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Keoma
(1976)

Director: Enzo G. Castellari  
Cast:
Franco Nero, William Berger, Olga Karlatos


In all the years I have been living on this earth (though I assure you not that many years), I have observed many things many times, and I have come to some conclusions about things that are unbreakable truths. For example, if you go to any bank anywhere in the world, you will find that the more tellers that are behind the counter helping customers, the line of people that you stand in waiting for one of those tellers will advance more slowly than if there were a lot less tellers behind the counter. (And the line will move especially slowly if you happen to be in a hurry at the time.) Another thing I have observed is that all things come to an end. Some of these things happen to be bad things; I remember how much I hated school growing up, and how happy I was on graduation day, knowing I would never have to face another day of grade school again in my life... but then I started college a few months later, which came with its own unique share of problems, but that's another story. But I have also learned that there are plenty of good things in life that all come to an end sooner or later. With my top hobby being movies and the movie industry, I have found that many good things about movies have come to an end in the more than one hundred years of movie making. When I was a teenager, my favorite movie studio was The Cannon Group, and it was a sad day indeed when it stumbled and eventually closed its door a few years later. Later in life, I discovered PM Entertainment, but my joy was short-lived, with that studio closing several years after I discovered it.

After facing disappointments of beloved movie studios closing, I have learned that when it comes to film, there is new stuff to look forward to when old stuff dies out. Possibly the best way to illustrate this is to take a look at the Italian film industry. Until it pretty much died in the late 1980s, the industry was always quick to cash into a craze, and come up with a new one when the craze they were presently exploiting died out. They started off on shaky ground right after the Second World War ended, making stuffy art movies like Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine that I don't understand and I'm sure no sane person cares about (They are not real movies after all.) Then they moved into making real movies, starting with the peplum genre, muscleman movies like Goliath And The Dragon that showed what real men were like. When that craze died down, the Italians moved on. In the 1970s, no doubt inspired by American cop movies like Dirty Harry, the Italians made a string of tough cop movies, though with their own spin like having cops who liked to shove hot curling irons up the butts of attacking kung fu transvestites. (If you must know the name of that particular movie, send me an e-mail.) Other genres followed after the tough cop genre died, like the zombie genre and the post-holocaust genre. But perhaps the most missed Italian film genre of all was the spaghetti western. In its heyday, this genre lasted more than any other Italian film genre, running approximately from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. The genre made such an impact that it is still beloved enough that every few years the genre is revived, from theatrical films such as the David Bowie/Harvey Keitel-starring Gunslinger's Revenge to good old Terence Hill in comic westerns like Lucky Luke and Doc West.

But it's true that the output of spaghetti westerns today is far, far less than what was cranked out in those ten years or so. I've heard that over 500 spaghetti westerns were made in that timeframe. Though when the craze came to an end, it didn't exactly peter out. True, by 1976 westerns Keomahad become a rarity, but in that year one specific spaghetti western came out that seemed to say, "We may be leaving, but we are going out with a bang." That western was Keoma. It was a western that had rounded up some serious talent - in the cast were William Berger (If You Meet Sartana... Pray For Your Death), American actor Woody Strode, and Franco Nero of Django fame. In the director's chair was the great Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards). Many people feel it was indeed the last great spaghetti western, a perfect way to cap the end of the genre. Is it really as great as its reputation? Well, first a plot synopsis. The setting is somewhere in the western United States, some time after the Civil War has ended. Former Union soldier Keoma (Nero), who happens to be half Indian, is finally returning home. But when he gets to his home turf, he discovers that things have changed greatly since he left. A fellow named Caldwell (Donald O'Brien, Quest For The Mighty Sword) has taken over the local mine, and with the help of his gang has been taking over the town bit by bit, no doubt helped by the fact that a plague has been killing the townspeople. Keoma discovers that his father William (Berger) has been abandoned by his three other sons, Keoma's half-brothers, who have joined Caldwell's gang. Also, William's former slave George (Strode, Once Upon A Time In The West) has become a drunk after being disillusioned by what his new freedom has given him. It soon becomes clear to Keoma that it is up to him to restore things to what they once were.

