Navajo Joe

Director: Sergio Corbucci   
Burt Reynolds, Fernando Rey, Aldo Sanbrell

Whenever someone takes a big fall in their career, it can get a wide range of reactions from observers. Sometimes observers will get a big sense of satisfaction of seeing the party in question take the fall. Take those in politics, for example. I'm confident in saying that there were a lot of happy people when tyrants like Napoleon and Hitler fell from power. I should admit that I get a lot of satisfaction whenever I read in the news of a modern-day politician take a fall, since I think that all politicians are crooks (I'm a proud non-voter.) When it comes to various individuals in the entertainment field, however, seeing someone fall usually gets from me the feeling of, "What a shame" and, "What could have been with this person if they didn't have all that bad luck." There's filmmaker Preston Sturges, for example. After making the disastrous decision to leave Paramount Pictures for chances of more creative control, he was finished as a filmmaker after the three movies he directed afterwards flopped at the box office, afterwards being reduced to being nothing more than a screenplay doctor. Then there's the case with director Sam Peckinpah. Just a few years after directing movies like The Getaway and The Wild Bunch, a string of box-office flops and problems in his personal life combined reduced him to directing second-rate movies like Convoy and The Osterman Weekend, then ending his career just before his death by being reduced even further, to directing music videos.

Then there is the case of actor Burt Reynolds, his situation possibly being even more than a tragedy than other entertainment individuals, because of all the time and effort he had previously put into his career before he finally became a superstar. He acting career, which he started in his early 20s, was at first a struggle, getting the occasional role in plays. Things slowly progressed from this point, eventually getting some bit parts in movies and balancing this with television work; some of this television work consisted of lead roles in series (most short-lived, however.) The movie roles he was cast in slowly became meatier, enough so that he became a somewhat famous movie actor that some of the public recognized. Then in 1972 came Deliverance, the second-highest grossing movie of the year that can probably be called the movie that made him a superstar. For the next ten or so years, Reynolds' career was solid (Smokey And The Bandit, The Cannonball Run, etc.) despite the occasional box office flop. Then in the 80s is when things started to go wrong for him, and his fall started. By this point, audiences were tiring of the yahoo Southern good-ol'-boy movies he was making, and they stopped seeing them. Reynolds tried making different kinds of movies during this period (Paternity, City Heat, Stick, etc.), but they made little impact with audiences or the critics. It didn't help his popularity that there were vicious rumors going around at the time that the then-ill Reynolds had AIDS.

Reynolds has had the occasional success since then (his TV series Evening Shade ran for several seasons, and his role in Boogie Nights got critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination), but apart from these few successes, he has not been able to recapture the kind of superstardom he had in the 1970s. One other reason he has not been able to do so has to do with something that happened in his personal life in 1996. In that year, he was forced to declare bankruptcy (being 10 million dollars in debt) after a number of costly things in his life added up, including his messy and expensive divorce to Loni Anderson. You do have to give credit to Reynolds to what he declared after declaring bankruptcy; he not only said he would cut back on his expenses, he said he would pay back every dime. And he seems to be true to his word; in the 13 years since he declared bankruptcy, he has appeared in over 40 movies, which averages to a little more than 3 movies a year. (He has also done some television appearances in this period as well.) While his determination to pay off his debts is admirable, what is not so admirable about all the work he's done in the past few years is the quality of the movies he has signed on to. Most of these movies have been direct-to-video, and their quality is questionable; Reynolds in this period has not only worked for Albert Pyun (Crazy Six), he has also worked for Uwe Boll (In The Name Of The King).

The quality of most of these movies Reynolds has appeared in the past few years is not far off from some of the bad movies he made before he became a superstar. If you were to ask Reynolds for an example of a bad movie he made before he became a superstar, he would probably say Navajo Joe. In interviews, he has said this is one of the worst (if not the worst) film he has made. Despite this, I wanted to see the movie for a long time, because it was a spaghetti western, and after many bad decisions Reynolds has made you have to question his judgment; it couldn't possibly be that bad. It finally came out on DVD several months ago, and I ordered a copy. Reynolds (who is part Cherokee in real life) plays the title figure, as you probably figured out from him being top-billed. He doesn't appear in the opening scene, because the movie is more determined to have something big to start things off: a violent massacre! Barely thirty seconds into the movie the violence starts, when evil bandit Duncan (Sambrell, Armour Of God 2) and his band of twenty plus men invade a Native American village and slaughter all the inhabitants in order to get their scalps. After they are finished and they are riding out, they soon spot Joe on a distant hill, and one of them comments that he's "still tracking us." Huh? This is the first time they have spotted him.

