Six-Gun Reviews returns with Shawn Gordon taking a look at Italian-Spanish movie Navajo Joe (1966), starring Burt Reynolds and Aldo Sambrell.
Navajo Joe is cited by genre aficionado Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite spaghetti westerns.
The film seems to be the one Euro-western that suffered the most by being released post-A Fistful Of Dollars (1964). It was never seen in the same artistic light, or even as the same popular entertainment, as the Leone-Eastwood film. It also failed to do much for it’s budding star, a TV actor at the time who, like Clint Eastwood, was ready for the next step in his career to full star status. However, Navajo Joe has as much merit as any of the more popular spaghetti westerns of the era – it also has a few significant deviations from the norm, enough to make it all the more intriguing in retrospect
The story charts the path of vengeance taken by a Navajo native, Joe (Burt Reynolds), whose village is massacred including “his woman”. After the massacre, Joe pursues the gang of murderous outlaws, led by Duncan (Aldo Sambrell), a half-breed with a blood lust against all Indians. The gang murders Indians for their scalps which are worth a dollar a piece. They have turned their eyes to a bigger fortune, a train full of money belonging to the town of Esperanza. It is at this point that Joe is able to begin to enact the first stage of his revenge, by stealing the train away from Duncan and his men. Bringing the train back to the townspeople of Esperanza, he is able to strike a bargain with the racist townfolk by having them pay Joe a dollar a head for each member of Duncan’s gang he kills.
A bloody and violent movie, exciting and action-packed from beginning to end, the one thing that sets Navajo Joe apart from most westerns of any era is that its central hero is a Native American. Even in subsequent films like A Man Called Horse (1971) and the much celebrated Dances With Wolves (1990), Native American characters are just offered as support for a Caucasian hero in a story that uses them as little more than plot devices. In Navajo Joe, the Indian character takes center stage and is undoubtedly the hero of his own story.
Leading man Burt Reynolds, who is part Cherokee Indian, accepted the role under the false assumption that Sergio Leone was going to direct. When he learned the film was to be directed by Sergio Corbucci, he tried unsuccessfully to pull out. He would later remark that it was “the wrong Sergio”. Reynolds has unfortunately shown nothing but contempt for the film over the years, even saying that it was “so awful, it was only shown in prisons and on airplanes because nobody could leave”.
Understandably, Reynolds relationship with director Sergio Corbucci was strained from the get-go, and got no better once filming began. Reynolds stated that this was the worst professional experience he ever had on a movie set. Knowing what I know about many Italian productions, there may be something to his claim. Still, I would love to hear what he thinks of the movie today, now that it has garnered a cult following and the westerns of Corbucci have been re-evaluated and are greater appreciated by a younger generation of film buffs.
Corbucci was fresh off the success of Django (1966), and directed Navajo Joe just prior to his mammoth opus The Great Silence (1967). Corbucci wanted Marlon Brando for the lead, but that would have been a long shot at best. Early in his career Reynolds had been told that he wouldn’t succeed as an actor because he looked too much like Brando. Whether this had anything to do with him nabbing this role is unclear. However, it is known that producer Dino De Laurentiis cast Reynolds because he was a TV actor who could perhaps replicate the success found by Eastwood on his earlier spaghetti westerns, and no doubt Reynolds does just that.
The TV series that Reynolds was primarily known for at the time was Gunsmoke (1955-75) and the origins of Navajo Joe can, I think, be traced back to the show. In his first of fifty appearances on Gunsmoke, beginning in 1962 and continuing until 1965, Reynolds starred in an episode titled Quint Jasper Comes Home as a half-breed Comanche Indian who swears revenge on all white men after a pair of no-goods gun his father down in cold blood. Quint ends up in the care of the series’ hero, Marshall Dillon (James Arness), who makes an attempt to convince him that not all white men are evil. Like Navajo Joe, Quint encounters a town of full of racists.
In his first episode of Gunsmoke, the Cadillac of episodic TV westerns in the 20th Century, a fresh faced Reynolds showed star quality and dominated the whole episode – it’s a well-directed, exciting one-hour piece directed by genre veteran Andrew V. McLaglen (son of John Ford stock-player Victor McLaglen). The “Navajo Joe” character makes his first appearance in the episode, swinging straight into action armed with a tomahawk – he seems to have been a kindred spirit with Quint. Bloodthirsty brothers, if you will.
Reynolds’ greatest contribution to Navajo Joe may not be his excellent lead performance, but his ability to help craft the movie’s many memorable stunts. Beginning his Hollywood career as a stuntman, Reynolds supervised the film’s fine stunt sequences, some of the best to appear in the genre. They represent one of the movie’s best elements and further set it apart from others in the genre. Physically at his peak in this operation, Reynolds handles the stuntwork enthusiastically, enriching the movie with some really excellent action scenes.
Reynolds, of course, is not the only actor in the film. Playing the pictures main antagonist is veteran Euro-western supporting player Aldo Sambrell, a Spanish actor who was rarely cast in prominent roles. Here he makes the most of his showy part by nearly stealing the picture. Sambrell had appeared in the first two parts of Leone’s Dollars trilogy, and would continue to appear in mostly small roles throughout the genre. Mostly appearing in minor roles, he could almost be considered the Lee Van Cleef of the genre, that is the Van Cleef prior to For A Few Dollars More (1965).
I can’t talk of Navajo Joe without mentioning the amazing score by Ennio Morricone, under the pseudonym Leo Nichols. It may not be Morricone’s best score, but I would argue that it is his most rousing with haunting vocals by Gianna Spagnuto and rallying Indian chants and battle cries. Morricone’s score enhances the film by playing as a companion to the Navajo Joe character and not just the movie’s soundtrack. Genre music expert John Bender writes in his liner notes to the 2007 CD soundtrack release that “the score is Navajo Joe”.
The Euro-western would continue to explore liberal causes and minority heroes. Usually, they would come in the guise of Mexican revolutionaries played by the likes of Tomas Milian; rarely would we get to see Native Americans portrayed on the screen like this again. Reynolds would continue to mine Native American characters, at least for a while. A few years later he returned to Almeria to co-star with Raquel Welch and Jim Brown in 100 Rifles (1969). Navajo Joe remains one of his best, though, well worth a look.
MoM Rating: 8/10