“ Genre: War & Western - Western / Theatrical Release: 1976 / Director: Enzo G. Castellari / Actors: William Berger, Orso Maria Guerrini, Olga Karlatos, Leon Lenoir, Tony Marsina ... / DVD released 2007-03-27 at Blue Underground / Features of the DVD: Colour, Dolby, DVD-Video, Widescreen, PAL „
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I saw this film advertised on one of the many film channels that come free with the standard Sky package: you know, movies4men or truemovies, or something like that. There was a time I wouldn't have watched it, as the older Westerns have never really had a great appeal to me as such. However, I watched Once Upon A Time in the West a few weeks ago and, having read Berlioz II's review on this Keoma, I decided to sit through it regardless of my initial thoughts and watch the whole thing.
I'm glad I did. The one thing I can say for sure is that the theme of the drifter returning after the Civil War to find his home town run to the ground by a greedy businessman is dealt with very well. Released in 1976, you have to look beyond the poor and grainy film quality and rather rushed camera work (at times) and enjoy this classic Western for what it is: a well directed and acted (for the most part) tale of gunslinging and pride.
Franco Nero plays Keoma, a half-breed Indian whose name means 'Over there' in American Indian. The film very much follows the plot of Django, which also starred Nero, the actor's dazzling and piercing blue eyes fitting a haunted and determined anti-hero as he returns home to find that his brothers have sided with a greedy businessman by the name of Caldwell (Donald O'Brien), who has run the town into the ground, controlling everything and sending fear into everyone when they know he's coming.
Keoma teams up with his father and old family friend George, a black drunkard who used to be Keoma's mentor when he was a child. There are many flashbacks that help us have an insight as to who the brothers and Caldwell are without any unnecessary dialogue spoiling the incredibly tense atmosphere throughout the film. Indeed, director Enzo Castellari lets the action and the soundtrack do most of the talking in this film, the mood definitely set by the visuals and music as opposed to dialogue, which is necessary only for a few scenes.
As with many classic Westerns, masculinity is measured by heart and the quick of the draw. Keoma exerts his Alpha male status in our minds by first of all taking it upon himself to become protector of a pregnant woman, before Castellari introduces slow motion gunfights to show just how quick Keoma really is. He even gives us some fist fights to drive home this fact. However, in doing this, he also reveals that being outnumbered is a factor, hence the need for the father and the mentor to join his ranks for a final flurry to decide who gains control of the town: the tyrant or the anti-hero.
However, be under no disillusions: there are no fist pumping feel good moments as such. The film is very dark in mood, with Nero's eyes portraying someone who is constantly wrestling with himself as well as his immediate enemies, and as the lead character, his eternal sadness reflects very much the sadness and doom the film exudes throughout. A little lightness is provided by George, the mentor, played by Woody Strode, who goes about very humbly with his guitar playing. The actor has appeared in a number of John Ford Westerns as well as Spartacus, and is recognisable and a welcome addition.
The remainder of the acting is quite good, although all characters other than these main two I found instantly forgettable. Indeed, more emphasis is put on George as a mentor than on Keoma's father William Shannon (William Berger), and it is this relationship and the fact that his mentor has become a drunk and very much under the thumb of Caldwell that spurs Keoma on to defend the town against this outlaw tyrant. Castellari's visuals and flashbacks are certainly very clear in this respect.
In showing Keoma to be half-Indian, Castellari manages to justify the menace between the hero and his three half brothers, played by Orsa Mario Guerrini, Antonio Marsina and Joshua Sinclair, by the different mothers, and this serves to help Keoma distance his emotions from them as much as it serves to help the trio detest their brother. Flashbacks show that the three of them picked on him as children anyway, so this is well covered and easy to believe, and indeed side with Keoma.
