Eastwood’s recommendation led Reynolds to take on a role he would quickly regret.
By Samuel Williamson
If you were an actor and Clint Eastwood told you to go work with a certain filmmaker on a Western, you would absolutely go wherever he told you to go. This was the case for Burt Reynolds, who was thrown way in over his head by the mid-60s Spaghetti Western, Navajo Joe. At the height of the prime era for this subgenre, legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis and acclaimed genre filmmaker Sergio Corbucci were looking to bring a new hero to the big screen, that being the titular Navajo Joe. Allegedly, this filmmaking duo had their eyes on none other than Marlon Brando for the part. Who could blame them? Wouldn't you also want one of cinema's greatest figures leading your movie?
However, Brando turned it down, as he never ended up starring in the picture or taking any role in it. Legend has it that this was a blow for Corbucci, who was "promised" that Brando would take the part. Instead, the team behind Navajo Joe pivoted to Reynolds because of his apparent resemblance to the Godfather actor. In return, Reynolds was interested because his good friend, Eastwood, had talked up a Spaghetti Western filmmaker named Sergio a good bit.
When Reynolds was already on board, he realized Eastwood was talking about Sergio Leone — not Corbucci. These days, Corbucci is regarded as one of the coolest filmmakers of his era, but at the time, not being Sergio Leone wasn't going to cut it. Since then, Reynolds has repeatedly dogged Navajo Joe. According to Aliza Wong's non-fiction book, Spaghetti Westerns: A Viewers Guide, Reynolds has even referred to Corbucci as "the wrong Sergio" on multiple occasions. Despite his bitter feelings towards Navajo Joe, there is a lot of fun to be found in this under-seen Spaghetti Western gem.
In the '60s, Spaghetti Westerns were primarily seen as a means for actors to break into the industry, but these days, everybody loves this particular subgenre. How could you not? This is a genre full of action-packed movies, often mean-spirited and cut from revenge cloth. They cut the nonsense that so many overrated classic Westerns get caught up in and run straight for the action. We're talking about way less of a focus on character drama and over-sentimental drivel, and rather a desire to see how many rounds of ammunition can be fired off in 90 minutes or so. And before I am accused of insisting that there is any less level of artistry at play here, let's just take a step back for a moment and relax. These are incredibly crafted movies, their artistry is just focused elsewhere. The very best Spaghetti Westerns feel enormous, carry an overly badass tone throughout their entire runtime, and are centered around a mysterious antihero who is surrounded by nothing but dirty outlaws. Movies like the Dollars trilogy, Django, and Navajo Joe do this extremely well.
If you look at the early filmographies of many stars that came to prominence in the '60s and '70s, you'll find that many of them got their start, or at least played parts, by taking roles in Spaghetti Westerns. Classic screen presences, like Franco Nero, Lee Van Cleef, and, of course, Clint Eastwood, worked in this stratosphere. These were typically made fast and for cheap, so loads of Spaghetti Western filmmakers dabbled in this genre regularly. There's a reason that the entries in the Dollars trilogy were all released one year after the next. So, when it came time for Dino de Laurentiis and Sergio Corbucci to cast Navajo Joe, the prospect couldn't have been easy for Reynolds to turn down.
This had to have been compacted by his friend Clint Eastwood, the star of the hit (and now iconic) Dollars trilogy, recommending that Reynolds go work with "Sergio." Eastwood had to be as good of a reference in this department as anyone, so of course, Reynolds ended up taking the part. Production commenced, and at some point, he learned that the filmmaker behind the project was actually Sergio Corbucci, not Leone.
This, presumably, tanked his excitement for the prospects of the project that he was filming, yet he obviously persevered because we now have Navajo Joe in full. In Howard Hughes' 2004 nonfiction book, Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness, Reynolds is quoted as saying that the film was "so awful it was only shown in prisons and airplanes because nobody could leave." In his 1991 Emmy acceptance speech, he did reluctantly claim that movies like Navajo Joe were worth working on, but that little morsel of praise feels faint in comparison to the quote about walking out of planes, and years of calling Corbucci "the wrong Sergio."
