‘Keoma’ or — Sam Peckinpah Meets… Leonard Cohen With Hilarious Consequences?!

‘Keoma’ takes itself very seriously. Franco Nero plays Keoma, a half white/half Indian ex-Union soldier who now fights for civil and equal rights. Keoma looks like Jim Morrison and Dennis Hooper had a baby. Keoma takes himself very seriously. How seriously? Well, when Keoma rides about the soundtrack sounds nothing like Morricone but, instead, exactly like er… Leonard Cohen?!!! That’s how serious Keoma is. Leonard Cohen level serious.

The story is simple — Keoma (Franco Nero) returns to his home town to find his half-brothers now controlling it through fear and terror. Keoma saves a pregnant woman from being sent to a mine-camp of plague victims along with an ex-slave who can find no meaning in life now he has his freedom. Keoma is righteous, Keoma is an almost supernaturally quick shot, Keoma might also be a patronising asshole.

What’s initially evident about Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘Keoma’ (1976) is that this is a movie that wants to be taken seriously… for a Spaghetti Western that is. You can feel the film consciously reaching for consistency and verisimilitude, to not sacrifice its integrity for a throw-away gag or beat of action. This movie has a sensitive side and wants you to know it; unlike Eastwood’s self-contained Man With No Name Keoma has a name and it’s Keoma and Keoma is in touch with his emotions suggesting that, unlike Eastwood, he might also have been to therapy.

Indeed, Keoma is so in touch with his emotions the film often stops to have a number of Leonard Cohen-esque songs to tell us EXACTLY what Keoma is thinking and feeling in deep, brooding tones. It’s an effect that is jarring and laughable but, surprisingly, oddly endearing. As the film went on I found myself actively looking forward to these god-awful musical interludes and the more serious they became the harder I laughed.

This also because, despite its intentions, it is impossible to take ‘Keoma’ seriously in the slightest. Firstly, Franco Nero could never be mistaken for half Indian in a billion years; secondly, Keoma comes across as spectacularly patronising in terms of the people he helps. This is no more evident than with Woody Strode’s character and when Keoma, a white man, tells this black man how to get over slavery — simply shrug it off, basically. But Keoma’s heart is in the right place, even if his brain isn’t, so he just about gets away with it.

But the main reason ‘Keoma’ is so hard to take seriously is also its biggest strength — this movie is a HUGE load of fun! It might be striving for artistic élan and thematic depth but it still can’t disguise the fact it’s an Italian Western which means there’s tonnes of action, stunt-work, gunfights and some ridiculously OTT camera-work. For ‘Keoma’ director Castellari has opted for slow-mo and seamless in-camera flash-back transitions, some of which work better than others but the invention and energy on display is undeniable and when these techniques do work — such as Keoma throwing aside a gang of men to charge full-tilt at his opponent or a remarkable shot of temporally dislocated tumbling men and horses that Peckinpah would view with envy — the results are not only impressive but downright memorable.

‘Keoma’ is also a very good looking film with set design by Leone’s regular production designer, the great Carlo Simi. Everything has a lived-in, worn down vibe and dust covers everything which is suitable for a movie that’s considered one of the last, great Spaghetti Westerns. This is not the decline of the Old West or a way of life we are witnessing the passing of here but a ‘modern’ movie industry saying goodbye to a highly successful genre with one last flourish.

The film does have a few missteps. For one it blows its action load a little too early with an extremely exciting and extended shoot-out that’s incredibly satisfying but does leave the closing ten minutes feeling like something of a coda that hammers home a banal message. Plus despite the music providing some unintentional comedy this is not a soundtrack I could ever imagine wanting to listen to outside the context of the movie. There’s also a few issues with the sound mix including a unintentionally funny moment when the town’s folk are dashing about in mass panic but with the ADR of the town’s women’s frightened screams sounding more like ‘Confessions of A Window Cleaner’s saucy ‘Ooohs!’ and sexual titterings.

‘Keoma’ is great. It is fast-paced, well made and hangs together nicely, something even more surprising considering that, apparently, they threw away the script two days after filming and started shooting without one, simply making up set-pieces and the story on the fly. It could be that semi-improvised energy which keeps ‘Keoma’ blasting along.

‘Keoma’ is a film which takes itself a little too seriously to be taken seriously but just because the movie does so doesn’t mean to say that we have to when watching it. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do so but that’s part of ‘Keoma’s excessive charm.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.