By 1976 very few people cared about the Spaghetti Western, killed off by endless comedy pairings of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, and endless re-runs of “man with no name”/Django thematics. But it was in the dying days of this great period in Italian film-making that turned up two classics of the genre, Lucio Fulci’s bleakly gothic Four of the Apocalypse and Enzo Castellari’s awesome Keoma.
Italy’s answer to Clint Eastwood - Franco Nero - plays Keoma, a half-breed loner who returns home after the civil war to find his hometown has become infected with a deadly plague. Caldwell (Donald O'Brien), a ruthless land owner has turned the town into a concentration camp and is holding the inhabitants to ransom, Keoma takes it upon himself to free the town from Caldwell’s gang, as well as his ruthless half brothers, who have ambitions of running the town themselves.
Nero is his usual reliable self, and although he looks nothing like an Indian and speaks in an Italian accent delivers one of his finest performances. For a genre that relies so much on an actor’s face, and specifically his/her eyes Nero is a captivating presence, and plays a more gentle, vulnerable hero than the typical Spaghetti hero (typified by Nero’s own Django). Keoma is a weary sad figure, tired of war and unsure of what he wants from life, far removed from the dollar driven anti-heroes of many euro-westerns. Nero is supported by a great cast of familiar western faces: John Ford regular Woody Strode plays George, a former slave who has turned to drink after gaining his freedom, and William Berger (Sabata, Sartana) delivers an excellent restrained performance as Keoma’s father, a peaceful man stuck in the middle of his warring Sons. Another point worth mentioning is the generally good standard of dubbing for a Euro film, with much of the cast (including Nero) looping their own dialogue.
Castellari takes a huge deal of inspiration in his action scenes from Sam Peckinpah, not just in the extensive use of slow motion photography, but in the editing technique used by Peckinpah to intercut the various gunshot victims. Castellari makes good use of this, turning the shootouts and fist-fights of Keoma into a surreal ballet of bloody mayhem. In addition Castellari creates some brilliant moments of visual invention, the framing of a group of bad guys through Keoma’s fingers as he counts them; Keoma and his father appearing through bullet holes in a piece of wood as the holes are shot out.
The only element that threatens to upset proceedings is the score provided by the De Angelis brothers, which attempts to act like a greek chorus by commenting on proceedings on screen. Unfortunately this is usually along the lines of simply stating through some sub-Joan Baez/Bob Dylan balledry what is going on in the most literal terms. It is distracting at best and at worst threatens to ruin some of the best scenes in the film – the stand off towards the end for example.
Regardless of the De Angelis brothers “contribution”, Keoma manages to combine furious action, Shakespearean tragedy (an omnipresent witch, a King Lear-esque father figure), and elements off morality play in equal measure to create a stylish, exciting film that is a fitting swan song for the golden age of Euro-westerns.