Of all the misguided casting coups that have historically plagued the western genre, few are more egregious, or more entertainingly idiotic, than Burt Reynolds as the titular Native American in Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe. Bronzed to the extreme, lips coated with a pinkish gloss to complement the skin color, and topped off with a stiff straight-haired black wig, Navajo Joe isn’t fooling anyone into thinking he’s anyone but Reynolds, a Georgia-born actor of Scottish, Irish, and Dutch ancestry. A former halfback at Florida State University, Reynolds knows how to strike a stylishly relaxed pose that calls attention to his biceps and pectorals, and in Joe’s skimpy suede covering, he’s got just the outfit for the look, regardless of the fact that modeling it in such a way makes him resemble more an all-American beefcake than a grieving Navajo. Fortunately, Corbucci is aware of this dissonance. In a line of dialogue that seems included almost exclusively for metatextual purposes, an Native American maid (played in no less dubious but marginally more convincing fashion by Nicoletta Machiavelli) tauntingly remarks, “I’ve never known an Indian named Joe, and I’ve never seen a Navajo so far south before.”
In no small part because of Reynolds’s centrality, Navajo Joe feels like the first installment of a no-nonsense action franchise that never materialized. It’s got a big-name star whose presence supersedes his fictional character, a theme song that renders its title and central character a jingle, and a barebones plot with broadly sketched good guys and bad guys. It’s easy to imagine the central conceit—bandits slaughter members of Joe’s tribe, and Joe seeks revenge on them—accommodating theoretically endless and interchangeable iterations. Perhaps Joe, after ridding the southwest of the unruly Mexicans in Mervyn “Vee” Duncan’s (Aldo Sambrell) gang (there’s more than a hint of conservative border-policing implicit in the scenario), would attempt to seek peace with his people up north, only to encounter more amoral outgrowths of manifest destiny. The thematic root of Navajo Joe—righteous Native American indignation at the seizure of their land and the killing of their people—is a simple enough narrative engine to generate countless grindhouse plots of merciless pursuit and vengeance.
Of course, Navajo Joe remains a standalone work, but the fact that it even hints at this larger, iconic cinematic world in a mere 93-minute revenge yarn is striking. While Reynolds’s stunt casting surely adds a degree of pulpiness, Corbucci’s own spin on the spaghetti western offers a tougher and more concentrated snapshot of frontier violence than was present within the nihilistic bombast of Leone’s contemporaneous epics. Rather than bombard the viewer with stylized gunplay and killings so frequent that they diminish in impact, Corbucci favors a suggestive atmosphere of accumulating malice laced with vaguely erotic physicality (Joe and his nemesis share an almost fetishistic relationship to their phallic weapons) and sudden, ephemeral reveals of grotesque violence (the scalping of Navajos, a pair of horses nose-diving into rugged terrain, an axe hurled into a skull). Joe, who’s good with a gun, but prefers the more guerrilla tactic of sneaking up on his victims and knifing them from behind, is an ideal vessel for this directorial approach—always waiting, thinking, then diving into action for a few lethal beats.
Navajo Joe’s best sequences, consequently, aren’t the shootout set pieces (of which Corbucci orchestrates two: a large-scale train heist with a crowd of moving targets on horseback and a climactic standoff in a town center), but the contemplative moments when the movie’s plot sits suspended in flux. When Duncan and his gang raid a saloon expecting the town mayor to compensate them for their Native American scalps, the altercation quickly turns deadly for the patrons, though a charged exchange between Duncan and one of the survivors provides the scene’s indelible mark. The man (Pierre Cressoy), a crooked town doctor who later offs an injured patient in one of Corbucci’s most elegant arrangements of cryptic cuts, offers to help Duncan and his men with a robbery, though the camera only reveals his eyes in extreme close-up, mysteriously concealing his identity in order to establish the ambiguity of a future interaction with Joe. Later, the gang captures Joe and hangs him upside down, a torture method intended to force the stoic Navajo to reveal the whereabouts of a missing stash. Corbucci condenses the afternoon-long punishment into a few anxious minutes of screen time, until finally three of the survivors from the earlier bar raid—a pair of saloon girls and a banjo-slinging entertainer used periodically as comic counterpoint—manage to take advantage of the snoozing watchman.
Typical of the spaghetti-western output, scene-scanning zooms are omnipresent and lensing is wildly varied, with wide-angle distortion juxtaposed against telephoto compression to maximize the personal and mythic possibilities of the landscape. While this mingling can often produce perceptual disarray (a quality no doubt justified in a more radical late-’60s western like The Wild Bunch), Corbucci never sacrifices spatial continuity, as the spectacular hanging sequence can attest: It’s always clear where the guard as well as the rescuers exist in relation to Joe, distances that matter when considering the precise order of gestures required for the escape. Indeed, notwithstanding its Ennio Morricone score (later repurposed by Tarantino for his Kill Bill films) and its startling violence, Navajo Joe plays more like a ’50s B western in its fluid pacing, compact narrative construction, and hokey emphasis on star power than it does the kinds of sprawling genre re-workings common to its era. Maybe the studly Reynolds fits in after all.
If anything can be raised as a point of contention on this largely attractive disc, it’s that Kino Lorber has perhaps treated Navajo Joe to a bit too immaculate a digital transfer. One wonders if the Technicolor on its original print could have been quite this brilliant. Blue skies are gloriously vibrant and the predominantly beige tones beneath the horizon line are calibrated as perfect chromatic complement. Here and there, a stray shot will stand out as being incongruously subpar-looking (colors desaturated, details softer), making one suspicious of the degree to which initial blandness was artificially spiced up in the finishing process. That said, it’s certainly not a whitewashed transfer, as the grain is conspicuous and appreciated. Audio, meanwhile, is clean and stable, with Reynolds’s brooding baritone registering as prominently as the speaker-busting frenzies of gunfire.
All that’s provided for context is an oddly sparse and only sporadically illuminating commentary track by film historian Gary Palmucci. Also included are four dated trailers: one for Navajo Joe that concludes with the patently false tagline, "He doesn’t care why he kills or how," and three for Reynolds-starring exploitation films from the 1970s (Gator, Malone, and White Lightning).
Navajo Joe, one of Sergio Corbucci’s lesser-known westerns, is scarred by ludicrous casting, but elevated by the integrity of its punchy filmmaking, virtues made evident in Kino Lorber’s super-vivid widescreen digitization.