If you’ve been keeping score at home, it should be obvious by now that yours truly isn’t much of a western enthusiast. Since I began writing for Berkeleyside three years ago, I’ve penned precisely one column about this most American of film genres – and that concerned a rather non-traditional example of the style.
There’s one subset of the oater, however, that I’ve always found completely irresistible: the Eurowestern. During the 1960s and ‘70s, well over 500 Old West adventures were produced on the continent. Most of these films were Italian — hence the mildly pejorative descriptor ‘spaghetti western’ – but plenty of other countries also got into the act, including West Germany, Yugoslavia, Britain, and France.
Italy, however, was responsible for the vast majority of Eurowesterns, and it’s Italy that’s the focus of Pacific Film Archive’s current series, ‘The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond’. As the series’ title suggests, director Sergio Leone remains the name most of us associate with the genre. Indeed, his reputation is well deserved — there are few films that equal The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West – but he was hardly alone.
At a time when the American western had been reduced to back-lot second features and predictable low-budget TV shows, directors such as Leone, Gianfranco Parolini, Damiano Damiani, and Sergio Corbucci took the genre in the opposite direction. Taking advantage of the stunning sun-baked landscapes of southern Spain, Eurowesterns featured sweeping widescreen vistas, told politically charged stories (even, on occasion, with Marxist undertones), and reeled in audiences with plenty of violence.
In Navajo Joe (screening at 9:10 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25), Sergio Corbucci spins a simple tale of one man’s quest for vengeance against the gang responsible for the death of his woman. The twist, of course, is that the protagonist is a Native American (albeit one portrayed by Burt Reynolds), predating the revisionist westerns that would briefly breathe life back into the American western in the early 1970s.
The story begins with a raid on a peaceful village in which Joe’s significant other is murdered and scalped by a sadistic bandit, Vee Duncan (Aldo Sambrell). Duncan commands a small army of badly dressed, hairy, and heavily armed miscreants who earn a crust selling Indian scalps for a bounty, and, despite the villain’s status as a half-breed (a plot flaw that undercuts the film’s otherwise right-on political message) it’s immediately clear where screenwriter Fernando di Leo’s sympathies lie.
A subplot involving a trainload of money intrudes on the proceedings, allowing Joe to assume the role of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name during Navajo Joe‘s second act, but the focus remains firmly on his mission for revenge. By film’s end, the army of baddies has been winnowed down to one, setting up a satisfying if somewhat (but not entirely!) predictable finale.
Reynolds has reportedly always hated this film, but don’t be fooled – other than some unconvincing day-for-night work, it’s an extremely well made feature, and Burt doesn’t embarrass himself. Shot on location in Almeria, Navajo Joe looks like a million bucks and features a magnificent Ennio Morricone score blending stinging guitar notes, dissonant shrieks, and thudding percussion. But be warned: once you’ve heard the film’s theme chant – it can hardly be called a song – you’ll be ‘singing’ it for days.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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