HCF REWIND NO. 142. KEOMA AKA THE VIOLENT BREED, KEOMA: THE AVENGER [Italy 1976]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME:96 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After service in the American Civil War, half-breed Keoma returns to his hometown and rescues a pregnant woman accused of having caught a plague, Lisa, from a gang led by the landlord Caldwell. Later on he meets his former slave servant and friend George, now a free man but a drunkard, and is informed that the town is under siege by Caldwell’s men. The townsfolk are dying of the plague and starvation, with Caldwell withholding supplies of medicine and food. Furthermore, Keoma’s three dangerous half-brothers, who hated him as a child because they thought their father loved him more, have joined Caldwell’s force…..
Every now and again comes along a film which is very good in pretty much all departments, but is seriously let down by just one thing which is prominent enough to almost ruin it. Keoma is such a film. This 1976 picture was made at a time when the spaghetti western was drawing to a close and had been supplanted by the giallo as the main populist kind of film being made in Italy. Those that were being made tended to be comedic in nature. Director Enzo G. Castellari was another filmmaker who worked in most Italian genres and whose work differs greatly in quality, but with Keoma he definitely set out to make a really good film which would put a different spin on the western, and he succeeded [well, except for that one huge flaw which I will get to!]. This is despite the first script by Luigi Montefiore [better known to Italian horror fans as George Eastman] being so disliked by the director that most of the film was made with pages of the screenplay being written the night before those specific scenes would be shot. It’s not a good way to proceed but the result turned out well. All UK versions are missing four seconds of horse falls. I’ve always found the BBFC’s policy of removing shots where animals are treated illegally puzzling. I don’t particularly like seeing this kind of thing but if someone tripped a horse thirty years ago there’s nothing we can do about it now, and if it was originally in the film then it should remain.
Keoma, which actually seems very similar to Django at first, is full of conventional story elements, such as the outlaws menacing a town and the lone stranger riding in to hopefully save the day, and includes such tried and tested ingredients like the hero being beaten up near the end so he can revive and take revenge on his beaters. Keoma though twists some of these things, and substantially changes others. This hero actually has a past in the town, it being the town where he grew up, while the heroine, whose job is usually to be rescued by the hero and provide a romantic interest for him which he usually refuses, is actually pregnant. The stranglehold by the villains on the town has them use a plague to their advantage, something I’m sure went on a lot then, with certain areas being virtually quarantined to stop a disease spreading, and the hope that the afflicted will just die out. There is plenty of action, but so little graphic violence the film should probably be a ‘PG’. The tale seems to be aiming for the allegorical, especially with the somewhat surreal touch of an old woman who appears from time to time, and who presumably symbolises death.
Keoma looks just great, some of the nocturnal shots of the town really making it look like a western Sleepy Hollow, while the photography of Aiace Parolin uses patterns of darkness worthy of the greatest film noir. There are a good number of impressive shots and visual devices, like a shot taken from the other side of a wall where characters are shooting at Keoma. The bullets make holes in the wall and the holes reveal the faces of the shooters. The influence of Sam Peckinpah can be seen in the numerous slow motion shots of dying people falling to the ground, while some intriguingly handled flashback moments, where the adult Keoma is sometimes seen in the past, watching his young self, are maybe Sergio Leone-influenced but go further in stylisation. This isn’t all just empty stylistics though, as the story includes weighty issues such as family loyalty and racism. As usual for films of this kind that have a very liberal, left-wing agenda, killing is still considered just fine as long as the right people get shot. With his long hair and huge hat, Franco Nero looks somewhat ridiculous, but still has the presence he had as Django, while western stalwarts William Berger, Woody Strode and Donald O’Brien, and the beautiful Olga Karlatos [to fans of Italian horror, may I just say the words zombies, splinter, eye] help make up an interesting cast, most of whom seem to be dubbing their own voices.
So now we come to the problem with this film. The bloody music by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. This opening titles feature a woman trying to do Kate Bush, but badly, and it’s just about sufferable, but the same darn song, only with changeable lyrics that tell us exactly what is happening on screen, is repeated over and over again, and after a while a male singer, sounding like Leonard Cohen gargling on sulphuric acid, begins to join in. It’s influenced presumably by Bob Dylan’s work on Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, but just gets more and more annoying as its used more and more, and ends up seriously harming the film, a stylistic touch that just falls totally flat and certainly hampered my enjoyment of what is, otherwise, probably the best of the three films in the set, a fascinating allegorical western which still provides plenty of entertainment. I guess the next time I watch it I’ll just turn the sound down for much of the time and stick on some Ennio Morricone.
Rating: [would have been 8.5 without the music]