Watching this film, you can easily see many influences in it, as well as many elements that have been used since. The piercing blue eyes of the gunslinging Keoma are a common feature in many Westerns, whether it be Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, or Stephen King's literary anti-Hero Roland of Gilead in his The Dark Tower saga, the eyes say it all, with the deep and percing blue holding a lifetime of experience. They ooze determination and cause fear in their coldness, and coupled with Castellari's closeups, the effect is doubled. The closeups are used effectively throughout the film, to indicate a sort of tunnel vision when two characters are squaring off, or even when Keoma is faced with multiple opponents at a time. The closeups really focus on the hardened features and the bouts of male dominance that they represent, and it is a very clever element of the filming.
So, do I recommend watching this film? Well, I'll be honest with you. I have learnt to appreciate films more than just enjoy them, and the intrigue and skill shown here is unquestionable. However, it's not the most enjoyable film, and I have no doubt that many people would find it a load of egotistical nonsense. This seems to be a recurring thought process for many Westerns, up to to the end of the 1970s, when the classics seemed to die off before an attempted resurgence with films such as Unforgiven and Open Range, which have attempted to bring back the brutal and anti- nature of the heroes, as opposed to glossy Westerns where the hero is a good guy through and through: when it comes to gunslinging, there are no real heroes, not when violence and death are concerned.
Keoma is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most poignant Westerns. Popularity is split between common conceptions of ego on one hand, and intensity and enjoyment on the other. I sway towards the latter, having managed to enjoy the film as much as recognise the Alpha male battle that it is all about. Definitely one more for the hardened Western watchers, and those more interested in the modern blockbuster may not enjoy this. Similarly, if you're looking for something to have on while you get on with something else, this probably won't work for you. It's a very visual film, with the messages sent through the clever camera work and haunting and provoking musical score. You do need to keep watching and concentrating.
Keoma is available on DVD from amazon.co.uk for £5.49. Sadly, I haven't had the benefit of any extras, as I watched this on TV, but if I get the chance, I will snap up any extras that I can get my hands on. I am likely to buy the DVD at some point. I thoroughly recommend the film, and believe it is one worth watching more than once to appreciate the cinematic abilities on show, rather than for the wow factor.
Widely considered as the last great spaghetti western, Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma - il Vendicatore largely spelled the end for a genre of films that had been riding a wave of huge popularity since Sergio Leone's 1964 A Fistful of Dollars became such a huge hit. What came after Keoma were mostly middling flops, trying to still light some fire to the embers of a once so prolific and popular genre, but failing to ignite much interest anymore past the odd curiosity. It was the death of a style of films that had over the span of a decade seen some true masterpieces, and even more truly crappy exercises in greed and unskilled enthusiasm. And ironically, Castellari's name can be associated in both its decline, and its final great stand. As the late 1960s came about, the western had started to move toward a more comical air from the very serious efforts of the early 60s, and Castellari himself owns up that he was perhaps one of the main persons responsible for this decline after making the very comic Go Kill and Come Back in 1968, and which he soon followed with many similar films (roughly copies of the first). Compounding the issue was when these were quickly followed by many other such light-hearted and funny westerns made by other filmmakers wanting their share of the popularity cake (and money), which were to largely dominate the early 1970s Italian western output... those, and the ultra-serious and violent political westerns that is. But despite this legacy, in many ways one could say that with Keoma Castellari ended up saving a lot of the ill-reputation he might have ended up acquiring within the genre's fans when looking where the decline truly started.
Keoma came out in 1976, and is a film that can be classified as being neo-realist in style. Starring Franco Nero - which prompted the film to sometimes be called with the alternate title of "Django Rides Again" - tells of a half-breed Indian coming back from the Civil War only to find that his home town has during his absence turned into a wily and devastated place; where greedy men hold the power over the townsfolk and the plague runs wild on the streets. Not liking what he sees, Keoma then decides to take matters into his own hands and gets about in trying to clean the town up on his own, while fighting with his inner demons for what is right, what he wants, and what he loves. Now Keoma is a film that divides people up rather strongly. Some consider it a masterpiece of the genre, while others think of it as a pretentious, bloated waste of metaphorical egoism. Now, far be it for me to say how the film will strike you, but personally, having seen the film a couple of times around, it has just made me respect it more and more upon each watch. Keoma is not a happy film for a lot of its running time, and there is a very heavy feeling of doom about it. The whole of it is laced with a sweet apocalyptic feel in which the world, that was promised to become a better place in the minds of the idealists of the past, has descended into a rotting land of man-eats-man - a land where the promise of the future is but a bandage over a festering wound that refuses to heal.
The world that Keoma exists in, and most notably his hometown as its isolated expression, is hopeless and dreary; a town bordering on death and desolation. With the war over, the town quickly fell to the hands of the unscrupulous people wanting to increase their own power through means of coercion and violence. The former Confederate soldiers that came to town soon overrode everything under the command of their ruthless leader named Caldwell (Daniel O'Brien), a man who keeps everybody under fear of death should they step on his toes. And due to embargos Caldwell has set up, and his tyrannical ways of enforcing them, the living conditions soon grew worse as well, resulting in the quality of the town's water supplies to degrade and allowing the plague to soon have free reign on the streets with no way to treat it. Caldwell's brutal answer in how to handle this perilous state of affairs was to simply round up all the infected inhabitants, and transport them to an old mine site some way from town, there to wait their eventual deaths. Keoma doesn't like what he sees, and after one shipment of the sick people are massacred, Keoma decides to save the lone survivor, a pregnant woman named Lisa (Olga Karlatos), who is yet uninfected, to take her back with him to town. This move is certainly not a very popular one, but his actions immediately paint the main points of the story in that no matter how bad things are, and how hard life can get, the future always has hope. Keoma fights violence with violence, but through his actions he is also absolving himself in face of true evil; to ensure a better future through death and sacrifice. "Everybody has a right to be born," as Keoma puts it.
The film is very multifaceted, and a lot of it is very much thanks to the cast. Franco Nero is as imposing and captivating as ever as Keoma, and portrays his character as clearly somebody who does what he does out of sense of honour and what he sees as justice. He admits to his father that he doesn't know exactly what he is looking for, but never minding this goes about doing what he thinks is right, and what feels is right to him at any given moment. He doesn't really care about his own life as much as being disgusted with how his home has fallen into decay, despite his efforts in the war proffering a change for the better. His good friend and mentor George (Woody Strode), a former black slave, who was always kind to him when Keoma was a child, has received his freedom, but has now become a penniless drunkard, the freedom he got not having offered an improvement to his life under the new rule of the town that treats him like dirt. And with his conscience continuously berating him for the cost of his freedom, all he can effectively do is play his disintegrating banjo and drink until he forgets. Keoma's father William Shannon (William Berger) has resigned to sitting on the porch of his ranch, not having the power to make a difference, or wanting to have to choose sides with his family. Keoma's three half-brothers Butch (Orso Maria Guerrini), Lenny (Antonio Marsina) and Sam (Joshua Sinclair), whom have always looked down upon the Indian half-breed with disdain, have sided with Caldwell's gang, looking to side with the stronger people and possibly breaking out on their own above Caldwell should the opportune moment show itself up. And then added the hounding of Lisa by Caldwell's gang, as well as the townsfolk, and the old woman (Gabriella Giacobbe) who moves through the picture like a spectre looking after Keoma's follies and attempting to steer him in the "right direction" if you will - like Destiny ruling over those who live and who die - the entire cast truly steps up to provide a strong emotional core to the film that goes way beyond the set up of the story itself.
