“ Genre: War & Western - Western / Theatrical Release: 1966 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Sergio Corbucci / Actors: Fernando Rey, Burt Reynolds ... / DVD released 2008-09-08 at Optimum Home Entertainment / Features of the DVD: PAL „
* Prices may differ from that shown
Sergio Corbucci made his directorial debut in 1951 and largely concentrated on the then popular sword and sandals films the Italian film industry was burgeoning with as was their Hollywood counterpart. But following the collapse in demand for films of that type in the early 1960s he, like so many others, turned his attention to the newly coming western genre. In 1964 he then directed the western Massacre at Grand Canyon, and followed this the following year with Minnesota Clay, neither proving to be particularly successful as they lacked the spice what made the concurrent Sergio Leone films so memorable. But in 1966, Corbucci really hit his stride, most obviously from the influence of the other films that were doing rounds at the same time, and it was there and then that a lot of the signatures of what his films became known for found their expression. During that year he directed three westerns, of which Navajo Joe was the first. Corbucci was essentially a second-tier director, mostly doing very B-grade stuff, and Navajo Joe is certainly a film that cannot with any clear conscience be called a masterpiece of anything. However, this is a fairly entertaining film that manages to show the beginnings of Corbucci's visions, that were to become increasingly bleak and brutal. Starring a very young Burt Reynolds, the film tells of a Navajo named Joe, who is after a known Indian scalper Duncan and his bunch of ruthless renegades. Duncan himself is half Indian, but has a very strong dislike toward his heritance and has some major self-control and self-esteem issues to boot. Even small instances can easily make him see red (no pun intended), and he completely lacks a conscience. But now he is made an outlaw by the very people who originally paid him a dollar a scalp much due to him just going on in sadistically killing even peaceful tribes instead of the hostile ones that he was contracted to attack originally.
However, an influential doctor with keys to the bank offers a job to him in stealing a train carrying a box of money, and thus Duncan goes on a rampage with his men in order to get their cut of it. However, not far behind is Joe who has a personal vendetta to carry out. What that vendetta is... well, you'll find out in the end. First off, what quickly becomes very obvious, is that Navajo Joe is an extremely violent film. Within the first 30 minutes there are already about 30 bodies laid waste; men, women, children, good guys, bad guys... and this doesn't really let up during the entire 88 minute run. It is this type of overt violence that is particularly notable with a lot of Corbucci films, and Navajo Joe very much revels in this sadistic killing. As is habitual of the 1960s, and most likely due to the budget too, there's not a lot of blood that can be seen, and even what IS seen is largely unrealistic, but the whole idea of making a film that essentially is a glorified slaughter fest is a grim one indeed. And at the same time it does undeniably have the averse effect in making one feel a bit numb to it all, whereas in say a Leone film the violence was always very regulated and used for as much punch as possible. Here one can easily just end up not really caring about the whole aspect outside of perhaps a few more notable deaths of the most unprovoked ilk.
The performances themselves are largely adequate, but never stellar. Burt Reynolds is fun to see as an Indian, sneaking about and killing a bunch of people by various ways, from breaking their necks, stabbing them to death, or just straight-forward shooting them. Aldo Sambrell's Duncan, however, is a bit of a disappointment. He undoubtedly is supposed to be a very, very evil guy with no remorse for the brutality he shows, but he falters down in being so incredibly short tempered, and at the same time he just doesn't come across the same way of evil as Leone's bad guys like El Indio, Angel Eyes or Frank were portrayed as being. Duncan just seems a bit small fries, and the only redeeming performance really only comes in the final confrontation, which is quite good. The rest of the performances aren't really anything to write home about, but the half-breed Estella, played by Nicoletta Machiavelli, does look rather hot in that inimitable 1960s way, and Pierre Cressoy as the smarmy banker/doctor Chester Lynne handles his slimy part rather well. Likewise the direction is nothing really specifically intriguing. Corbucci's style is very bread and butter in its execution. Everything is functional, but never exceptional. The 2.35:1 widescreen is not really utilised to its fullest and it lacks a certain visionary sense. But again the final confrontation stands out in being a lot more tense and interesting than pretty much 90% of the rest of the film. Also the ending is left somewhat ambiguous, so one can make up their own mind of the final outcome.
The film does, however, pose one small scene that shows a little whiff of the future when Joe demands to be appointed as sheriff due to him offering his help to the citizens of Esperanza in protection of their town against Duncan (also receiving a "dollar for head"). In it the sheriff is outraged by the demand as there's never been an Indian sheriff instead of an "American", which Joe simply rebukes with that his entire family was born in America, while the sheriff's father came from Scotland. It shows a change toward in thinking of Native Americans as not somehow un-American or the villains, but the only true Americans that would become a major subject in some more modern westerns like Dances With Wolves. The music is by Ennio Morricone (working under the pseudonym Leo Nichols) and is perhaps the most notable aspect of the entire production. Morricone was just fresh off from developing his very distinctive style of scoring for Leone's westerns, and was again providing a very rambunctious and odd score. Employing the chanting of "Navajo Joe! Navajo Joe! Never so bold, never so bold!" throughout, some elemental native American vocal wails, the voice work of Gianna Spagnulo, and one of the coolest guitar riffs Morricone ever came up with, the score is fun and decidedly original as only Morricone could make one. But outside of this, Navajo Joe as a film could be a whole lot better than what it is. Corbucci would quickly advance to be the most prolific western director in Italy and would even end up directing some of the undeniable masterpieces of the genre, but Navajo Joe is one of his lesser efforts. This is not to say the film is outrightly bad, and it indeed is pretty good in a rather middle-of-the-road way, but I would say that if you are not a fan of spaghetti westerns, or are seeking a good place to start, Navajo Joe certainly would not be a film you should see without being a fan first. This is still rather early Corbucci and one of his first to employ the type of western style the Italian productions became particularly known for. So, while it doesn't blow your mind, it is still a reasonably fun film overall with rather good dubbing to boot. Just don't go expecting anything truly stunning.
© berlioz, 2009