Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
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: