Burt Reynolds once described Navajo Joe as “So awful it was only shown in prisons and airplanes because nobody could leave.”
It was a funny feeling I had, reading that quote after immensely enjoying Navajo Joe. I went online to join the hype train and instead, Burt reached inside of me and switched my gears to defense mode.
I suppose part (if not most) of his desire for people to avoid the film is because he plays a Native American. Yep. This means he is in red face, red arms, red hands, red everything. The content of the movie is not racist. The motivations of the film’s protagonists and actions are the opposite. The racist characters in the film are either the bad guys or a few of the good guys whose bigoted opinion is proven wrong.
But, painting Burt Reynolds to look Native American is a racist thing. It’s quite OK for the content of your movie to call foul on racism, but hypocritical to do it while you paint your lead actor (a white man whose character speaks with an American accent and has a white man’s name) red for the sake of selling tickets.
Like Burt Lancaster’s brown face in Valdez is Coming, I don’t believe there was any malice involved but the short-sightedness of the time is to blame. I think those who were making the film actually thought they were helping the cause by making a native the hero.
Anyway, I say all of this with the understanding of anyone who could not look past this. Burt included.
Mervyn “Vee” Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) is one bad hombre. In the past, the fledgling desert town of Esperanza would pay him $1 for every Indian scalp he brought in, but the town’s sheriff put a stop to the barbaric arrangement after he learns how Duncan is getting these scalps. Duncan is killing Natives from peaceful tribes and not “troublemakers”.
Duncan kills the sheriff in retaliation, and while contemplating what to do next, he is approached by Lynne ( Peter Cross), the town’s doctor. Lynne has just married into a banker’s family, one who will be setting up Esperanza’s first bank, and he informs Duncan that the train transporting the bank’s safe loaded with $500,000 is on its way. Duncan has the men and the ability to rob a train; Lynne knows the combination to the safe. A deal is made.
What Lynne doesn’t know is Duncan and his men are currently being harassed by one native, who goes by the name of Joe (Burt Reynolds). Joe makes a deal with the town to stop Duncan from robbing the train if the town pays him $1 for every bandit he kills.
I’m usually a substance over style guy. I can recognize how this premise could have felt tired in the ’60s when spaghetti westerns were being served up for a dime a dozen. And the cinematography is… questionable at times. I’ve seen plenty of movies fake a daytime location shoot as a “night scene”. The camera exposure is turned down with the idea being the shadows you see on the ground are from an unusually bright full moon. The unwritten rule during this trick is to NEVER shoot the sky since its daytime blue hue would be a dead give away. Navajo Joe shoots the sky.
I found myself having a blast as I consumed Navajo Joe as a piece of entertainment rather than a “film”. It was fun watching Joe run around sets, sneaking up on bad guys and throwing axes at their heads. The music is done by the brilliant Ennio Morricone, a veteran of countless westerns like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. And I wasn’t surprised to read how “Mr. Style Over Substance” himself, Quentin Tarantino used some of Navajo Joe’s soundtrack in Kill Bill Vol 1 and Kill Bill Vol 2.
I suppose there are some styles I’m perfectly happy to let realism and logic slide for.
PS: I wrote this post before watching Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. It was cool to see all of the nods to Navajo Joe in it. I think Quentin might be a little more obsessed with this movie than I am!