Sergio Leone is the director most closely associated with the European-produced westerns popularly referred to as “spaghetti westerns.” Leone’s classics Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—are arguably the most popular and well known spaghetti westerns, and helped establish the director as the genre’s preeminent filmmaker. And while Leone is popularly thought of as the director who gave life to the spaghetti western, it would be the other Sergio—director Sergio Corbucci—that gave the genre its soul.
There was somewhere close to 600 spaghetti westerns produced in the 1960s and 1970s; but despite that incredible number, only a select few are worth remembering, let alone any good. Of the westerns produced some of the best the genre has to offer were directed by Corbucci. Among his best work you will find such classics as Django, Companeros, The Great Silence and The Hellbenders, all of which went a long way to helping spaghetti westerns create their own unique, stylish vision. One of his earlier westerns was 1966’s Navajo Joe, a film not among Corbucci’s best, but still better than many of the other genre entries.
Burt Reynolds stars as Joe, a Navajo warrior out for revenge when a gang of sadistic outlaws slaughters his woman and tribe. The gang, led by the ridiculously nefarious Duncan (Aldo Sambrell), a half-breed with hatred for the entire human race coursing through his veins, has been butchering Indians for their scalps, which are then sold for a dollar each. This, of course, leads Duncan and his men to the bad side of Joe, who begins systematically hunting the evil bastards. When Duncan and his men make plans to rob a train headed for the peace-loving town of Esperanza, Joe manages to thwart their plan. From there, Joe convinces the townspeople to pay him a bounty of Duncan and his gang—one dollar from each person in town, for every outlaw Joe scalps—which leads to an inevitable massacre of not-so epic proportions.
Sergio Leone had struck gold when he recruited American television star Clint Eastwood to star in his film A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood was the star of Rawhide, and was looking to make a transition to film. Because of the tremendous success of Leone and Eastwood’s pairing, other Italian filmmakers tried to recapture the magic with films like Navajo Joe. At the time, Reynolds was a television actor, best known for his recurring role on the popular series Gunsmoke, and trying to recreate the miracle of Eastwood must have seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Reynolds was working with a director who had yet to find his vision, in a movie that was destined to be mediocre at best.
The key to truly appreciating and understanding Navajo Joe is appreciating and understanding the spaghetti western genre. By and large, these were films that were put together very quickly, with little regard for quality or story. The best of the genre are the ones with compelling stories, told with distinct visual style, in a manner that makes sense to people outside the working class audiences of southern Italy. These films are few and far between. After the truly good films, there comes the films that are just plain okay—at least within the context of other spaghetti westerns. That is to say that these are the films that are nearly as bad as the vast majority of genre entries, but they certainly don’t stand up to much discerning scrutiny outside of the genre. Navajo Joe is one of these films. It is a better-than-average spaghetti western, but it certainly is not one of Corbucci’s better films, nor is it really all that good (unless you’re comparing it to something ridiculously bad like Django Kills Silently).
The problems with Navajo Joe are plenty, and typical of the genre. First and foremost is a script that is just plain bad. There’s no getting around it, or making excuses for it—the script is simply bad. But making matters worse is Reynolds’ performance, which registers almost no charisma whatsoever. Reynolds looks like the last thing he wants to do is be starring in some Italian-produced film being shot in Spain, in which he stars as murderous Indian. And that lack of enthusiasm shows during the thankfully few times he opens his mouth to deliver the already banal and lackluster dialog.
Where Navajo Joe succeeds is in the visual flair of Corbucci’s direction. Again, this is far from his best film, but he is clearly laying the groundwork and developing the style that would make films like Django (made the same year as Navajo Joe) and Companeros among the very best of the genre. Cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti also shot Corbucci’s The Great Silence, and it is easy to see the chemistry between the two during the scenes that actually work. You can also see early signs of some of the recurring themes that pop up in his films, including nontraditional protagonists—in addition to Joe, the film’s other “heroes” include an aging musician and his show girl companions. Corbucci is also fond of torturing his heroes, often to the point of near death, only to resurrect them in time to vanquish evil (the notable exception being the seminal filmThe Great Silence, one of the most bleak movies of all time). Ennio Morricone, who composed the scores for close to 40 spaghetti westerns, including all of Leone’s and several of Corbucci’s better films, provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks with Navajo Joe.
Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Navajo Joe is a movie that will appeal to true fans of the spaghetti western, But anyone looking for a film that can be considered “good” in the more traditional sense of the word, will most likely be disappointed by this uneven film, You’ll be better off watching Corbucci’s Companeros, The Great Silence or Django, all of which are infinitely better films.
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