This is not the last time the movie makes us question just what the filmmakers were thinking. There is the whole reason why Joe is pursuing Duncan and his men throughout the movie, picking them off one by one. It will be pretty obvious to viewers from the start as to why Joe is doing so, especially since the massacre scene at the beginning of the movie took time to show Duncan killing and scalping one specific woman. But the movie midway through has Joe volunteering his help to defend the citizens of a town against Duncan and his men... but only if he gets paid. This attempt to hide Joe's real motivations (which are revealed at the end of the movie to no surprise) not only is unconvincing, but this sudden desire for money makes Joe a less sympathetic figure. The movie also tries (and fails) to make a big secret with a character in the town who is secretly helping Duncan and his gang. He is first seen speaking to Duncan outside his town, and the movie makes pains to try and hide his identity by photographing him from behind or with bottles and other objects hiding his face. The problem with that is that his face usually isn't completely obscured; we see pieces of his face in these shots that are not obscured. Viewers will be able to put these pieces together in their mind and come up with a complete face, so that when this "mystery man" is finally seen later before his traitorous side is revealed to everybody, we know before the revelation just who the traitor in the town is.

Not only does Navajo Joe fail in its attempts to make big secrets and reveal them to great surprise, but other parts of the movie are just as equally badly handled. There are several moments in the movie when something happens that you just won't believe could or would happen. There is that opening massacre, for example. There is the suggestion that Duncan and his men attacked the village so that they could get the scalps and sell them. But Duncan is reminded later that scalps are now worthless, especially scalps of women and children; apparently they massacred everyone in the village just for the heck of it. Then shortly after Duncan and his men invade the town, the sheriff (all by himself) walks up to the band of desperados and thinks he can cart them all to jail. (I think I would be keeping a secret just as badly as the movie if I didn't reveal that the sheriff gets killed for his troubles.) There is also some nonsense about the train that the movie focuses on during the middle stretch. We are supposed to believe that not only do Duncan and his men know how to run a steam engine, but that Joe also knows how to control one as well. I can't leave out the nonsense about the telegraph wires as well. Just before Duncan and his men take over the train that is carrying the money they so desperately crave, they are seen cutting the telegraph lines. Yet much later in the town, the telegraph operator comes running out of his office and informs the townspeople that just seconds earlier, the telegraph line had been cut as he was taking down a message!

Not only is Navajo Joe weak in its script, it is often weak in its production values. The movie looks like someone kept a firm hand from people spending too much. This is a surprise, because this movie was made by the Dino De Laurentiis studios, whose European productions of the period had ample budgets. In this case, we have stuff an Indian village consisting of just two wigwams and a handful of inhabitants, a train just pulling two cars, the sound of a herd of horses sounding like just two or three horses, and some of the worst day-for-night photography I have ever seen. I've gone on for some time on the shortcomings of this movie, and you may be wondering if I found anything of merit. Well, I did find a few positive things, such as Reynolds. He does well in the physical part of his role, with the action scenes requiring him to leap and roll around considerably, and he is suitably brooding. (I can't tell you about his acting because his voice was dubbed by another actor.) There is also a great musical score by the great Ennio Morricone (who uses a pseudonym, possibly because he saw enough of the movie while scoring it.) And despite all those problems I described earlier, I never found the movie boring, though it comes close to being so at times even with the action sequences, which are kind of mechanically done. However, I should add that my tolerance towards the movie probably comes from the fact that I am a big fan of spaghetti westerns. While I don't regret seeing the movie, I probably won't go out of my way to see it again. So if you're not a spaghetti western fanatic, forget it.

UPDATE: Michael Prymula sent this in:

"In case you're wondering how Reynolds got involved in this film in the first place, well he only agreed to do the film because he was under the impression that it was being directed by Sergio Leone, by the time he was realized it was instead being directed by Sergio Corbucci, it was too late for Reynolds to back out of the film, he would often joke about how he found the "wrong" Sergio."

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Download)

See also: A Bullet For Sandoval, Cheyenne Warrior, If You Meet...