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Schlock & Awe: NAVAJO JOE

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by on December 4, 2013

Burt Reynolds was one of the coolest guys in the 1970s. From Deliverance to The Longest Yard to Smokey and the Bandit, he solidified his place as the laid-back scoundrel everybody loved. However, before that, he was a stuntman turned TV star looking for his big break. In 1966, he flew over to Spain to shoot a western for an Italian director named Sergio, but it wasn’t quite what he expected. Instead of an iconic man who may or may not have a name, Reynolds slapped on a black wig, sprayed on some bronzer, and played the title character in Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe.

Clint Eastwood, a TV cowboy on the show Rawhide, had come over to Spain to make the Dollars trilogy for Sergio Leone and become a huge international star, so when Burt Reynolds, a former stuntman and regular on the long-running show Gunsmoke, was offered the chance to come over and star in an Italian western himself, he saw a golden opportunity to skyrocket to fame and fortune. He was, however, very let down when he realized the “Sergio” who was directing was not Leone at all, but Corbucci, a contemporary of Leone’s who made tons of B-pictures in his long career. Reynolds reportedly hated making Navajo Joe and only ultimately did it because he’d already signed the contract.

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The film concerns a Native American (Reynolds) who seeks revenge on a gang of bandits, led by the sadistic Vee Duncan (played by Aldo Sambrell, a go-to henchman in Leone’s films). Duncan massacres Indian tribes for $1 per scalp until that practice is made illegal. He is then approached by a mysterious man who tells him about a train full of government money making its way to the small town of Esperanza. The man says he can open the safe if Duncan and his men can steal it. Everything would have gone perfectly if a certain Navajo named Joe wasn’t keen on getting some gut-stabbing payback. Joe gets some help from a couple saloon girls and a banjo player who’s good with a slingshot, but mostly it’s just one against the world until it reaches the final showdown.

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Sergio Corbucci was a director who loved excesses. He is probably the second best director of spaghetti westerns, and what he lacks in Leone’s vision and innovative shot composition, Corbucci makes up for in violence and body count. He made three of what I would consider the best spaghetti westerns of all time: Django (1966), The Great Silence (1968), and Companeros (1970). These films all have a certain something that makes them indelible and worthy of watching; Navajo Joe has a huge body count and Burt Reynolds in a wig, phoning it in. Not quite the “something” I was talking about.

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There are just so many ridiculous things in it. Exhibit A: The train the baddies are meant to rob is literally a half-size steam engine with two, count ‘em, TWO cars. Okay, fine, so it’s an easy job, but Duncan comes to rob it with no fewer than 25 guys on horseback! It’s complete overkill. In most spaghettis, the villain has a gang of between five and ten guys, most of them just pistol fodder; in this one it’s an endless barrage of no-name bad guys. Exhibit B: Joe does not use a pistol. He uses a Winchester rifle which he shoots rapid-fire. This isn’t particularly ridiculous in and of itself, but he never reloads it. Not uncommon for westerns. Joe kills most people stealthily, though, sneaking up on them, tackling them, and then stabbing them in the belly with his enormous knife. This is ridiculous for two reasons: 1) nobody ever hears him even if he walks right past someone, and 2) none of his victims ever scream for help or in pain prior to their death. He apparently knows the very place in a person’s belly that if stabbed renders them completely unable to make noises. So imagine him doing this 20 times. And the bad guys NEVER WISE UP. They’re always going off alone to investigate something and Joe just kills them.

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Reynolds clearly wasn’t interested in being in this movie, as evidenced by his rather lackadaisical performance and the fact that he doesn’t dub himself. All Italian films of the time were recorded silent so that whichever country bought the film could dub it in their language. As a result, you often get voices that don’t match the lips. This is not one of the better spaghetti westerns from the standpoint of dubbing. You get people saying things like, “Listen to what I’m about to say, we must find this Indian and kill him, don’t you understand?” just so the dialogue will match the mouth movements of the Spanish and Italian actors speaking their respective languages. Burt Reynolds’ voice is pretty distinct, so when he’s voiced by “Random Hero Voice Guy #3,” it’s pretty noticeable and hilarious.

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If Reynolds is a fairly uninteresting hero, Aldo Sambrell is a pretty excellent villain. His is a face you remember if you’ve seen any of Sergio Leone’s westerns, but he only got a chance to be a lead in lesser films. Duncan is maybe the vilest and most complex villain you’d ever see. He’s supposed to be a half-breed, white and Native American (though clearly he’s Spanish), and he hates both halves. He kills Indians en masse out of his hatred of his mother for being taken by a white man, and he hates white people for what his father did to his mother. He truly can’t win. And you know he’s a bad guy because he shoots anybody — men, women, children, mothers, sheriffs, deputies, horses, and even a priest. He’s brutal and seems to take joy in his actions, which is pretty much the best kind of villain that exists.

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Now, I’ve read somewhere that this is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite spaghetti westerns. This is incredibly obvious while watching, as several things from Navajo Joe find their way into Tarantino’s films. Firstly, the music: QT is no stranger to using existing tracks or music cues for his films, and he tends to use Ennio Morricone’s music more than others. Here, he uses Morricone’s haunting “Silhouette of Doom” for several scenes in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and Navajo Joe‘s title track for when Bill walks off to his death. To be honest, the music is probably used more effectively in the latter film. Some of Joe’s actions are used in another Tarantino movie as well; Duncan scalps Native Americans and Joe takes great offense to this and so leaves his mark, two triangles on top of each other, on the forehead of one of his victims, to show that “Navajo Joe was here.” This was clearly taken as part of Aldo the Apache and the Basterds’ M.O. for Inglourious Basterds, a film that is basically the best spaghetti western not to take place in the Old West or made by Italians.

Navajo Joe is a very uneven, although heartily enjoyable, bit of Italian cheese (so, mozzarella) with a great performance by Aldo Sambrell and a silly performance by a pre-fame Burt Reynolds. If you like spaghetti westerns, or Quentin Tarantino’s latter day work, definitely check it out. And if you want to see some of Sergio Corbucci’s better films, check out the films I mentioned above, specifically Django, to which Tarantino paid homage in his most recent film, Django Unchained.