is centered around a screaming imitation of Native American chants, with a female solo (vocalist Gianna Spangulo) wailing in a mixture of rage and pain. John Bender, in the liner notes for a 2007 release of the soundtrack, calls it “an unearthly wailing—as if the souls of a thousand Navajo can be heard screaming in dreadful protest from the spirit world.” The rousing main theme, with the pounding syllables “Na-ha-ho Joe, Na-ha-ho Joe,” is as catchy and outlandish as anything Morricone wrote. And yes, this is that screaming music used extensively in the two Kill Bills. (Tarantino has listed Navajo Joe as one of his favorite Italian Westerns.)
Because Navajo Joe is a standard lone-avenger action picture, it’s probably the easiest of Corbucci’s films for newcomers to enjoy. No heavy politics, big and fun violence that doesn’t hit extremes (with a major, awesome exception), and subdued lunacy. If viewers can get over the strangeness of Reynolds’s hairpiece and wooden delivery, they’ll have a good time. And it may prepare them for Corbucci’s greater works. (Although I doubt anything can fully prep someone for The Great Silence.)