Navajo Joe Review (Scherpschutter)

From The Spaghetti Western Database


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Apparently Burt Reynolds once said that this movie was only shown in prisons and airplanes, because nobody could leave. The film was not born under a lucky star. When Reynolds signed in he was under the impression that Sergio Leone would direct; Corbucci, on the other hand, thought Marlon Brando would play the lead role. Burt had to be content with the ‘wrong Sergio’, Corbucci had to settle for Burt. Admittedly the film didn’t do for Reynolds what A Fistful of Dollars had done for his friend Clint Eastwood, but it’s well worth ninety minutes of your life.

A gang of sadistic outlaws, led by the half-breed Duncan brothers, hunt down Indians and sell their scalps for a dollar a head (hence the Italian title: Un Dollaro a Testa). In town they're told that their services are no longer needed, but one of the citizens tells them about half a million dollars that will be transported to the town of Esperanza: he can open the safe if they can steal it. The brothers attack the train and kill all the passengers, but their plans are thwarted by a Navajo called Joe: he has sworn to avenge his murdered tribesmen and therefore steals the train with the unopened safe and rides it into town. Joe is captured by the Duncan gang and brutally tortured, but gets some help from the saloon girls and a banjo player who is good with a sling-shot. He then lures the Duncan brothers to the Indian graveyard where all people of his tribe that were slaughtered by the gang are buried …


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Navajo Joe is neither realistic nor authentic: Navajos lived in hogans (huts), not tipis (tents), and they were rather peaceful farmers, not fierce warriors; Burt Reynolds, who plays the Navajo, is of Cherokee descent , but behaves more like an Apache (and is dressed like no particular Indian at all). All true, but at the same time Navajo Joe is a tremendous action movie: hardly five minutes pass without Burt shooting, stabbing or clubbing an opponent to death. He jumps off rocks, overthrows horses and riders, shoots his rifle from the hip and throws tomahawk and knife with utmost precision (*1). For it's time the movie is remarkably violent; in many countries scenes were (partly or entirely) cut: the killing of a mother with a baby during the train assault, the killing of the priest in church, and the marking of a victim’s forehead with a tribe symbol by Joe, prior to killing the man with a stone (*2)

Corbucci isn’t mentioned as co-author of either story or script, maybe because he didn’t like the idea of a spaghetti western with Indians. It was producer Dino de Laurentiis first western and apparently it was his idea to use an Indian as avenger. Still some Corbucci-isms shine through. It’s often said that one of the essential differences between Leone and Corbucci, is their approach to female characters. To Leone – at least until he discovered Jill – women were basically a hindrance to the narrative and action, Corbucci nearly always presented them as more positive figures, even if they were minor characters (*3). It’s one of the saloon girls who learns about the plan to rob to train, and the banker’s daughter is the only member of the respectable citizens who gladly accepts Joe’s offer to help the town. And even if the part is a little underwritten, it’s Machiavelli’s half-breed girl Estella who gets closest to Joe.


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Some think the villain in this movie is better than the hero. Aldo Sambrell probably has his finest hour as Vee Duncan, the most dangerous of the brothers. As a half-breed Duncan has never been respected by anybody, therefore he hates both Indians and whites. This scene is echoed by Joe’s brief speech, in which he explains that he, as a Navajo, is the real American: his parents and ancestors were born in America, unlike the parents and ancestors of the townspeople, who refuse to give him the sheriff’s star because only ‘Americans’ can be sheriff. Although Burt spoke about Corbucci as the ’wrong Sergio’, the two men seemed to have carried along rather well. Much to Corbucci's surprise Burt even approved of the plan of being killed at the end of the movie, but they were forced to alter the anticipated scene; as a result Joe’s fate at the end of the movie is left a bit undecided (*4). But that's not necessarily a bad thing: The ending is particularly fine, with Joe’s horse bringing back the stolen money to the townspeople and Nicoletta sending the horse back to its master afterwards. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of the oddest of his career. It isn’t bad, but with its soaring shrieks and yells it’s almost feels kitschy. Parts of it were used by in Tarantino Kill Bill Vol. 2.

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Further Reading:

Notes:

  • (1) He doesn't use bow and arrow in the movie, even though he appeared with them on the cover of the British DVD. For the cover see http://www.spaghetti-western.net/index.php/Navajo_Joe/DVD
  • (2) Jean-François Giré, Il était une fois le western européen, p. 431
  • (3) “While … [talking to ] … Alex Cox on Saturday, I asked him what it was about Sergio Corbucci, about whom he’s always spoken with great enthusiasm, that particularly appealed to him. One thing, he replied, was the way Corbucci presented women as positive figures in his films, even when their characters may be only marginal with regard to the main storyline, and how he differed in this respect from Leone, for whom women were largely seen as an impediment to action.” - John Exshaw, Cinema Retro, Reports from the Lido
  • (4) Marco Giusti, Dizionario del western all’italiana


Dir: Sergio Corbucci - Cast: Burt Reynolds, Aldo Sambrell, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Nino Imperato, Tanya Lopert, Pierre Cressoy, Fernando Rey, Franca Polesello, Lucio Rosato, Chris Huerta, Lorenzo Robledo - Music: Ennio Morricone

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--By Scherpschutter

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