Reading that plot synopsis, I am pretty sure that it sounded very familiar to you, and you would be right - this particular plot has been done to death by both westerns and non-westerns. But Keoma is made in a way that takes a basic formula and injects it with an original atmosphere that makes it a unique experience, sort of what happened with the spaghetti western The Stranger's Gundown - you will remember that western was given the atmosphere of a horror movie. Keoma doesn't feel like a horror movie, but it comes close at times, because Castellari directed it in a surreal and otherworldly fashion. The closest I can come to describing its style is that of a filmed dream. Right from the start, the movie has a feeling of not being quite like real life, like how our dreams often are. The air is often filled with mist, though most often dust flies around and becomes mist-like. Out in the wilderness, the skies overhead are often overcast, and the landscape is not desert, but instead a mix of green and yellow grass, with grey rocks - plenty of rocks - lying around. Back in civilization, the buildings look especially worn and weathered inside and outside, with junk and mud lying on the streets. The people in the movie wear clothes that look very worn and almost like rags. When they are shot, they are usually shown falling to the ground in very slow motion. When people have flashbacks to their younger selves, they sometimes imagine themselves standing right in their memories of their younger selves and almost interacting with these visions. And everything that I have just described to you has been photographed with muted colors that just add to the feeling of being in some kind of fantasy world.

Although I haven't seen every western that's been made (though I'm working on it), I think I can say with confidence that there has never been another western made that has the dream-like quality of Keoma. I was sucked into the movie's visuals immediately, and they held me captive until the end of the movie. But Keoma doesn't just have a dream-like quality with its visuals, but also with its audio as well. Naturally there's stuff like echoes and rushing winds that make the movie unsettling at times, but there are also the songs composed by Italian film music composers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis (who also composed the music for films such as The Last Shark and Crime Busters.) There has been much debate about the songs in Keoma from those who have watched the movie - people either love or hate the songs. Me, I loved the songs. Yes, I will freely admit that the man chosen to sing his songs does it in a very low and raspy way that may provoke a few giggles, and the woman singing the other songs sings her songs in a way that's hard to understand her words at times. And the words in the songs often tell us nothing we already know. (Sample lyrics, during a scene when Keoma encounters his family: "There's my father... and my brothers... and meeeeeeee / Tell me now... father... why they hate me soooooooo.") But even then, the songs feel just right for a world that has an equally unconventional feel in its look. I think it would be just wrong to have the standard pounding spaghetti western music for this particular spaghetti western.

I've spent a lot of time praising Keoma's visual look and its soundtrack, but that does not mean the movie doesn't have any other pleasures. The movie has some good action sequences (particularly one exciting lengthy shootout around the town in the last third of the movie), Nero as usual makes a charismatic and compelling protagonist, and director Castellari keeps the movie going at a pretty brisk clip so that there is not one boring moment in the movie's 101 minute running time. But despite all that, I don't think Keoma can be considered a classic spaghetti western, despite the fact that I would love to be able to give it that label. It's still a good movie, but it has some flaws that hold it back from true greatness. Most of these flaws fall around the construction of the various characters in the movie. Take the characters of the chief antagonist Caldwell, as well as his henchmen, Keoma's three half brothers. In the first third of the movie, I don't think the movie at any point gives them any real time to show what kind of people they are or what their opinion of anything is. Later in the movie they get some time devoted to them, but it's not much, making Caldwell in the end a pretty bland villain, and the three half brothers completely interchangeable with each other. This movie is really lacking villains who truly exude evil. Also in the movie, there is a pregnant woman (played by Olga Karlatos) that Keoma takes under his wing, but we never get the feeling of any relationship building between the two, because the movie repeatedly keeps her offscreen for lengthy periods of time. And the characters that Berger and Strode play don't get as much to say or do as you may want. These weakly written characters are probably due to the fact that Keoma was reportedly rewritten over and over during its shoot. It is amazing that they managed to make a good movie under those circumstances, but the end results may have been more amazing had they had time to really think things through before the camera started rolling.

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See also: Companeros, Force 10 From Navarone, Idaho Transfer

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