by Steve Habrat
The spaghetti western genre can be a truly grim affair, from the shifty characters to the unflinching violence right to the decrepit towns. Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 Keoma is no different. Keoma goes a step further and early on establishes an apocalyptic atmosphere with barely any hope in sight. Despite the doom and gloom, Keoma is one of the most scenic spaghetti westerns I have seen, one that has obviously been treated with care since its release and embraces any opportunity to show off the mountainous landscape. Keoma is a must-see spaghetti western for two other unique approaches. The film is narrated almost like a Greek tragedy, the story guided along by a male and female singer that provides us with our hero Keoma’s inner thoughts and several nifty slow-motion shootouts, slowed down so we can see the victims doing a dance of death right before they hit the ground. They are vaguely evocative of the shootouts in The Wild Bunch and Thriller: A Cruel Picture in their splendor and horror.
Keoma follows a half-breed gunslinger named Keoma (Played by Franco Nero) who returns to his plague-ridden hometown after service in the Civil War. After saving a sick woman named Lisa (Played by Olga Karlatos) from a group of brutal gunslingers who are rounding up plague victims, Keoma learns that his hometown is in control of a brutal landlord named Caldwell (Played by Donald O’Brien). Making things worse, Keoma’s three brothers are looking to join forces with Caldwell and they wish to do away with Keoma. Teaming up with his father, William Shannon (Played by William Berger), and their ex-slave and servant George (Played by Woody Strode), Keoma begins trying to help the plague victims of the town, bringing in medicine, food, and a Marshall to bring law and order to the community. In the meantime, Keoma has to stand up to Caldwell and finds himself hopelessly outgunned.
Unlike other spaghetti westerns, where the characters sit around and stare at each other and mumble little snippets of dialogue (don’t take that as negative criticism, I absolutely love westerns like that), Keoma is a chattier experience and one that is much more action packed than other entries. In fact, I was truly taken aback by the extended gunfight at the climax of the film, one that lasts about twenty minutes. This is a film that is galloping along right from the windy opening scene. In such films like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Django or even the films of Sergio Leone, the violence was sudden and short, startling the viewer with how quickly it started and how fast it ended. Keoma draws these sequences out and then proceeds to slow the violence down, exploiting it just like a good sleaze picture should. The end shoot out is at times redolent of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch crossed with Bo Arne Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the camera glued to the waving ribbons of gore spilling out of the bullet holes of the dead. I was also impressed with the way the film has held up all these years, a clear picture, timeless acting, and expert dubbing (I point this out because these films are usually poor in the dubbing department).
Keoma packs a steely-eyed performance from the gruff Franco Nero as Keoma. Imagine if Johnny Depp had time traveled back to the 1970s, grew a thick beard, and dawned a cowboy hat. If you can make a mental image of that (I doubt that is very difficult), you have Nero’s Keoma. Keoma isn’t a man interested in money or wealth. He only sets his sights on bringing law and order to a town without any and in the process, protecting those who can’t protect themselves. He’s a far throw from Eastwood’s The Man with No Name when it comes to his morals but he is still a man who doesn’t have infinite amounts to say. Sure he speaks more than The Man with No Name, but he hates scum that has too much to say. Those who do end up meeting the blast of his double barrel shotgun. Another standout in Keoma is Woody Strode as George; a pitiful ex-slave with petrified eyes and who is consistently enduring malicious racial slurs spit at him by Caldwell’s men. He is a man who was once honorable, a man who Keoma looked up to when he was just a boy. When we meet him, he is a slouchy drinker who doesn’t stand up for himself. Your heart will break when one of Caldwell’s men walks up to him and urinates on his boots, making a fool of George even though he was just trying to do the right thing. When George finally picks up a gun (and crossbow) and joins Keoma to defend the town, you will want to stand up and cheer.
Director Castellari makes Keoma a standout with some inventive camera angles that makes the film an artful journey into the west. The opening scene has the camera sitting stationary inside an abandoned structure, mostly in the dark except for the light streaming in from a slamming screen door where we can faintly see Keoma ridding through a ghost town. The door is to the right if the screen, the camera almost trying to remain elusive and reluctant to enter the ailing world. Another scene finds the camera placed behind a piece of wood that Keoma and his father are using as target practice, the picture slowly being revealed from the holes shot into the wood. Castellari compliments that unique camerawork with a shrieking score that is the furthest thing from the jangly Ennio Morricone scores that were so popular in these films. The score is used to allow us to hear the thoughts of the characters and sometimes acts as our own inner advice to the characters. It suggests that Keoma should run away with Lisa and start a new life, fleeing the danger that is slowly closing in around them. It also narrates the tension between Keoma and his three nasty brothers, their fractured relationship told in both the score and in flashbacks that play out right before the eyes of the adult Keoma.
For fans of the spaghetti western, Keoma is a must-see for its hasty pace, drawn out action, and doomed love story all told on an apocalyptic stage. At times, the score can get a bit distracting, a nice and inimitable idea but not always as harmonizing as it should be. Another small gripe I had with the film is that the villain Caldwell is slightly brushed over and left underdeveloped. Overall, I had fun with the tragedy that is Keoma and I loved the way the film embraced rollicking action sequences. Next to Leone’s work, Keoma has aged remarkably and is easily accessible to those who are usually put off by older films like this. If you love your westerns with an unconventional touch, seek out Keoma immediately. You will not be disappointed.
Keoma is available on DVD.