Keoma (1976)

Watch enough spaghetti westerns and they all start to blend together at the edges like some gunslinger filled dreamscape, mostly thanks to their adherence to and creation of so many familiar tropes – a mysterious lone stranger with a gun that will kill effortlessly but also has a heart of gold, a cartoonishly evil villain that spends most of their screen time figuratively (and literally depending on the film) twirling their mustache, a run down town full of run down townspeople; the list goes on and on. Keoma is no different, coming late in the cycle of Italian westerns, and while it displays almost all the tropes you’d expect it to, it manages to inject some new elements that make it stand out among the ten gallon hat company it keeps.

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, who you may know from his later films like the post-apocalyptic masterpiece 1990: Bronx Warrior, Keoma stars Franco Nero (aka OG Django himself) as a part-Native, part-White ex-Union soldier who’s returning to town after the war is over and there’s no more killing to do. Upon his return to the town he knows from his youth, he discovers it is under the control of a man named Caldwell and suffering from a plague. True to mustache twirling villain form, Caldwell has stopped all flow of supplies into the town and taken it upon himself to “quarintine” sick townspeople in a camp outside of town. Not a movie content to stop at once obvious trope, Castellari’s film adds another layer to the delicious trope cake by having Keoma’s adopted brothers as Caldwell’s most trusted men. Of course golden-hearted killer Keoma can’t let this stand and does all that he can to free the town and its inhabitants from these tropey scoundrels. Sounds so familiar you’d swear you’ve seen this movie at least three times, but stick with me; Keoma may be made of familiar ingredients but it’s the way they’re combined that activates the genre film magic.

The biblical elements are thick here – with a town rife with an unnamed plague, a lone individual (with an impressive beard and hair any hippie would be jealous of) who acts as the sole savior, an oracle/witch type character that comes to our titular hero in his times of need to guide his hand, betrayal at the hands of those he trusted and of course a climax that really hammers home all of the above biblical connections in case you missed any of the not so subtle elements throughout the movie. At times the movie feels almost psychedelic (but not in a hippie-dippie incense and peppermints way) thanks to the method employed to set up its flashbacks. In his first encounter with the witch character, Keoma is reminded how she has stepped into his life previously to save him at a young age as his tribes camp was attacked. This flashback isn’t presented as a straight, instead adult Keoma is transported to and then walks through his own memories and interacts with them thanks to some beautiful camera work. It lends a bit more of an art house feeling to sections of the film (though not too much, this is still very much an exploitation film at its core) that definitely gives Keoma legs beyond its more contemporary brethren. Some of the other unexpected camera work, slowly moving a scene from blackness to something we can understand through the actions of the characters keep this film from fading into the crowd of look alike films that flooded this era of genre cinema.

The music, another staple of the western genre, is about as unique as the camera work though it does take some getting used to. Truthfully you may never get used to, as seems to be the case with many folks who’ve shared their thoughts online about Keoma. Instead of orchestral sweeping scores with guitars and horns and yelling punctuating action scenes that we’re accustomed to with this genre of film, the filmmakers decided to go with a score that features prominent vocals that more or less describe what’s happening on the screen. It still has most of those familiar spaghetti western musical elements as well, but the vocals make it so its presence in a scene is quite pronounced sometimes to the point of distraction. As distracting as it can be however, it does provide Keoma one more element that lets it stick out from the dusty cattle-driving crowd.

As this is an Arrow release, it comes with all the bells, whistles and spurs you’d expect it to: interviews with Franco Nero, director Enzo G. Castellari, actor/writer Luigi Montefiori AKA George Eastman as well as a number of other contributors. Austin Fisher provides a new video essay on the twilight of this genre that is a must see for anyone whose spent any appreciable amount of time with films of this ilk that acts as a great accompaniment to the commentary track packed with information headed up by spaghetti western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke. Obviously there’s a slew of trailers and promotional images for the completionist who needs to see everything aka me. The Arrow blu-ray release of Keoma is well worth shelling out your hard fought gold bars (or whatever you’ve got the trade at the general store) for if you see it in your rambles across the dusty, dangerous plains of genre film collecting.

-Scott

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