Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Keoma

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
1976
Italy



The Old West is a land entrenched with mythology. Stories of legendary gunslingers, fierce Indian braves, and ruthless cattle barons flood across the mind like ever present tumbleweeds making their lonely journey across the scorched desert. But the West wasn’t always interpreted as such a mysterious place. In America, the birth land of the Western, they usually were somewhat based in reality. There were, of course, understandable embellishments, but the Westerns of Ford, Hawks, and even Mann took place in world that could be perceived as our own. The Spaghetti Western changed all of this. Named “Spaghetti Westerns” because they were mostly produced and directed by Italians, they represented a niche genre of about 600+ films made from the mid-sixties to the late-seventies. Usually shot in cheap locales reminiscent of the American Southwest, such as the Andalusia region of Spain, they were low budget masterpieces of cinematic thrift and originality.

They were usually directed by Italians, populated by Spanish and Italian extras, and sometimes graced by the presence of a Hollywood star. Since the cast would speak several different languages on set, dialogue was sparse. The little talking that was provided would be dubbed into different languages in post-production. Thanks to the abundance of cheap Spanish and southern Italian extras, they frequently took place on the US/Mexico border. What they may have lacked in substance, they made up in style. Slow motion gun fights, creative cinematography, evocative music, and brooding protagonists were just some of the stylistic innovations that propelled Spaghetti Westerns into pulp greatness.

But more importantly, Spaghetti Westerns reinvented the genre with new themes and character archetypes. Suddenly, cowboys became objects of myth. In a heartbeat they would be able to kill six men with six bullets. Morality became distorted even more than in the James Stewart and Anthony Mann collaborations. The “heroes” became capable of being just as ruthless as the villains, since they were usually motivated by revenge. The most famous Spaghetti Westerns are the “Dollars Trilogy,” directed by Sergio Leone, scored by Ennio Morricone, and starring Clint Eastwood as the “Man with No Name.” They are seen as some of the first Spaghetti Westerns ever made.

If the “Dollars Trilogy” established the genre, then a small film entitled Keoma ended it. It wasn’t because it was a bad film. Instead, it acts as a kind of eulogy to a dying genre. It both celebrates the genre’s history and mourns its passing. In an incredible article on the film, author Danel Griffin writes:

“This knowledge of its own fate is ultimately what makes Keoma such a sad experience: Every tiniest detail here understands that it symbolizes a finished era in European cinema. The film’s characters are certainly lost in their personal sadness; its themes deal with impending death; its camera work, which often rests thoughtfully on a character’s conflicted face as its gloomy music plays, is slow and despairing.”

Truly, this is a film that pulls no punches. It knows what it is and what it represents.

Our hero, if we can call him such, is a half breed Indian named Keoma. We meet him returning from the Civil War to find that his town has been overcome by a devastating plague. In the chaos, the town has fallen under the dictatorial rule of a group of thugs controlled by an ex-Confederate raider named Caldwell. Among his posse are Keoma’s three half-brothers who hate him for being a half-breed. Flashbacks to his past reveal that even as children they hated him. Now, they have grown up and have guns. They intend to keep Keoma out. But Keoma has other plans.



While most of the people in the town hate him, he still has a few allies. First is George, his former slave and friend who took advantage of his new-found freedom by crawling into the bottom of a bottle. He also meets up with his father, who has become mercilessly wizen by old age. Together, they embark to smuggle food and medicine into the town. All goes well at first, but as fate would have it they are eventually discovered. The chances of a peaceful resolution have been destroyed. These men know they must destroy each other or lose control of the town. Everything leads to one last showdown where brother must fight brother and family ties must be severed with hot lead.

