By 1976 the western craze in Italy had died down quite a bit and the end of the cycle was in reach. Most of the films being released at this point were 2nd rate, B-grade productions on deteriorating sets made cheap in hopes of making a quick buck. There was little in the way of creativity or originality. Then came KEOMA.
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari this is the story of a half-breed who returns to his hometown after the Civil War to find it under the control of a man named Caldwell, who is working with Keoma’s 3 half-brothers in controlling the town and throwing the sick plague victims in to a mine camp where they have to beg for food and are without medicine. Keoma rescues a pregnant woman from the caravan of prisoners knowing she is to be killed, stating “everyone has the right to be born”. Keoma sees his old friend George, reduced to an alcoholic on the streets, having sold all of his belongings except for his mandolin for booze despite his recent freedom granted at the end of the war. And a visit to his father makes Keoma realize he is out to find himself and his purpose, though his father won’t shoot it out with his own sons despite their affiliation with the tyrant Caldwell.
Keoma has visions of an old woman, credited as The Witch, who saved him from a massacre of the Indians years before, and it seems to have a strong effect on him. With the help of George, the town doctor and his father Keoma is able to get the townspeople much needed medicine and food, until Caldwell catches wind of it and visits the town with murder on his mind. There is a massive shootout until Keoma’s half brothers show up and see Caldwell murder their father in cold blood. Keoma is incapacitated at the time and there is almost a moment between the 2 sides where you can see them apologizing to each other in their eyes. This doesn’t last long as the brothers vow to take over the city and make it better but leave Keoma for dead. Keoma eventually gets to duel it out with his brothers who tormented him for his racial makeup for years and finds himself in the process.
KEOMA has many classic genre ideas and cliches, all we are missing is a stash of gold somewhere and your Spaghetti Western Bingo card is complete. Castellari could have easily fallen into a trap of making this just another late era entry into the genre but he had bigger ideas for the film that work beautifully. Keoma (Franco Nero) is more than just a stranger riding into town or famous gun slinger, he’s a man with a past, with relationships, and with a purpose in his soul. Keoma has a strong tie to his father, and his only childhood friend George. There is a scene where you can see the pain in Keoma’s eyes for mistreating his old friend. The fact that Keoma is very much a relateable character sets this film apart. Nero is perfect in the titular role, showing strength, emotion and a cold callousness when appropriate. Woody Strode is great as George and William Berger is great as a father torn between his warring sons, coming to grips with his life. Castellari creates a strong atmosphere, almost psychedelic in nature, very often when The Witch is present, that makes KEOMA a seriously moody film.
The negative that stands out the most is quite possibly the music. While I think once you get used to it on subsequent viewings the music definitely adds to dreamlike atmosphere of the film on first listen the vocals are abrasive and jarring and can take you out of the moment. Becoming familiar with the music helps them to become what they should be in adding to the film.
This is a fantastic western that will set itself apart from the pack with its atmosphere and imagery. Keoma looks like a madman during fight scenes and shoot-outs with his long hair and thick beard playing off his western Indian clothing. There is a classic “4 fingers” scene that is just a brilliant sequence from start to finish and KEOMA is a pretty damn good film from start to finish.