CAPSULE: KEOMA (1976)

AKA Django’s Great Return; The Violent Breed

DIRECTED BY: Enzo G. Castellari

FEATURING: , Donald O’Brien, William Berger, Olga Karlatos

PLOT: A half-breed gunslinger returns to his home town after serving in the Civil War to find it overrun by an outlaw gang.

Still from Keoma (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you remove the infamous soundtrack, this movie is a candidate for a standard, artful, but pretty ordinary spaghetti Western. Grim as Hades’ gruel and dark as midnight, yes, but not weird. The soundtrack, moreover, qualifies less as weird and more as a hate crime against eardrums.

COMMENTS: What chance does a Western have on this site? In the category of weird Westerns, there is El Topo, and the buck pretty much stops there. Nobody else need bother applying. It scored #10 on March Movie Madness out of the whole 366 List. Sure there’s a few more weird Westerns on the List, but by and large, Westerns are the most conservative, vanilla genre out there. I know some fans will be ready to thrash me for saying so, but I hate this genre. It’s BORING! The same horses, the same guns, the same hats, the same saloon fight. Show me an establishing shot of an old ghost town with a tumbleweed blowing by and I’m yawning already. El Topo is my favorite Western, Blazing Saddles my second-favorite, and every other one is tied for last place, spaghetti Westerns included. Yes, I will grant, there are many well-done Westerns—don’t think I don’t appreciate them—but I can only stare at the same paint on the same wall for so long, even if Picasso painted it. Even worse is another Django (1966) knock-off (albeit starring the original Django). During the copycat Western period, all cowboys were Django, the way all Mexican Luchador wrestlers are Santo.

So, in the boring, boring west, Keoma (Franco Nero) comes home from the Civil War to find his home town overrun by outlaws. Team Bad Guy–cackling evildoers of the Snidely Whiplash variety—is led by Caldwell (Donald O’Brien), who doesn’t tie screaming damsels to train tracks but might as well, since he solves a plague epidemic by hunting the victims down like dogs. Worse yet, Keoma’s half-brothers despise him because he’s a half-breed Indian and have thrown in their lot with Caldwell. Keoma’s only allies are his father and a few town stragglers, so together Team Good Guy is going to solve this with lots of fighting, featuring saloon punch-outs and gunfighter duels at the O.K. Corral. Notice how this plot flies right through your brain without hanging onto any details? Horses are ridden, oats are eaten, honky tonk pianos are played, poker cards are dealt. The most original element is an old crone who observes Keoma’s progress and advises him from time to time.

Let’s talk about the dead, stinking elephant in the room: The Worst Soundtrack EVER! Keoma has the bad luck to be famous mainly for its cursed music. It’s as bad as every review says it is, and worse. The female vocals sound like Tiny Tim doing a falsetto after inhaling helium, and then the male accompaniment comes in sounding like what everybody swears to God is Arnold Schwarzenegger with a head cold. But wait, there’s more! The music sings the entire narration, an invisible Greek chorus punctuating every major scene in operatic detail. And not only that, the music is not at all Western, but sounds more like an amateur Renaissance Fair ballad. This takes what should have been the grand finale of the spaghetti Western genre and turns it into excruciating torture to sit through. Nails on a chalkboard, a cat-fight on acid, your ears will throw up. You want so badly to appreciate the dramatic moments but the manic chipmunk with croaking frog accompaniment just WILL NOT SHUT UP.

Notwithstanding this one crippling handicap, Keoma is hailed by many as a spaghetti Western classic. Even the most rabid genre fans will admit it’s derivative, but this came out in the twilight years of Prego horse operas, so it’s unavoidable. Director Castellari at least keeps the camerawork interesting, peeking at the action through barrel knotholes and from between the spokes of wagon wheels. Reportedly, the script was written on the fly while filming, which is impressive because lines of dialogue hint at spirituality and a Zen view of the world, and snippets have Shakespearian aspirations. But sadly, Westerns have been so spammed in cinema that even the Taoist ones are a dime a dozen.

The defining feature of Keoma, music aside, is grimness. This film takes place in a world that’s just a big sack of crap for everybody, where they’re all damned souls struggling to kill each other in the most sadistic ways possible on the shores of Hell. Which, even if you love Westerns, makes it hard to give a damn about anybody here. The only thing you care about after it’s over is sticking your head in the microwave on high to see if that purges the soundtrack from your memory.

Arrow Video released a deluxe special edition Blu-ray in 2019, newly restored and with a host of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Aside from the peculiar mismatching of Nero and his role, the movie’s almost random collection of elements gives it an appealing recklessness and energy that sells it. The main drawback is the music…”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (Blu-ray)

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: KEOMA (1976)”

  1. Holy Smoke, this was released the same year as List Candidate, “Get Mean”. If you want to check out a weird Western that leans more toward “Cannibal! the Musical” while awkwardly “paying homage” to some Charlton Heston classics, I’d recommend giving it a go, Pete.

  2. Rofl great line of writing here: “This film takes place in a world that’s just a big sack of crap for everybody, where they’re all damned souls struggling to kill each other in the most sadistic ways possible on the shores of Hell.”

  3. The female singer is Ian Duncan Smith’s sister I believe. IDS was yet another unsuccessful leader of the UK conservative party, who got his revenge by visiting the ill thought out, much delayed and costly Universal Credit. Perhaps he should have taken up singing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.