The movie is both a visceral experience and a metaphorical triumph. It evokes nothing less than the death of its own genre. The dying town represents the institution of the Spaghetti Western, which at the time of Keoma’s production was already in its death knells. Keoma’s desperation to keep the town alive can be interpreted as director Enzo G. Castellari’s attempts to preserve the genre. Castellari, an Italian director who made his livelihood on Spaghetti Westerns, must have known that his days were numbered, so he put everything that he had into Keoma. Nicknamed the “European Sam Peckinpah,” Castellari was a genius at shooting scenes of violence, particularly in the form of gunfights. His flair is evident in Keoma as the hero shoots his way through the villains who have taken over the town. Few directors have been able to choreograph violence. Plenty have been able to use fanciful editing to make violence seem orchestrated, but to truly make violence an artistic, and not just visceral, experience, it requires the likes of Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, and Enzo G. Castellari. Each time a body is hit and crumples to the ground, Castellari uses his beloved slow motion. He dwells on each death like a god pulling the strings of his subjects from high atop Mount Olympus. We are reminded that these are people who are being killed, and not just evil villains.

The themes of life and death are central to Keoma. One of the most important scenes in the movie is when Keoma is captured by his brothers and “crucified” onto a wagon wheel so he can be displayed before the entire town. Yes, in a sense Keoma is a Christ-like figure. We sense this in the last shootout where Keoma guns down his three brothers in an old barn. The entire time that the brothers are killing each other, a pregnant woman screams from labor pains on the barn floor. This juxtaposition of life and death leads the audience to realize that for the town to survive, for the child to have a future, Keoma must sacrifice his own brethren. His own flesh and blood is the price for the town’s future. After the smoke clears, the three brothers and the new mother lie dead. All that can be heard are the muffled cries of the newborn baby. A woman beseeches Keoma to stay and take care of the child so it doesn’t die. Keoma jumps on his horse and yells, “He can’t die. And you know why? Because he’s free. And man who’s free never dies.” I guess the same thing can be said of the Spaghetti Western. By choosing to seal its own fate in Keoma, Castellari made sure that the genre that he loves would never suffer the pitiful fate of so many others.



Go here for the aforementioned article on this film:
http://uashome.alaska.edu/~dfgriffin/website/keoma.html

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_Western

8 comments:

  1. I've never heard Keoma framed this way - as the death march of the Spaghetti Western - but it really makes sense. It's such a grim and gritty movie, which is why I love it so much. I'll have to watch it again with that in mind!

    If you're into Spaghetti Westerns, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Leone and Morricone. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at sunsetparkriders.com

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  2. I already have checked out your album. It's really, REALLY good! Is that your only album?

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  3. Oh, awesome, thanks! It's our only Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album. The individual members have made other, completely unrelated music. We've been considering doing some sort of prequel, or a tacking a completely different genre in Concept Rap format, but this one took a really long time, so we're going to give it a little space, I think.

    You can friend/follow us on facebook or at myspace.com/sunsetparkriders and feel free to embed! Thanks again -Dave aka Kid Vengeance

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  4. Just out of curiosity, where did you get that incredible orchestra riff in "Pistol Grip?" Did you sample it or make it in a studio?

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  5. Pistol Grip comes from a Morricone track called "A Gringo Like Me." Unfortunately though, it's one of the very rare Morricone tracks that is not so hot. I really think the man is a genius, and I am a huge fan, but this is the only instance I can think of that we actually improved upon the source material. I say that with all due respect - it's just not a very good song. It's also kind of racist. You can find it on youtube, if you're curious - I'd be curious to hear if you agree with me on that or not. I think undeniably, though, there are countless way more exciting Morricone tracks out there.

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  6. Don't worry about it. I thought that it was just okay. Your version is a major improvement. It kind of reminded me of the theme from "The Magnificent Seven."

    Anyway, I'm a huge fan of Morricone, too. I think that his soundtracks and sound effects were just as important to the reinvention of the Western with the Spaghetti Western genre as Leone's direction and Eastwood's action.

