5/24/10

Keoma (1976): Life, Death, and Freedom in Castellari’s West

To the casual movie nerd, the name Enzo Castellari will bring up his film Inglorious Bastards and the accompanying Tarantino “remake”. To Italian film buffs, his name will bring up post-apocalyptic films like 1990: Bronx Warriors or Euro-crime films such as The Big Racket and Street Law. What I don’t see talked about nearly enough are his Westerns. In the beginning of his career he made several entries into the Spaghetti Western genre including Any Gun Can Play and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. In the late ‘70’s, he returned to the genre with a pair of films starring Franco Nero, Cipolla Colt (1976) and Keoma. Made at the end of the Italian Western craze, Keoma was an experimental film for Castellari, and he has stated that it is his favorite.

When Keoma (Franco Nero) returns home from fighting the Civil War, he finds that a diabolical rancher named Caldwell (Donald O’Brian) has taken over the town. A plague has also hit the area, and Caldwell will not even allow the town doctor to get supplies to help the people. Instead, the rancher’s gunmen round up anyone suspected of having the disease and place them in a camp to die. Keoma comes across the gunman hauling a pregnant woman (Olga Karlatos) to the camp and rescues her from their clutches. This pits the half-Indian gunfighter against Caldwell and his whole gang including his three half brothers. With help from his father (William Berger) and a banjo playing farmhand (Woody Strode), Keoma will try to protect the pregnant woman and free the town while the specter of death stays close at hand.

The inspiration for Keoma is clearly Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal though Castellari’s film takes great liberty with the storyline. Keoma replaces the errant knight who travels across plague ravaged countryside, and instead of a game of chess with death, the gunfighter is followed by an old woman who personifies the end of life. The script had several writers working on it including actor/writer George Eastman who turned in the original version of the script. Castellari wasn’t completely pleased with Eastman’s version, and along with writers Nico Ducci and Mino Roli, Castellari re-wrote the script each night for the next days filming. Remarkably, Keoma doesn’t feel piecemeal at all with a fully realized vision and theme. The film is a mediation on the preciousness of life, the inevitability of death, and the gift of freedom.

All of the characters are trying to be free in one way or another. Woody Strode’s George is now a free man thanks to the end of the Civil War, but he has become a drunk saying that he no longer had anything to look forward to. Keoma’s three brothers are seeking freedom from the shadow of their father who was a legendary gunman. The town doctor wants to care for his patients and save them from the deadly plague but doesn‘t have the freedom to do so. The pregnant woman, Lisa, wants to be free to bring her child into this world. Keoma himself is free from everything except the lingering presence of death, but he seeks to free the town from Caldwell. Not for his own personal gain or for glory, but rather because it is the right thing to do. None of this is expressly stated in the film, but it comes though in the performances and script without the need for opaque symbolism or murky exposition. Incidentally, the name Keoma means “far away” in Cherokee though it has been misinterpreted as meaning freedom.

Mentioning the performances brings me around to talking about one of my favorite actors, Franco Nero. Nero is no stranger to the genre having starred in Django and several other Westerns, but with his long hair and grizzled beard, he cuts a very different figure than I have seen him portray in the past. Nero, who also lent his voice to the English dubbing, gives a perfect performance that is the rock that the film is built upon. Woody Strode, who many may know from Once Upon a Time in the West, also turns in a solid performance that is heart wrenching. All three of the actors who played Keoma’s half brothers, Joshua Sinclair, Antonio Marsina, and Orso Maria Guerrini, make for good foils to the liberal thinking of their sibling, but Guerrini whose curly hair and mustache made him look like the Italian version of a young Donald Southerland. The lovely Olga Karlatos, who later appeared in Fulci’s Zombi 2 and Murder Rock, has little screen time as the pregnant widow in distress, but she does good work in a minor role.

When people criticize the film it is often because of the narrative soundtrack written by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. Acting as a Greek chorus between the scenes, the songs do give some exposition of the inner feelings of the characters and move the plot along. Many viewers may find it distracting and perhaps laughable, but for me, it worked. It may not be the best score the De Angelis brothers worked on, but they took a chance that paid off to this viewer. One thing that I haven’t seen anyone downplay is the use of slow motion in the film. Clearly inspired by similar scenes in Sam Peckinpah’s films, Castellari ups the ante with a myriad of slow motion gun battles that really sell the violence in Keoma without going over the top. The director and cinematographer Aiace Parolin also captured some great John Ford-esque panoramic shots that transformed the hills of Italy into the American West.

I wasn’t expecting much when I decided to watch Keoma, but not only was I pleasantly surprised the film now sits on my shortlist of best Spaghetti Westerns of all time. From the meaningful storyline to the pulse pounding action sequences, Keoma delivers on all fronts. Some have called Enzo Castellari the greatest of the Italian action film directors, but he is surely capable of more than post-apocalyptic punks and loose cannon cops. If Keoma is any indication of the Westerns that he directed, you can be assured that this won’t be the last time you’ll see one on the Lair. So if you are a fan of tough guys with six shooters and willing to look a little deeper than the surface action, then Keoma is a film that you should definitely see.

Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. I haven't heard of this, but if "Kill Them All and Come Back Alone" isn't one of the greatest titles I've ever heard...I wanna see THAT one. (well, how is it? Tell me first)

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  2. Kill Them All and Come Back Alone is pretty damn good.

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  3. It's been many years since I've seen this film. Your review made me want to go back and watch it again. Hope the widescreen VHS version I have still works.

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  4. I love this film. Just watched it again recently. One of my favorite Spaghetti Westerns and I dig the De Angelis soundtrack too.

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