According to the trivia tab on IMDB, when asked about Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) Burt Reynold’s often jokes that the film was directed by “the wrong Sergio” and when he learned that it was Corbucci behind the camera and not Leone he attempted to flee the production. However, a blood oath studio contract trapped him in Spain and even though it might have been a miserable undertaking for the budding icon of Smokey Bandit cool, Navajo Joe remains a highlight in a career of mostly milk toast performances. And me, being the prideful film geek contrarian that I am, would shout back at Mr. Reynolds that he was most certainly in the hands of the “right” Sergio, and that the Corbucci spaghetti westerns are a weirdo collection of mean-spirited brutality not matched in entertainment value by those grand epics of Leone. Blasphemy? I cannot possibly hate on the Dollars Trilogy or the masterpiece that is Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), but if I’m looking for a thrilling evening of Western revenge over a somber parade of oppressive hate than I’m popping in Navajo Joe along with the popcorn.
Despite filming just a few months after the exploding coffin violence of Django as well as devouring the endless budget of a Dino DeLaurentiis production company, Navajo Joe fails to capture the frantic absurdity of the previous Corbucci cult sensation. And, again, Burt Reynolds, his horrendously thick Injun face paint, and that crazy mop of a wig are no match for the steely stare of Franco Nero. That being said, this film is a hostile force with a thumping (as well as chanting) Ennio Morricone score that pulls very few punches when dealing out the genre required mayhem.
As with the best spaghetti westerns, the film opens with an act of savage violence. Vee Duncan, not only a half-breed bandit killer but also a bastard to boot, rides up on a peaceful collection of Native Americans and coldly shoots a woman washing her laundry in the river. His gang crests over the hillside and as they slaughter the rest, Duncan removes the woman’s scalp. Throughout the film there’s very little red splashed across the screen; most of the grisly displays happen too quickly or off camera. But the violence is there and it’s impressively disturbing if your mind settles on its implications, especially when the director appears to have so much glee in placing one innocent after the other in front of Duncan’s six shooter.
The script is unclear if the slain are Navajo Joe’s people or another tribe fallen by the gang, but it’s quickly established that the bandits are being pursued by Reynolds who lingers on the fringes, choosing his moments carefully as to when he’ll sever another member from the group. For the first third of the film, Reynold’s is more of a background player, an ever-present danger waiting to strike a deathblow. And he works best as that threatening silhouette, speaking little and staring distantly. The plot eventually expands to include a train full of money, a town bored with paying dollars for scalps, and a doctor eager to free his wife from her bank. But the film thrives on its villains and director Corbucci’s appreciation for their wicked ways.
Actor Aldo Sambrell has popped up in one form or another in each of the Dollars films as well as a dozen other macaroni creations, but his Vee Duncan is the peak of his filmography. He’s a wonderfully grunting brute that looks like a constantly sweating Stanley Kubrick and his character’s tirades are almost as memorable as those whispered reports from the set of The Shining (1980). Hyperbole? Meh. Sue me. I love this guy. His motivation is a heated ball of self-loathing, and as he threatens to burn a church full of townsfolk to the ground before shooting a nosey priest you learn that he HATES his unwed Indian mother almost as much as his clergy father. The short, angry monologue drips with venom and it’s almost impossible not to smile as he puts a round into the man of god. A truly sick and enjoyable screen bastard.
On the other hand, with his orange face paint and chopshop wig it’s easy to be rough on Burt Reynolds. But he gets the job done. We shouldn’t forget that Reynolds is part Cherokee so that makes all this makeup A-Okay, right? Moving on. When Navajo Joe finally does have his big showdown with the object of his revenge it is an extremely satisfying bit of summersaulting tomahawk action. And as Ennio Morricone’s “A Silhouette of Doom” swells in triumph it’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino plundered this coup de grace for Kill Bill. Still, you gotta wonder what this movie would have looked like if Sergio Corbucci had gotten his first choice for the lead…Marlon Brando. Uh, the stilted dialog would most certainly remain and there’d be some serious mushmouth on top. Ok. I’m good with Reynolds.
Navajo Joe is not the jewel in Sergio Corbucci’s crown. No, that’s Django or The Great Silence (1968). Navajo Joe is more like his cubic zirconia. Despite not being a blood bath, it’s a brutal film that doesn’t shy from lingering close ups of gunned down, cross-fired citizens and it’s refreshingly eager to let the villain outshine the quiet lead—maybe out of necessity. It’s a romp. Brooding only when the script demands of it. Simple. Effective. Fun.