Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe features an interesting twist on the western genre, as it features a Native American as the avenging hero. Now sure, Burt Reynolds plays the titular character and that takes a lot of getting used to. Word it that he wasn’t overly pleased with his Italian western experience, which makes it all the more remarkable to consider that Marlon Brando was the first choice.
This is not Corbucci’s finest hour, but it seems that many of the picture’s shortcomings are out of his hands. There’s a certain degree of affection in Navajo Joe and the body count is up there, plus Silvano Ippoliti’s widescreen shots are really something.
The movie opens with the despicable outlaw Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) destroying yet another village in his reign of terror. He leads a massive gang that includes his blonde brother (Lucio Rosato) and more than a few punks. Duncan storms into another town and takes over the tavern after discovering a wanted poster with his name on it.
He’s approached by a mysterious doctor (Pierre Cressoy) who wants the gang’s help with stealing a safe. Navajo Joe (Reynolds) thwarts the robbery, returning the dough to the town of Esperanza. He offers to protect the townspeople for a dollar a head, plus the original reward, and sets out to stop Duncan’s gang.
There is some sort of history between Duncan and Navajo Joe, but the Ugo Pirro story saves any surprises for the final frames. The Dean Craig and Fernando Di Leo tries to weave some sort of plot in the meantime, settling on a number of action scenes to bolster the legend of Navajo Joe. Despite his obvious skill, the townspeople are reluctant to accept his aid.
Part of their disinclination comes down to good old-fashioned racism. One of the film’s most effective scenes finds Navajo Joe informing the sheriff and mayor (Mario Lanfranchi) that he’s the real American, what with his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father born in these lands.
Of course, this point isn’t pushed very hard and Navajo Joe carries no real political weight. It doesn’t land like some of the Zapata westerns and the racial status of the lead character doesn’t seem to matter much, apart from when they want Reynolds to throw a tomahawk or knife someone in the throat. There are some inaccuracies when it comes to the Navajo people, too, but it hardly matters.
The villain fares better when it comes to his motivations. He is introduced as he shoots an unarmed Native woman and retrieves her scalp. Duncan’s gang has been paid to obtain many a scalp over the years, but the town he works for changes its mind when he starts killing innocent folks along the way. Later, Duncan reveals an abusive past.
Most of the other characters sink into the background. Nicoletta Machiavelli has little to do apart from looking the part, plus there are a couple of standard saloon girls (Tanya Lopert, Franca Polesello, Lucia Modugno) that become identical parts of the same whole. Machiavelli’s character in particular could’ve contributed more to the Navajo Joe mythos, but the context never comes.
While Navajo Joe does little with its substance, it does feature quite a few satisfying fragments. It functions as an action western, with Reynolds and Co. destroying everything in sight. There are some impressive if specious set pieces, like the original robbery of the train and Navajo Joe’s subsequent retrieval of said train.
The score by Ennio Morricone, credited here as Leo Nichols, is of the bizarre variety. The maestro uses repetition to lay in a dense punch, which signifies the mystery and tension between Joe and his enemies. Quentin Tarantino would use the piano-led theme, known officially as “A Silhouette of Doom,” in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
The body count in Navajo Joe is high and it resembles a sort of Rambo movie at times, albeit before its time. There is a lot of shooting, with that crisp Italian sound, and there’s a decent amount of the red stuff. But this certainly isn’t one of Corbucci’s better westerns and one gets the impression he left an awful lot on the table. As such, it’s a shade on the average side.