You can’t throw a rock at the history of motion pictures without hitting a bunch of white folks playing Native Americans. Forget about being nominated for an Oscar, Native Americans can’t even get cast playing Native Americans. Even a movie as subversively awesome as 2013’s The Lone Ranger (that’s right, I said awesome, read all about it here and see it before getting snarky on me) features Johnny Depp playing Tonto. I seem to recall him claiming to have Native American ancestry, but what he’s actually got is fame, and famous stars are what get movies made.
If only Native American actors were actually given parts, maybe they too would become famous, and, one day, many years from now, be able to play, among whatever other roles—Native Americans.
But we’re not there yet. Indeed, today we are going back in time to the magical heyday of the spaghetti western. Not the famous ones by Sergio Leone, oh no, we’ve seen those before. We are digging deeper, into a time and place where Italians and Spaniards play both Anglos and Mexicans, and where nary a Native American may be seen playing anything.
Navajo Joe (‘66)
When you think of the mighty Navajo Nation, I’m guessing the face that comes to mind is Burt Reynolds’s. Who better to play Joe, the avenging Navajo, for director Sergio Corbucci? Reynolds, still working mostly in television, saw what happened to fellow western TV actor Clint Eastwood with A Fistful of Dollars—an international hit that shot the taciturn star to fame—and eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. Which promptly collapsed. He would later repeat ad nauseum the joke that he picked the wrong Sergio.
But did he? Corbucci’s not as stylish as Leone, but in the world of the spaghetti western, he’s serious business. His Django inspired hundreds of knock-offs, and those in the know speak highly of films like Hellbenders and The Mercenary.
As for Navajo Joe, I was expecting (hoping?) it would be a little more awful than it is. It’s not half bad. More like 49% bad. The rest of it? Kinda groovy. Some nice widescreen shots, some perfectly reasonable low budget spaghetti western action, the excess of bloody violence Corbucci is known for, and a fabulous score by none other than Ennio Morricone (under a pseudonym) featuring a lot of shrieking and a bouncy chant of “Na-va-jo-Joe-Na-va-jo-Joe-Na-va-jo-Joe” you’ll pray comes unstuck from your brain sometime before you grow old and die (sorry, it won’t).
But forget all that. We’re here for an outrageously young and tan Burt Reynolds playing a Navajo. Does he do a funny accent, you ask? Alas, no. In fact he does nothing whatsover to suggest he’s anything other than a white guy with a lot of brown face make-up on. Sure, he wears some frilly leather clothes and leaps nimbly on top of his enemies before cutting their throats, but if he’s got a tribe to go home to, we never see it. He just appears when needed on distant hilltops, windswept and forlorn.
His services are needed when the half million dollars coming in on a train to a small town is set to be stolen by a nastry gang of bandits. The town is helpless in the face of the murderous thieves. So despite their natural hatred of Injuns, they accept Joe’s offer of assistance. In the end, of course, it turns out Joe’s got a reason aside from kindness and cash to be after these particular bandits. He’s seeking revenge!
On its own, Navajo Joe will not fully sate your need for outrageousness. This is why you must pair it with a film so outrageous, so shocking, many have gone mad in its presence. I now bring you:
White Comanche (’68)
In which William Shatner plays half white, half Comanche twin brothers.
Need I say more? For you, I will. But I trust you’re already scouring the interwebs for a way to watch this other than the crunchy version on Youtube. It’s out there. Keep looking.
Shatner took a break from Star Trek to make this masterpiece of a spaghetti western, which actually isn’t technically made of shaghetti, being shot in Spain by Spaniards, but no matter, it’s of a piece with the then red hot genre. Shatner wanted in, and what Shatner wants, Shatner gets. And us? We get two Shatners for the price of one. I would hesitate to ask more from the gods of cinema.
One Shatner, Johnny Moon, has adopted the ways of the white man, while his twin, Notah, has gone full Comanche. He whoops it up, takes peyote, murders and rapes. None of which would bother Moon but for always being mistaken for his villainous twin. One saloon girl, Kelly, accuses Moon of being her rapist. Lucky for Moon he convinces everyone Notah is to blame before they hang him, and soon Kelly falls for him. Makes sense to me. Most woman secretly yearn to love their rapist’s twin.
This in a town, Rio Hondo, run by a bunch of crooks and presided over by Sheriff Logan (Joseph Cotten, hoping the check clears), whose troubles Moon can’t manage to stay out of.
To be honest, my memories of plot details are clouded in a haze of weed and whiskey, but nobody’s watching White Comanche for the plot. What’s important is the final showdown between two shirtless Shatners on horseback in a fight for the ages. It’s a scene no amount of liquor, drugs, or industrial strength lye will ever wash from your brain.
I also recall a late in the movie speech delivered by Notah atop a rocky outcropping sure to inspire.
Shatner, unlike Reynolds, isn’t afraid to speak with some kind of half-assed Indian accent, and being Shatner, you know he sells it. The movie’s only crime is spending too much time with Moon and not enough with Notah. If only it were a hit! We could have had a Notah back-story prequel. Man, would that have been great.
Better yet, a match-up between Notah and Joe, Reynolds and Shatner. Could any imagined movie be better? I don’t see how.
Once you’re finished with this most classy of double features, I recommend following it up with the Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within,” for another double dose of battling Shatners, or, if you’re especially brave (ahem), the third season masterpiece, “The Paradise Syndrome.” I mean just take a look and try to resist its pull: