Saturday, 3 March 2012

Keoma (1976)

Country: ITALY

Django Rides Again
Keoma: The Avenger
The Violent Breed

By the late 1970’s the landscape of the Euro-Western was limp and lifeless, the generic terrain parched and infertile. The occasional production little more than tumbleweed in a dusty and decaying town. The Spaghetti Western Database lists a paltry eight productions for 1976 and it would be fair to say that Enzo G. Castellari’s entry Keoma stands head and shoulders above the rest. Some argue that Keoma was not only the last important spaghetti western, but also one of the best ever made. Whilst I find the former possesses a nugget of truth, the latter is a lot harder to substantiate. However one fact that is undeniable is that out of the eight westerns that Castellari directed, Keoma is probably the most accomplished. I’ve argued elsewhere that although Castellari worked in a multitude of genres, his films, structurally at least, adhered very closely to the conventions of the western. So it’s something of a surprise to discover that until Keoma, he hadn’t directed a truly important or genre defining example. One of the major ingredients lacking in previous Castellari westerns is the sort of barnstorming and forceful performance that Franco Nero puts in as the beleaguered half-breed Keoma. With his wild and unkempt beard, penetrating blue eyes and long hair (actually a wig) Nero makes an indelible impression the likes of which audiences hadn’t enjoyed since Django (1966). Nero has his critics, but you won’t hear any negativity from me. Nero is at his charismatic best here and so dominates proceedings that the films director becomes totally overshadowed.

Few spaghetti westerns cultivate the sense of apocalyptic doom that runs throughout Keoma. It’s almost as though the writers (Castellari, Nicco Ducci, and George Eastman) had a remit to make the western to end all westerns. In retrospect it’s a great shame that Keoma wasn’t the final film in the cycle, because I can’t think of a more fitting conclusion. The civil war forms the backdrop of the narrative; a devastating and overwhelming event that haunts the landscape, and has led to such social fragmentation that a town decimated by plague can be run by a gang of leering racist ex-confederates. Keoma is rootless and itinerant, a man desperately needing to find himself, or at the very least perform a duty that will give his life meaning amid the chaos. In the shape of the heavily pregnant Lisa (Olga Karlatos) Keoma finds his calling. Both Lisa and Keoma are outsiders - the former has been tarred with the brush of disease, and the latter has had to endure the prevailing prejudices of the day. Their status as outcasts is important, because Keoma is a force of vengeance, and he immediately allies himself with the plight of the stricken townspeople who struggle for freedom under the dictatorial heel of Caldwell (Donald O’Brien) and his band of vile cutthroats.

The screenplay efficiently develops a set of themes common to the spaghetti western cycle; oppression, inequality, tyranny, and the fight for freedom. The film is on the side of the repressed minorities - Keoma the half-breed, and George (Woody Strode) the once dignified and proud caretaker of the Shannon family, now reduced to poverty and drunkenness because of the colour of his skin, and William Shannon (William Berger) the patriarch who is no longer of use because of his advanced years. The films principles are leftist, but any major political statement or allegorical dimension are subsumed within the highly personal family dynamic of the Shannon’s. The screenplay very adroitly concocts a very small and private tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and bullying within the broader canvas of the narrative. It is the relationship between the Shannon’s legitimate sons Sam (Joshua Sinclair), Butch (Orso Maria Guerrini), and Lenny (Antonio Marsina) and their half brother Keoma that forms the true heart of the film. The background to the seething hatred and resentment between the four is provided by a series of astonishingly well crafted flashbacks. The relationship between father and son and the question of legitimacy is one that seems to run through a number of Franco Nero westerns - similar themes can be found in Massacre Time (1966) and Texas Adios (1966) to name but two. Perhaps this is what attracted Nero to the project.

