Among his many claims to fame, Marlon Brando was noteworthy as a supporter of Native American heritage and civil rights, famously sending activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the 45th Academy Awards ceremony to publicly decline his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). Admittedly less famous, but no less entertaining, was his loathing for Burt Reynolds. Brando described Reynolds as “the epitome of something that makes me want to throw up … he’s the epitome of everything that’s disgusting about the thespian”.1 Suffice to say it is not hard to imagine the Method icon being apoplectic at the thought of Reynolds playing an American Indian warrior in spaghetti western Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), a role Brando himself was initially touted for.

Then again, Reynolds’ casting in Navajo Joe came six years before his star turn in Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) and his Cosmopolitan centrefold, and more than a decade before Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977). In short, Brando would not have had much cause to care about Reynolds in 1966, though the latter had delivered an amusing parody of the former in a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Bard”). Nonetheless, Reynolds’ turn in Sergio Corbucci’s western feels cut from the cloths of two precursors, one of them being Brando. Despite his own Cherokee heritage, Reynolds’ casting as an Indian avenger carries the whiff of some of Brando’s roles in which he essayed characters of other ethnicities, such as a Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan, 1952) or a Japanese man in The Teahouse of the August Moon (Daniel Mann, 1956). The other precursor is Clint Eastwood, another American television stalwart-turned-1960s spaghetti western headliner, 1970s movie superstar and Reynolds’ eventual co-star in City Heat (Richard Benjamin, 1984). As Navajo Joe, Reynolds is less nuanced and affected than Brando, less instantly iconic than Eastwood, but gives a more physically decisive, muscular performance than either star, showcasing some of the man’s ‘man’ attributes that would make him so popular throughout the 1970s.

In Navajo Joe, a group of raping and pillaging outlaws headed by the nefarious Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) plot to rob a locomotive flush with bank funds. There is, however, a thorn in their side in the form of Joe (Reynolds), a Navajo warrior seeking retribution for his wife’s murder at Duncan’s hands. Joe steals their (literal) gravy train, sells his protective services to the townsfolk of Esperanza where the criminals are headed and proceeds to decimate the villains one by one, culminating in a showdown between hero and nemesis.

If the plot for Navajo Joe sounds like a generic revenge western … well, it is, but, like most spaghetti westerns, it provides a serviceable hook on which to hang set pieces with grizzled men squaring off to electrifying Ennio Morricone tunes. Director Corbucci, who previously helmed films in a variety of genres ranging from dramas to comedies to sword-and-sandal flicks, tackled his first western two years earlier with Grand Canyon Massacre (Corbucci & Albert Band, 1964). That was the same year A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) made an indelible mark on the genre, and Sergios Leone and Corbucci would become the spaghetti western’s leading practitioners in subsequent years. On first appearance, one could be forgiven for thinking Leone favoured quality and Corbucci sought quantity: Navajo Joe is one of three Corbucci westerns hailing from 1966, the others being Django and Ringo and His Golden Pistol. Reynolds had no qualms about bagging his director as the “wrong” Sergio, or ribbing Navajo Joe as “so awful, it was shown only in prisons and airplanes because nobody could leave”.2

However, to relegate Corbucci to the role of mere journeyman imitator is wrongheaded. While Navajo Joe certainly takes some cues from Leone’s Dollars films – it is, after all, an Italian western featuring an imported American television star with a Morricone score – Corbucci has his own preoccupations. Where Leone’s films are ornate, baroque and operatic, Navajo Joe is grittier, scrappier, more muscular. The film opens with a scalping, immediately signalling a greater attentiveness to the violence of the American West than Leone’s stylised hijinks, but also capitalising on this violence as a commercial aesthetic in the true exploitation tradition. Assistant director Ruggero Deodato, future helmer of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) among other shockers, may well have acquired his cinematic hankering for crimson here. Additionally, the film is more attentive to the occupants of the West either ignored (Native Americans) or treated especially callously (women) in Leone’s films. While Navajo Joe is far from progressive by contemporary measures, some credit is deserved. Compare, for example, the modicum of agency and authority Corbucci affords the character Hannah (Valeria Sabel) to Leone’s treatment of women in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Joe, meanwhile, is a heroic figure uncharacteristic of American Indians in Hollywood westerns, traces of which can be seen in later avenging or reluctant archetypes like John Rambo, Max Rockatansky and others. While Reynolds and Corbucci clashed and the actor joked that he “killed 10,000 guys, wore a Japanese slingshot and a fright wig”,3 his performance packs palpable wallop, and was praised by no less than Quentin Tarantino as “a one-man-tornado onslaught”.4

Corbucci’s artistic imprint can be seen today in the work of Tarantino, contemporary cinema’s premier spaghetti-western aficionado and a like-minded straddler of art/exploitation divides. The director lists Navajo Joe ninth on his list of the 20 best spaghetti westerns, with other Corbucci titles clocking in at #3, #4 and #14 – Django, Il mercenario (The Mercenary, 1968) and Il grande silenzio (The Great Silence, 1968) respectively.5 Django, of course, inspired the filmmaker’s Blaxpoitation ‘Southern’ western Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), and music from Django (along with tracks from Navajo Joe and other Corbucci titles) peppers the soundtracks of his Django Unchained and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004). Tarantino praises Corbucci’s West as “the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre”.6 Of Navajo Joe in particular, Tarantino’s take on Reynolds’ Joe as “one-man-tornado onslaught” corresponds with his own reinvention of Django in the bloody final third of Django Unchained, and at that film’s Toronto premiere he singled out Navajo Joe as the spaghetti western viewers should watch before seeing his film.7 Suffice to say, Corbucci’s scrappy little western – one of three cranked out by the director that year, made on the cheap in the Spanish desert with an imported TV star who loathed the experience – casts a cool shadow over cult cinema.

• • •

Navajo Joe (1966 Italy/Spain 93 min)

Prod. Co: Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica, C.B. Films S.A. Prod: Luigi Carpentieri, Ermanno Donati Dir: Sergio Corbucci Scr: Piero Regnoli, Fernando Di Leo (from a story by Ugo Pirro) Phot: Silvano Ippoliti Ed: Alberto Gallitti Art Dir: Aurelio Crugnola Mus: Ennio Morricone Ass Dir: Mario Berriatua, Ruggero Deodato

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Aldo Sambrell, Fernando Rey, Valeria Sabel, Pierre Cressoy, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Lucio Rosato

Endnotes:

  1. Marlon Brando Rips Burt Reynolds (from Apocalypse Now Set)”, YouTube, 5 January 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5ubnNoOwdY
  2. “Trivia”, “Navajo Joe (1966)”, Internet Movie Database, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061587/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv
  3. ibid.
  4. Quentin Tarantino, “Quentin Tarantino Tackles Old Dixie by Way of the Old West (by Way of Italy),” The New York Times Magazine, 27 September 2012, https://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/magazine/quentin-tarantino-django.html
  5. Gregory Wakeman, “The 20 Best Spaghetti Westerns, According to Quentin Tarantino,” Cinema Blend, 2015, https://www.cinemablend.com/new/20-Best-Spaghetti-Westerns-According-Quentin-Tarantino-70533.html
  6. Tarantino, op. cit.
  7. Kevin Jagernauth, “Watch: Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe in Full, Which Quentin Tarantino Says You Should See Before Django Unchained,” IndieWire, 13 December 2012, http://www.indiewire.com/2012/12/watch-sergio-corbuccis-navajo-joe-in-full-which-quentin-tarantino-says-you-should-see-before-django-unchained-250312/

About The Author

Dr Ben Kooyman studied at Flinders University and currently teaches at the Australian College of Physical Education. He is the founder and main contributor to Down Under Flix, a website devoted to highlighting and reviewing obscure, forgotten, neglected, or underrated Australian films, and is a regular contributor to Australian Comics Journal.