    By the way, if you want a chilling theme by Morricone, check out the orchestra sting for "Salò." You can see the trailer and hear the theme here:

    http://www.criterion.com/films/532-salo-or-the-120-days-of-sodom

    Warning, it's NSFW. The music is great but the movie is...disturbing. But it's a great movie, anyway. But that's a debate for another day.

    By the way, I would love to know what you think about the other articles on this website. I try to be eclectic when it comes to picking my movies. If you have any recommendations for films that you feel are under appreciated, I would love to hear them.

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  7. Hey Nathaniel,

    I totally agree with you about Morricone's scores being essential to the Spaghetti Western. It totally defines the sound of the Old West for me, even though that doesn't really make any sense.

    I've really been digging your site! I appreciate that you delve into movies from all around the globe which I would have never heard of. For me, as far at the Soviet Union was concerned, if it was made after the Twenties and wasn't Tarkovsky, I wasn't really interested. I really want to check out your counter example! And I had no idea Egypt even had a film industry! I also have to check out that Buster Keaton, one - huge fan, but I've only seen his most famous handful. I'm really excited to check out a bunch of the films you wrote about.

    As for my suggestions, lately I've been really into films that are largely unappreciated, but difficult to call underappreciated. When I say that, though, I don't mean that to KNOCK exploitation films, I just feel like they tend to be very niche-y and therefore difficult to recommend to the world at large. I'm pretty obsessed with that stuff though, pretty much anything Something Weird Video puts out, and I love delving into all of the bizarre subgenres that emerged out of taste, necessity, and business acumen throughout the years of decreasing censorship of movies. When I recommend them to people, it's often more as a historical curio than as a film (though I personally appreciate them on every level).

    I guess I can't say all of that without recommending ANYTHING, though, right? A good place to start, I think, is a double feature they put out of two Bill Grefe movies, "Death Curse of Tartu" and "Sting of Death", two schlocky, fun horror flicks he shot in the Florida Everglades (like all of his films, I believe). "Smoke and Flesh" is a really interesting film, too. Basically just a hippie drug party, gorgeously shot in black and white 16 mm. A lot of love went into that movie.

    Are you familiar with Something Weird Video? I can talk about that stuff all day, I just love it.

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  8. Thanks for the recommendations. You know, I have never heard of "Something Weird Videos." But I can tell that this will be the start of a beautiful relationship.

    You know, it's funny, I think that in many cases exploitation films tap into a culture's subconscious more than mainstream films. For example, take the 1950s. While Hollywood was busy pumping out gigantic escapist spectacles like "Ben-Hur," "Around the World in 80 Days," and "An American in Paris," it was the golden age of B-movies. Westerns and sci-fi thrillers were the name of the game. Films like "High Noon" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" were the only movies that addressed subjects like the Red Scare and McCarthyism.

    Also, consider film noir. They were some of the cheesiest B-movies ever made, but today they are treated like high art by film critics. Sometimes, the only way to see the truth about a society is to seek out its lowest forms. Not that I consider pulp films to be schlock. I have a soft spot for exploitation films.

    As for Egypt having a film industry...well, yeah. I didn't know they had one either until I started doing research for this site. But it turns out almost every culture and country with access to film equipment has some kind of film industry, rudimentary as they may be. Take Egypt, for example. They have been making films for almost 60 years, and yet most people probably couldn't name one Egyptian film.

    Anyway, if you really want a surprise, read my review for "The Amazing Grace." It's a Nollywood film, which means that it is a film from Nigeria. It turns out that for the last 20 or so years, Nigeria has had one of the world's most powerful film industries! Who knew?

    But that's what I want to do with this site. I want to bring attention to directors and artists that most people don't know about. I'll do exploitation reviews every know and then, but I want to focus on movies that will truly make people stop and think, "Wow. I had no idea that Egypt made good movies!"

    I'll keep an eye out for those films you told me about. In the mean time, get ready, because I have two films lined up for Friday and Saturday from one of Japan's most joyfully iconoclastic directors. Keep commenting. I can only respond to what my readers want if they tell me.

    Peace!

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