Six-Gun Reviews returns and this week Dawn Dabell analyses Keoma (1976) starring Franco Nero and Woody Strode.
When thinking about spaghetti westerns, certain actors automatically spring to mind: Clint Eastwood, Klaus Kinski, Robert Woods and Franco Nero being high on the list. These four feature in more than their fair share of the biggest and best films from the genre. Indeed, Franco Nero is the star of the film I am reviewing in this instalment of Six-Gun Reviews – the 1976 entry Keoma.
When you mention Nero’s name, most people think of Django (1966), a role which has become synonymous with him and is seen as perhaps his most iconic performance. Which western fan doesn’t instantly recognise the image of Django walking across the landscape dragging a coffin behind him? Following on from the success of Django, many spaghetti westerns tried to cash-in on the title with over 30 unofficial sequels being released, the majority of which had nothing to do with the original film (other than occasional stylistic similarities). Keoma (1976) is one such example. It was released in the US under a number of titles: Keoma, Keoma The Avenger, Desperado (a cut version), Django Rides Again and even Django’s Great Return. The intention in all these examples was simple: to cash in on Django’s reputation.
Keoma (Franco Nero), a part-Indian gunslinger raised by his white father, returns to his home town after the Civil War. While he has been away, he discovers that things have changed and not for the better. The town is now under the control of the ruthless Caldwell (Donald O’Brian), with whom Keoma’s half-brothers have all joined forces. Growing up he had a bad relationship with them anyway; they despised him for being part of their family despite not being of pure white blood, and their hatred was further sealed by the fact that their father seemed to prefer Keoma over any of them.
When Keoma returns and sees the way his old home town is being run, he decides to take action. He liberates a pregnant woman who is being sent into quarantine at a labour mine for supposedly carrying a plague and, aided by his father and an old black friend named George (Woody Strode), stands strong against Caldwell’s reign of cruelty. Wherever Keoma goes, a strange old woman seems to follow, watching vulture-like his every move and commentating upon his adventures like some bewitched old chronicler.
Nero puts in a noteworthy performance here as the long-haired half-breed loner. Keoma will not stand by and watch anyone – even strangers – being wronged: he is sympathetic and yet chilling at the same time. One look how his face is set, at the look in his eyes, and the audience knows exactly what his character is thinking. The actors who play Keoma’s three half-brothers (Orso Maria Guerrini, Antonio Marsina and Joshua Sinclair) are all convincing as the hired guns of the town’s tyrant. The hate they feel towards their half-breed brother is never once in doubt as they all play their respective roles convincingly.
One character, the old woman, is interpreted by viewers as many different things. In the credits, she is listed as ‘The Witch’, but if you watch closely it is interesting that she is only ever seen by Keoma. Does this mean she’s a figment of his imagination? Is she Death, following Keoma around waiting for him to kill or be killed? Or is she indeed just an old woman who no one pays heed to, or even acknowledges, except Keoma? She seems to have a strange obsession with death throughout the film, so it seems likely to me that she is a representation of Death, but the truth is left tantalisingly open-ended.
The outlandish camera angles used in the film add artistic flair and create a weirdly unique atmosphere, and the frequent use of close-ups works perfectly – Leone may have been the true master of the ‘intense-close-up’, but Castellari uses the technique quite effectively here too. There are some wonderfully inventive and visually striking scenes throughout the film; the one with arguably the biggest impact is the final showdown, in which Keoma engages in a shootout with his enemies while the woman is in a labour. A sequence full of people dying crosscut with a life being created – a clever touch from the makers of the film. I like some of the allegorical imagery too, such as Keoma being tied in a crucifixion-like pose to a wagon wheel by his adversaries and left to suffer against the elements.
Sybill & Guy (Susan Duncan Smith and Cesare De Natale) provide the unusual vocals on the film’s soundtrack which was written by Guido De Angelis and Maurizio De Angelis. The De Angelis brothers are famous for their soundtrack work in films such as Trinity Is Still My Name, Torso, Yor: The Hunter from The Future and Chino to name a few. Keoma’s soundtrack is a huge source of debate among movie fans: some cite it as the worst soundtrack they have ever heard (not just in the western genre but in any film ever) while others believe it is a work of genius, adding atmosphere and drama to the film. Whatever your take on it, one thing is certain: it’s certainly… erm… different’! Upon hearing the soundtrack I was firmly in the ‘hate’ camp, but after listening to it a few times the warbling vocals of the female contrasted against the deep rugged sound of the male are beginning to grow on me in a strange way. It’s not the best western score ever composed, but it is certainly among the most unique.
Whether you love or hate the film’s soundtrack, one thing which spaghetti western fans seem to agree about is Keoma’s effectiveness and enjoyment factor as a film. It is a fast-moving and entertaining offering, widely regarded as one of the better examples from the genre and particularly good for a film made during the back-end of the spaghetti western heyday. Keoma is recommended viewing for fans of spaghetti westerns: if you’ve not seen it yet and generally enjoy movies from the genre, what are you waiting for?!
It’s a fine example, and, moreover, provides a great insight into the stylistic excesses and quirky flourishes of this brand of western movie for those who are new to the sub-genre.
MOM Rating: 7/10