Anchor Bay // 1970 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 25th, 2011
The Definitive Cult Spaghetti Western
The Western has been around about as long as the movies. The Great Train Robbery is considered one of the great early films, and Westerns were made at a generous clip throughout most of the twentieth century. One of the reasons the Western proved so popular was its almost singular ability to speak to a wide variety of themes and directorial approaches. There's the dignity of John Ford or the nostalgic violence of Sam Peckinpah, and it's no surprise that as global culture seemed more and more to come under the spell of youth culture there emerged a Western that spoke to the drug-addled, visionary youth. At least that's why I like to think El Topo garnered such popularity (although I'm sure director Jodorowsky, 41 when he made the film, would have some trouble with this). Championed by John Lennon and a huge hit on the late-night cult circuit, El Topo gets a high-def release that lives up to the film's hype.
Hold on to your hats, folks: a black-clad gunfighter (Jodorosky) wanders the desert until he meets a woman. She insists that to love him, he must be the best gunfighter in the world. To earn that honor he must wander the desert in search of the four great gunmasters. When those confrontations have played out, our hero finds himself in a cave surrounded by the physically deformed. He becomes their champion and finds himself begging in a local town filled with the cruelest citizens.
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a multitalented guy. He's been a director, a writer (of philosophy, drama, comics, etc.), an actor, and who knows what else. His talents are ably displayed here with his directorial debut. As El Topo ("The Mole" in English), he has the kind of gritty mystery that made Clint Eastwood famous. Behind the camera, Jodorowsky frames each scene like a painting, offering striking compositions that should make any cinema fan's mouth water. In fact, this film is so dependent on visuals that it almost plays as a silent film. Sure, some of Jodorowsky's mystical opponents philosophize, but for the most part there's very little dialogue and the beautiful Mexican landscape carries the picture.
El Topo is really two movies in one. The first 80 minutes by themselves would rank in the Top 10 Westerns ever made. The gunfighting, desert landscapes, and Jodorowsky's mysterious El Topo would put the film in the Western canon with style to spare. Then those last 40 minutes kick in. They don't precisely ruin the movie, but they take it in such a different direction that it becomes hard to classify El Topo as a Western any longer as the allegorical elements take center stage and Jodorowsky's obsession with the malformed comes to the fore. The radical shift in focus takes El Topo into new territory, and I can only imagine how much of a shock it must have been at a midnight screening in 1970.
For the Blu-ray, Anchor Bay has ported their previous DVD release (available as a part of The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky and as a stand-alone disc) to high definition. The 1.33:1 AVC encoded transfer is simply stunning. For a 40-year-old midnight movie, El Topo looks in almost perfect condition. The print is in remarkably good condition, with only a few lines marring its two-hour running time. The muted desert colors are well-reproduced, grain is appropriate, and no digital artefacting is noticable. This is as good as we could expect the film to look since its premiere. The DTS-HD soundtrack isn't quite as impressive, but that's down to the fact that the dialogue, music, and sound effects weren't captured with the same richness as the film's visuals. Still, dialogue is intelligible (at least with my limited Spanish), and the track seems to preserve Jodorowsky's intentions.
The extras from the previous release are present here (with the exception of the soundtrack available in the box set). The centerpiece is a commentary from Jodorowsky, in Spanish with English subtitles. He dishes on the film's production, symbolism, and apologizes and/or explains some of the more violent and misogynist elements of the film in the context of his life. It's an amazing track filled with some wonderful quotes. We also get an on-camera interview with Jodorowsky that doubles some of the info, but he's an engaging enough speaker to make that a moot point. Then, there's a gallery with photos and script excerpts, as well as the film's original theatrical trailer.
El Topo is a bizarre, violent, misogynistic film. It also happens to be beautiful, but many viewers won't see the beautiful forest for the ugly trees. In addition to the outright violent elements, there are also scenes of a lesbian nature, what some might consider the exploitation of the handicapped, and some animal cruelty. All of these elements add to the film, but those with weak stomachs or the easily offended will find something to loathe about El Topo.
After decades of gray market bootleg VHS copies, the DVD of El Topo was a revelation. This Blu-ray doesn't quite reach those heights, but the film looks amazing and all the old extras are back for fans to enjoy again. This is obviously the release first-time viewers should reach for, and serious fans of El Topo will want this disc. Casual fans, especially if they have the previous box set, will probably just want to rent this disc the next time they get a hankering for some of The Mole.
Despite the violence and insanity, El Topo is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery