English Title: Keoma

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Uranos Cinematografica

Director: Enzo G. Castellari

Producer(s): Manolo Bolognini

Screenplay: Enzo G. Castellari, Nico Ducci, George Eastman, Mino Roli

Cinematographer: Aiace Parolin

Art Director: Carlo Simi

Editor: Gianfranco Amicucci

Runtime: 101 minutes

Genre: Western

Starring/Cast: William Berger, Franco Nero, Olga Karlatos, Donald O’Brien

Year: 1976

Volume: Italian

On his return from fighting in the Civil War, the mixed-race Keoma discovers that his home town is now under the control of the merciless Caldwell. The town is ravaged by the plague and, to make matters worse, Caldwell and his gang of ex-soldiers are forcing inhabitants to move into an abandoned mine shaft with no hope of medical attention. Defying Caldwell’s men by rescuing the pregnant Lisa from this fate, Keoma soon discovers that even his own half-brothers are collaborators. Dejected, he joins forces with the town drunk George and the local doctor to concoct a plan to secure medical supplies and finally free the local people from the tyrannical rule of Caldwell.

Often described as a twilight spaghetti western, Keoma functions as an elegy to the filone which director Enzo Castellari and star Franco Nero so loved. Coming at the tail end of the cycle, the film is infused with a mournful, poetic quality far removed from the crude excesses of its forebears. Indeed, this was to be one of the last attempts to make a serious spaghetti western at a time when the filone had descended into self-parody. Released in the United States under the title Django Rides Again, the film marks the return to the western of Franco Nero; a fact alluded to in a reflexive opening sequence which pointedly asks ‘Why did you come back?’ As if to answer, the film then plays out like a greatest-hits package from those early spaghetti westerns, adapting and reworking many of the clichés of the cycle, from the lone hero who arrives in a deserted town, through to the alcoholic gunslinger who is forced to redeem himself.

Keoma, therefore, returns the filone to its individualist roots, after a shift towards more Marxist communitarian values in the political westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Keoma himself declares, ‘I have to do it alone because I am alone.’ This allows Franco Nero, bearded and dishevelled in the title role, to recapture some of that enigmatic outsider quality which so defined his portrayal of Django ten years earlier. The cross-fertilization with the US western is also very much in evidence with Enzo Castellari’s use of slow-motion paying an obvious debt to the films of Sam Peckinpah – a body of work which was, in turn, deeply influenced by the early spaghetti westerns. In addition, Castellari lends some gravitas to these familiar generic tropes with repeated allusions towards biblical stories and contemporaneous civil rights struggles.

Nevertheless, Keoma is not without its problems. Most notoriously, the score by the De Angelis brothers acts as an awkwardly self-conscious Greek chorus to proceedings – with two folk singers narrating the action in painfully literal terms. Inspired by the Leonard Cohen score for McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), this is one innovation that sadly does not succeed and it detracts from some otherwise very effective set pieces. Furthermore, the po-faced seriousness of the treatment acts in tension with some of the more trashy elements of the action, unfortunately resulting in some moments of pure naïve camp.

Ultimately, the film ends with an explosive confrontation and Keoma celebrating the birth of a newborn baby. He defiantly declares that this child cannot die because ‘a man who is free never dies.’ Concluding the film’s allegorical treatment of life and death, this is perhaps Keoma’s most enduring statement regarding the spaghetti western. This filone may have been on its last legs in its current incarnation, but it would still live on. The spaghetti western is dead. Long live the spaghetti western.

Author of this review: Iain Robert Smith