Stylistically at least the most telling influence on Castellari is Sam Peckinpah. Keoma overflows with slow motion shootouts, fistfights, and the by now requisite scenes of grisly sadism. But the elliptical editing patterns, especially those preceding the flashback sequences, are peculiar to this film. There are two other things worth mentioning that are also peculiar to Keoma. The first is a very bizarre mystical and supernatural undertone. On every leg of Keoma’s journey a mysterious woman dogs his movements, her appearances coinciding with violent death. The symbolism of this hag amid an atmosphere of plague and destruction is obvious, and her reaction to being left with Lisa’s newborn child at the films conclusion is telling - like Keoma she is better equipped to deal with death. The second peculiarity (and that’s putting it mildly) is the soundtrack. The music was composed by the dependable De Angelis brothers, and is in the main very good. But the decision to have a repetitive song narrate the action is a disastrous misstep. Not only does it state what is patently obvious (thus insulting the audience) but the vocals are delivered in a fashion which can only be described as abominable. But this isn’t an uncommon reaction. I haven’t met or spoken to anyone who has a good thing to say about the Keoma soundtrack. If its possible to put this to one side (a major challenge because the songs are so damn intrusive) then Keoma emerges as a highly distinctive, beautifully constructed, and wonderfully entertaining western.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I really enjoyed this review Shaun, particularly interested in your observations of rootlessness and the supernatural which I think can be found in another "Twilight" Spaghetti - The Four of the Apocalypse:
    Great to see you dipping back into the Western genre on TCH - a cycle of films that, I think, are complimented by your writing style...

  2. Cheers Mike, I'm glad you enjoyed it buddy. I'm thinking of making reviews of spaghetti westerns a regular feature of the site and then creating a page to catalogue them. I've seen some very good ones in recent weeks...I guess I've been lucky. It would only take one terrible movie to put me off them for several months. I guess there is so much to watch and so much to write about, that the hardest challenge becomes choosing. I've seen FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE, but I need to reviist that's been quite awhile. I'm off to check out the VTSS review...cheers!

  3. I agree, good buddy: great to the see the western, especially those of the euro vain, making a come back here at the TCH! I'm actually on a euro western kick myself, though I've seen less of the cycle than you have. I've actually been dying to see this one, though; hell, I almost rented it the other day! Too bad about the soundtrack, but I think it sounds like a must see, anyway.

    This is alI I ask: in your quest for italian/German/Spanish western titles to review (gem or otherwise), please do not forget to pepper in a few must sees of the American variety, even if it's just an Eastwood here and there - though his were most certainly affected by the years he spent toiling away under the European sun. I'd actually love to read one of your reviews to, say HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER perhaps. Oh, and more Van Cleef, please. Make it happen, amigo.

    Oh, and I think I liked SAPATA more than you did. Maybe that's because I haven't seen the sequels. From what little I've read elsewhere (and based in no small part off of what you've said of them), I hear they ain't so hot. As far as the original goes, though, I absolutely loved the quasi-hippy/killer character BANJO!!!

  4. @ Greg - Yes I'd certainly give this one a rent. I've made a note of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, I'll make it a request review, and I'll try and get it up this month. If there are any other's you'd like to see, western or otherwise, let me know and then I can keep a list. I'd like to write about more diverse films outside the boxes of giallo, euro-westerns, British horror etc, and hopefully I can call on you to provide inspiration.

    I like the first SABATA, it's by some margin the best of the three. It wouldn't make my top 10 euro-westerns (probably not even Top 20), but it is one of Van Cleef's best vehicles. Another good one with LVC is THE BIG GUNDOWN. He and Tomas Milian go head to head.

  5. I would think that writing about a more diverse group of films is like working out new muscle groups, the more you do a certain exercise, the easier it'll get. Plus, if you write about the same kind of subjects over and over again, even if what you're writing about is great, it will become dull, thus having a negative impact on your overall "body" of work.

    And I think I actually might be able to provide that inspiration you speak of. You've certainly inspired me to seek out new material, a favor I'm eager to return. While you've seen a lot films that I haven't (in the cycles you mentioned above, especially), I believe our viewing habits are diverse/similar enough to bear the fruit of inspiration.


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