The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Navajo Joe

Since Burt Reynolds began working on TV in the late 1950s, the actor has pretty much never stopped working, doing movies and television shows over the years. But of all those parts -- and there's been some stinkers -- Reynolds thinks one stands below all the rest, his worst performance and movie ever. So goes 1966's Navajo Joe.

At the head of a gang of bloodthirsty cutthroats and murdering scalphunters, a bandit named Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) leads a vicious attack on a peaceful Navajo village. Men, women and children are massacred, their scalps taken for $1 bounty each. Duncan's gang moves on, working with a corrupt town official, Dr. Lynne (Pierre Cressoy) to rob a train and his own town of over $500,000. The job seems simple enough, but a survivor of the massacre remains, one warrior named Joe (Reynolds), who appears and disappears around the gang, killing one, two and three men with each of his attacks. Duncan becomes obsessed with killing him, especially with all that money on the line.

As Reynolds has claimed, is this his worst part? No, there's much worse out there, but as a movie, this wouldn't be a great introduction to spaghetti westerns. Stick with the Sergio Leone movies first, and then move on to lesser known entries like this. From director Sergio Corbucci (the "Other Sergio"), 'Joe' is rougher, cynical, aggressively in your face, and brutal. Corbucci was a shoot from the hip kind of director, rogue-like behind the camera with touches of an amateur. His camera is always moving, the shooting angles are always a tad off, and they never have (his earlier films at least) the polish of the Leone films. None of that's a bad thing, just know what to expect from Mr. Corbucci. With Django, The Mercenary, Companeros, The Hellbenders, and The Great Silence, he's responsible for some of the best spaghetti westerns around so he's not a talent-less schlub behind the camera.

So how about Reynolds as a Navajo warrior dispatching a gang of scalphunters? It is far from his worst work, but it ain't a great performance either. It's far from his fault. The script for 'Joe' isn't exactly the most well-written thing around, with plot holes and jumps in story all over the place. The 30-year old actor does his best though, and to his credit he commits. It's more of a physical performance than real acting (although thankfully he doesn't try to pull off an Indian "accent"). He leaps all over the screen, shooting, stabbing, jumping, strangling Duncan's gang. There are some unintentionally funny lines -- not just Reynolds, the whole cast -- but above all else, Reynolds looks comfortable. Looking to avenge his wife's death amongst the massacre, Joe is not going to be slowed up, no matter the odds.

As his opponent, familiar spaghetti western face Aldo Sambrell doesn't disappoint as the vicious half-breed, Duncan. Usually relegated to supporting parts, filling out gangs or playing a sheriff or bounty hunter, Sambrell does not disappoint when he jumps into a starring role. His Duncan is a great spaghetti baddie, on the brink of lunacy with past demons threatening to tear him apart. His gang seems to fluctuate as needed -- anywhere between 20-50 guys -- all of them ending up being characters without names, mostly because of their personal, unique and eccentric looks. Some include Jeffrey (Lucio Rosato), Duncan's half-brother, Robledo (Lorenzo Robledo), the quick-draw, trick-shot specialist, Sancho (Alvaro de Luna), the knife fighter, and Monkey (Simon Arriaga), the former Confederate soldier, among many others. Also look for Fernando Rey as what else? A Mexican priest, a role he played fairly often in the spaghetti era. Nicoletta Machiavelli plays Estella, a half-breed woman (Mexican/Indian), who sides with Joe in his efforts.  

Besides Reynolds in the starring role, the thing that has helped 'Joe' live on some 40-plus years later is Ennio Morricone's musical score. It is one of the more unique, quirky scores Morricone ever did, and that's saying something considering how many unique, quirky scores he did in spaghetti westerns. The main theme especially stands out, a woman chanting (seemingly in some sort of pain) before a male choir and instruments kick in. Give it a listen HERE. One of the best things going for the movie on its own, it's received a rebirth thanks to 1999's Election. A young Reese Witherspoon is running for her high school's student body president and in the voting process, tears down all her opponent's posters. What music is playing? Morricone's chanting choir score. Spot-on use of his music too. Watch one example HERE.

So watching this movie for the first time in five years or so, I didn't like it as much as I remembered. It's still good in that guilty pleasure sense, but it's not a classic. The selling point will be the action, and it's particularly brutal. Shooting, stabbing, even a death by scalpel. Navajo Joe alone takes out 26 -- by my count, it's probably light -- of Duncan's gang, who also have over 10 guys killed attacking a heavily guarded train. We see some uses of squibs, and with Corbucci's touch, it is fairly graphic. It isn't a great movie overall, but it is a fun movie, best to watch with some friends and have some laughs.

Navajo Joe <---trailer (1966): ** 1/2 /****

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