A man who is free can never die.
At first glance, Keoma is just another Spaghetti Western, and indeed Anchor Bay sells it under its "Spaghetti Western Collection." However, a more thoughtful look at Keoma shows it to be head and shoulder above most films of that cheaply made, mass produced sub-genre. Characters with defined history and motivation, remarkable use of perspective, attention to writing and a director having fun mixing styles of his favorite directors makes Keoma worthy of far more respect than simply calling it a "Spaghetti Western." Keoma is just a Western, period.
Facts of the Case
Keoma (Franco Nero) returns home after many years of wandering and fighting, seeking a long needed rest. However, despite a warm welcome from his father, William Shannon (William Berger), the rest of the family is not nearly as happy at Keoma's return. His three half-brothers, who resented Keoma and mistreated him at every opportunity when they were young, have not lost any of their anger.
Complicating matters is a local gang leader, Caldwell (Donald O'Brien), whose employment of the brothers has driven distance between them and their father, a wise man who knows Caldwell for the criminal he is. An old family friend, George (Woody Strode), still hangs around in the nearby town, but he seems very much a shell of the vibrant man he used to be. Keoma, though weary of his past, treasures justice more than peace and takes up the cause of the innocent settlers in the area, so conflict is inevitable. As one man battles a horde and brother fights brother, all of these people will take their own place in the savage battles to follow. Will the brutality of Caldwell, the vengeance of Keoma's brothers, or the fierce justice of Keoma rule the day? Only time and bullets will tell.
Sometimes you can only marvel that a quality film coalesced out of an insane blend of chaos and improvisation. Though the Spaghetti Western sub-genre was on the decline in 1976, director Enzo Castellari convinced enough investors to back his vision for a Western with his own unique style and a proven lead actor, Franco Nero (Django, Force 10 from Navarone, Die Hard 2). Castellari must have been a silver-tongued devil, for he managed to pry cold, hard lira out of his investors without showing them something that might be important—a shooting script. Three days before filming was set to begin, he took a look at the final script he had commissioned…and threw it straight into the trash, with the hearty agreement of Franco Nero.
Not letting a minor difficulty like the absence of a script get in his way, Castellari began shooting Keoma by the seat of his pants. At the start of each day's shooting, the ink was barely dry on the batch of newly written pages hastily assembled from the collaboration of a multitude of sources. Actors wrote or improvised dialogue, crewmembers tossed in their suggestions, and from one day to the next no one could predict what style Castellari would emulate. With some Ingmar Bergman here, some Shakespeare there, a dash of Peckinpah, a dab of John Ford and so forth, this disparate stew of ingredients somehow, magically, melds together into a coherent, serious film that is far better than it deserves to be. As if he did not have enough on his plate, Castellari has fun with the camera. Whether using slow-motion gunfight scenes to accentuate the gritty violence, using his own hand as a grimly amusing prop, or showing a scene from the perspective of the target, Castellari keeps the audience as interested in the presentation of Keoma as well as its narrative.
The only problem with Franco Nero is that he looks too much like a conventional hero of European stock dressed in a wig than the half-Indian ronin that he portrays. Otherwise, his talent for timing, body language, and heroic drama are as solid as ever. Among the rest of the cast, the level of serious acting is quite decent, particularly the genuine pathos of Woody Strode (Spartacus, Sergeant Rutledge, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and the weary wisdom of William Berger ("The Winds of War," Hercules). With so many of the actors making suggestions, writing dialogue, and otherwise helping to pull Keoma together, I suspect that this translated into a more engaged cast and an enhanced acting performance all around.
The primary benefit of the anamorphic video is that for the first time, American audiences can see the complete film and not the bastardized hack that previously made its way onto drive-thru movie screens. As with its previously reviewed cousin Texas, Adios, the evident flaws of the video seem to come from age and Keoma's modestly budgeted origins. Frequent blips and flecks, ho-hum color saturation, and inconsistent film stock are expected, if regrettable, flaws, but at least no one cranked up the digital artifact machine, either.
The audio track sticks to an original English mono dub that won't be winning any audiophile plaudits, but this too should not come as any surprise. Aside from substantive annoyances (see my Rebuttal comment below), and audio with limited dynamic range, the track features music by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis that falls well short of the gloriously stirring work of Ennio Morricone. On the other hand, Enzo Castellari and Franco Nero seem quite enamored of their work, so perhaps their music will be your cup of tea. It certainly wasn't mine!
The interview with Franco Nero lets us understand why Keoma holds a special place in his heart. In only ten minutes, Nero covers the basics of his extensive involvement in its creation and a superb working relationship with Enzo Castellari. The other piece of extra content is the commentary track with director Castellari and "journalist Waylon Wahl." Whoever Wahl is, he does us all the service of keeping Castellari on track and throwing out discussion topics to keep things interesting. With his reasonable English, a very enthusiastic Castellari bubbles over with his joy at watching Keoma again, sometimes even pausing just to watch a favorite piece of a scene. I found his passion and sense of fun most endearing, as well as his willingness to experiment and improvise!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a film, Keoma would be close to perfection except for one dissonant flaw in the soundtrack. A warbling, overwrought, operatic woman keeps screeching about what characters are thinking, what they have done, or what they are going to do. So much for establishing drama or mood! Maybe the deficiencies of an aging mono soundtrack accentuate her vocal negatives, but I am not much of a fan of musical exposition, particularly when it comes off as fingers across a blackboard.
Anchor Bay again ignores some of the little niceties of DVD by not including any subtitles. If they can ante up for an interview and a commentary track, why not cover one of the basics like subtitles?
A clear cut above the usual film, Keoma ($25 list) has enough style, drama and intelligence to merit consideration by a wide audience and not just Spaghetti Western aficionados. Anchor Bay has done Keoma a service by releasing the uncut version and including some extra content, but it is a pity the film could not receive a proper restoration.
Go Keoma, go in peace.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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