Is Navajo Joe truly all that bad though? Not in the slightest. It isn't exactly For a Few Dollars More (a leaner and meaner Spaghetti Western than its sequel The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), but it is a ton of fun. In it, we follow Navajo Joe, a Native American warrior (Burt Reynolds) who seeks revenge on the bank-robbing outlaws that slaughtered his tribe. It's the epitome of the pulpy Spaghetti Western action that we run to this subgenre for! There is a feeling of déjà vu here and there, but there's a feeling of comfort in the way that these movies recycle tropes. We go to these movies to watch our leading anti-hero seek revenge on those who wronged them, defend a town from threatening outlaws, and develop a charmingly weakly written romance (in this case, it was with Nicoletta Machiavelli's Estella). It's all part of the fun.
There are brutal action scenes, every frame is covered in grime and full of the sweatiest folks in the West, and wide lenses are thrown on at every opportunity to capture the vast landscapes at hand. It's all topped off with a fantastic, pissed-off leading performance from Reynolds. He might not be Brando, but we don't need an actor of that pedigree in this role. Reynolds walks around this movie looking like an enraged torpedo shrink-wrapped in leather, delivering very few lines, and scowling at everyone in sight like he wants to murder them. From our perspective, no one feels safe at the hands of Navajo Joe — even the people that he's defending! Sometimes, you just need someone in roles like this who has the physicality to carry you through the character's journey, as opposed to someone not only trained at Julliard but who wants you to feel like they trained at Julliard. The actor for Navajo Joe just needs to look mean and be able to kill outlaws on screen. That, Reynolds does very well (and would continue to for decades). He might have hated this movie and sounds like he hated making it, but you wouldn't be able to tell by his performance. Reynolds is fantastic as the titular antihero.
As for the whole "wrong Sergio" situation, Burt Reynolds might have ended up being directed by someone that he wasn't anticipating, but that doesn't say a thing about Corbucci's abilities. He might not be Leone, but in some ways, that's for the better. This isn't an attempt to knock the films of Sergio Leone, one of the greatest filmmakers to ever play the game, but his movies can be a bit... long. Occasionally, that's totally warranted! Some movies need to breathe and take on epic run times. That being said, you can't really go wrong with an airtight 90-minute revenge story. Well, Navajo Joe is technically 93 minutes long, but you get the idea. Corbucci gets in and out of this story at the speed of a bullet.
Still, he doesn't quite have the cinematic eye that Leone does, but that is also asking a lot of somebody. It's kind of like the difference between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones — these are two artists that came out of the same era. In one corner, you have a filmmaker who might technically be more proficient and skilled, but the other knows how to make a meaner and, dare I say it, cooler piece of art. Sometimes, that's all you need. Corbucci, in no world, is the "wrong Sergio." You can get out of here with that, Mr. Reynolds.
There also should be some credit thrown to Ennio Morricone's killer score. It's a criminally overlooked entry in his enormous body of work and just might be his most underrated score. The soundtrack is full of his typical yelping vocalists, but this time more tortured than ever. Of course, twangy surf rock guitars crash through the mix like a bullet through glass, while backing vocalists call and respond to the name "Navajo Joe" over and over again. Violins soar in the background while timpani bang along like the thudding hooves of horses, and the track fades at its peak as if Morricone had no way of structurally ending a piece this bombastic. It's operatic, it's dirty, and it perfectly fits the vibe of Navajo Joe. The whole soundtrack is all killer, with no filler from the greatest composer in the canon of Spaghetti Westerns. There's a reason that the track, "A Silhouette of Doom" is used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 2 — it's just that good.
If you're a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, don't listen to Burt Reynolds on this one. Instead, fire it up to catch his totally overlooked antihero performance in Navajo Joe, get to know the other Sergio's filmography a bit better, and thank Clint Eastwood for accidentally mixing up two filmmakers. It might have been tough for Reynolds, but without that oversight, we might not have this overlooked gem in the Spaghetti Western canon.
Navajo Joe is available to watch on Prime Video in the