1976 is often ca]]lled the year in which the western had its last upswing before it fell into a decline and slowly became a moribund genre. John Wayne made his last movie, The Shootist, Clint Eastwood made his landmark movie The Outlaw Josey Wales and Enzo G. Castellari gave the already suffering spaghetti western a worthy conclusion with his twilight spaghetti Keoma, featuring one of the biggest stars from Italian genre cinema: Franco Nero.
The halfbreed Keoma, son of an Indian mother and a white father, comes home after the Civil War, but finds his hometown ravaged by the plague. His three half-brothers, who had mistreated him when he was a boy, have turned their backs on their father and are now siding with Caldwell, the local tyrant, who has interned the sick people in a sort of concentration camp. After saving the life of a pregnant woman, Keoma stands up against Caldwell and his half-brothers, only getting some help from his father and a former slave, now the town drunk. In a furious battle Keoma eliminates most of Caldwell's men but his father and friend are killed and he himself is captured and tied to a wheel in the town's centre ...
# The Cultural Background
Like most spaghetti westerns made in the second half of the seventies Keoma is downbeat and melancholic. It's also mystic, symbolic and referential. With torches illuminating it at night, the town in this movie looks more like a medieval town than the traditional western town. There are some similarities to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (the plague, the atmosphere of decay) and Christian ideas about death and resurrection are fused with the cycle of destruction and rebirth of natural religion. When he is asked by an old woman why he has come back, Keoma answers her that the world keeps turning round and round, so a man always ends up in the same place. Originally this woman was to symbolize death, but the idea was changed and she is now functioning more like the classical Fate from Greek and Scandinavian mythology, a goddess of destiny who has the power to decide over life and death. She tells Keoma how she saved his life when his tribe was massacred, by leading his white father to the battlefield. She will exercise her special powers again near the end of the film: the wheel of life won't stop turning.
# The Script
The original script, by Luigi Montefiori (better known under his actor's name George Eastman) was abandoned; some outlines were respected, but most scenes were either improvised or re-written on the set by Castellari. Dialogue was partly rewritten by Gianni Loffredero (Joshua Sinclair), who plays one of Keoma's half-brothers (the one with the moustache). Woody Strode was brought in very late, so a part for him had to be created in an already developed story-line. The treatment of both the halfbreed and the former slave (as well as Berger's dialogue about the fate of Indians and blacks) are an indication that the movie tries to make an anti-racist statement, but the idea is not stretched. In the original story by Montefiori, Keoma discovered that one of the 'half-brothers' was his real brother. Not willing to kill his brother, he voluntarily chose a violent death.
# The Score
The highly controversial score by the De Angelis brothers was also written very late. Castellari was impressed by the way Bob Dylan's and Leonard Cohen's scores were used in, respectively, Pat Garret and Billy the kid (1973) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1970), and reportedly their music was played at night, when previously shot scenes were edited. Finally Castellari met the brothers and asked them to write a Cohen like score. Much has been said of the score. Most people think it's awful, especially the vocals of the female singer. And yes, it goes to the bone, but personally I have more problems with the male singer, who occasionally sings sooo looow that it becomes ludicrous.
The mid-section of the movie is plodding and some scenes, like Keoma's fistfights with his half-brothers, feel uninspired. There are also too many scenes in slow motion, but the atmosphere is great and the elaborated shootout between Caldwell's gang and Keoma is violent and exciting, with a terrifying death scene for Woody Strode. Castellari's compositions are impressive. He often uses disorienting angles, culminating in a scene in which Nero and Berger are seen through the holes they shoot in their target during a shooting practice. Even more impressive, is his innovative use of flashbacks, in which Nero seems to walk through his own past, completely breaking with the Leone flashback style that had dominated the genre. The film begins with a shot that seems reminiscent of the opening shot of The Searchers (1956): from what seems a shadowy porch of a house, we see a rider approaching, but this time the rider is not entering a house, but a western town that has been a battlefield during the civil war. During the entire movie, we see streaks of light fall through windows, cracks in walls or gaps in roofs. Apart from Leone's C'era una volta il West, this is probably the most breathtakingly beautiful looking spaghetti western you'll ever see.
# The Title
Castellari has often called this his best movie. He has always been very proud of it and of his work with Woody Strode, who called him, when the film was finished, an heir to John Ford, which was, in Castellari's words, as much honour as an Oscar. It was also Strode who came up with the title of the movie: he had read it on the front page of a book he once read. He couldn't remember what the book was about, but had always liked the title. It turned out to be an autobiography of a prostitute, but Castellari didn't mind: he liked the title too.
Dir: Enzo G. Castellari Cast: Franco Nero, William Berger, Woody Strode, Olga Karlatos, Donald O'Brien, Gabriella Giacobbe, John Loffredo, Giovanni Cianfriglia, Orso Maria Guerrini, Antonio Marsina, Leonardo Scavino, Alfio Caltabiano - Music: Guido & Maurizio De Angelis
- Marco Giusti, Dizionario Del Western All'Italiana
- Kevin Grant, Any Gun Can Play, p. 341-344
- Mark R. Hasan, Keoma, on: KQEK, A different kind of media site
- Interview with Enzo G. Castellari, added as an extra to the Danish DVD