In the lead up to the release of “the best, most brutal, most intensely watchable film of the year” that releases on Christmas Day, I’m going to be running a five-part series called “Unchaining Django” that preps you for the film and celebrates Quentin Tarantino’s latest, greatest masterpiece (they all are, in some way or another) in different ways. This particular piece spotlights a film you ought to see first, while others may look at the state of Tarantino’s filmmaking, the cast, or any manner of other things. Keep your eyes on CHUD each remaining Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until we all get to unwrap the season’s real gift on December 25th.
A blog called Dork Shelf asked a good question when they had Tarantino on a red carpet for just a moment: “What’s the one western you think someone should watch before Django Unchained?” After taking a brief moment to think about it, Tarantino let loose with a 1966 Dino DeLaurentiis western starring Burt Reynolds in only his second features as a lead, Navajo Joe.
It’s a perfectly Tarantino response, but here’s the fantastic thing: it’s available on Instant Watch, making it very easily accessible.
So what does this film have to offer, especially in relation to Tarantino’s latest masterpiece?
Well first of all, if you’re one that likes to dig in to the wealth of material from which QT pulls for each of his films, then this one will already be on your radar for its connections to Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. In fact, this is one those western’s that is a key part of Tarantino’s filmmaking DNA. A fantastic Western from Sergio Corbucci (shot in Spain and Italy), it’s a blazing story of a half-Native American loner who ends up single-handedly defending a town against a gang of bandits lead by the despicable Aldo Sambrell (or at least his character!). It features a lot of boilerplate western/samurai tropes, but it’s an exceptionally brisk film, and one of the more relentlessly brutal Westerns you’re ever going to see. A few truly despicable acts and twisted moments do a lot to raise the moral stakes, while Navajo Joe’s efficiency with taking out groups of dudes is more sharply captured than a lot of movies these days ever manage. You could throw Jason Bourne at him and I’d be willing to bet Joe would come out on top. The mercilessness, subversion of the standard nameless (usually white) cowboy hero, and a story that twists like a snake in the dust are all characteristics that one can see appealing to QT.
More specifically, Navajo Joe features a score from Leo Nichols AKA Ennio Morricone, and is the origin of the tracks “Silhouette of Doom” and “The Demise of Barbra and the Return of Joe” that Tarantino needledropped at absolutely key moments in Kill Bill, Volume II. There are also plenty of other small details from Kill Bill that allude to Corbucci’s western, as well as the likely origin of the Nazi-tagging idea that surfaced in Inglourious Basterds.
But with Tarantino returning to an outright western, the ghost of Navajo Joe was sure to surface again in Django Unchained. Most obviously is a scene in the ’66 film in which someone is whipped as a crowd looks on- obviously an epic fixated on southern slavery offers plenty of opportunities to make that allusion, and QT does, with his own brutal, satisfying twist of course. Beyond that it’s tough to go any deeper without spoilers, but suffice to say Navajo Joe and Django are definitely spiritual kin, and you won’t be surprised to find out that they rely on a few similar tricks and tools.
Aside from its connections to his films, Navajo Joe is just an all around great spaghetti western recommendation. It’s got a strong performance from a very young Burt Reynolds, and is a great addition to any Western marathon. You should give it a look regardless, but with it so easily available it’s a must-watch before December 25th if, like me, your ass will be firmly planted in a theater playing Django Unchained.
Thanks for reading- check back Monday for the next “Unchaining Django.”