Without needlessly dissecting all performances, it is safe to say that there are really no weak links in the performances; with every actor, from major to minor, putting on their best effort. Only O'Brien as Caldwell ends up being somewhat under-utilized, but this doesn't really have that much of an impact when surrounded by so many other strong performances. Beyond the actors themselves, the technical aspects certainly don't let the film down either. The script was originally commissioned from two writers, based on the story of George Eastman, and was written as Castellari was finishing up another project of his. However, upon receiving the screenplay, it was deemed that the script was rather terrible and too under-developed to be of any use. Therefore due to a time crunch, with the shooting having to begin right away, Castellari threw away the script and began writing a new one on a day-by-day basis on the set, retaining the basic story outline, re-writing scenes and improvising others, while just seeing where the story would go from there. Yet, despite this improvisational mode of work, the film miraculously never feels disjointed or somehow written on a moment's notice. Everything has a very organic feeling to it and this also allowed for the actors to develop their own roles as they had to basically react to situations as they came their way rather than having everything clearly laid out for them. In the event, Castellari also ended up drawing a lot of influences from different favourite films of his just to have something to move onto to beef up the story, such as being inspired by Ingrid Bergman's The Seventh Seal, acting as a reference to the whole world around Keoma's crusade. Thankfully Castellari's direction is so very strong, that it keeps the film under tight control without ever allowing it to fall down in shambles on the ground that such an unplanned writing process could have easily resulted in, and certainly shows Castellari's directorial credentials perfectly.
Visually the film is one of the most resplendent spaghettis I've seen, with the cinematography truly making this film a real artistic statement beyond functionality. Every scene is set with skill, with shadows and other lighting effects emphasising each frame with a wonderful sense of atmosphere, framing every crevice with carefully planned precision. There are many places of tight close-ups of faces often juxtaposed with the background activity that utilizes the widescreen format to its fullest capacity, while the panoramic shots of mountains and characters isolated within great expanses of nature make the architecture of the film truly seem grand. Also the sets perfectly emphasise the desolateness and gloominess of the story, the town being a maze of shacks that is slowly disintegrating from disuse, the presence being very different from the usual Italian western set that is only enhanced by creative camera angles and framing. For the more violent death scenes Castellari utilises a lot of slow-motion photography, very reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah (though not quite to the same level of effectiveness), while there's a heavy reliance on flashbacks as a structural device. However, instead of setting up the flashbacks as separate divergences to another time and place as is standard practice, the memories are presented in real time, with the people in the present acting the part of observers to their pasts living right next to them, a technique that works remarkably well, more than anything giving the film an added impressionist dream-like touch, and making for a very original take on the usual flashback method.
Music is one further aspect which plays an important part in the narrative of the story. Castellari loved the scores written by song writers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for films like Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, that he wanted something similar to act as the music in Keoma, too. Therefore he contracted the De Angelis brothers Maurizio and Guido to write "Cohen cover songs", which act as external commentaries of the film itself, almost like Keoma's conscious telling him to leave things be, or to berate him when he goes against their advice toward his own destruction. This is certainly not to everybody's taste, and the high pitched, almost mournfully wailing female vocals (or the at times very deep male ones) can be rather an acquired taste, but in a strangely surreal way I just love this. The entire soundtrack basically is but one long song with only a few short instrumental interludes that emphasise the doom-laden dreamscape. On the whole Keoma, in all its surrealist apocalyptica and neo-realist doomsday painting, is a truly affecting experience. It is violent as spaghetti westerns always were, but instead of this being just another standard actioner like hundreds of other of its brethren, Keoma remains a very psychological story in which Castellari, after all the violence and destruction is done, is still wanting to tell of the tale of "from hardship to victory", with an eye toward a brighter future once all the destruction is over. It is a highly symbolic film and there are clear references to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in it - from Keoma's salvation from death, his fight toward injustice and the right to life, to him essentially being crucified at one point only to be resurrected through metaphorical death - so admittedly Keoma may feel a bit pretentious. But at the same time it is an absolutely absorbing watch, much to the point that any particular criticisms or flaws stop mattering too much. Certainly for one of the last of its kind, one couldn't get a better send-off than Keoma. A must see for any spaghetti western fan.
© berlioz, 2009