Keoma is a 1976 Italian western directed by Enzo G. Castellari, starring the incomparable Franco Nero as the titular character. While this film could be dismissed as strictly a western, it does have elements of horror and the fantastic woven into its narrative. By 1976, Italian westerns were quietly and slowly dying out, after over five hundred of the oaters had been made over the past fifteen years. The genre would produce a few more gems after Keoma, including A Man Called Blade (1977), California (1977), and Silver Saddle (1978), directed by the great Lucio Fulci. Yet the end of the genre was looming and sadly inevitable.
Italian westerns assimilated other genres trappings into their plots, including elements of horror (Django Kill… If You Live Shoot, Django the Bastard), giallo (Price of Death, Kill the Poker Player) and of course comedy which, while used throughout the life of the genre, overtook the films after the release and success of My Name is Trinity in 1971. The elements of horror in Keoma are one of the main reasons it rises above the pack in terms of watch-ability and garners continued reverence from genre and cult movie fans alike. To watch this film from the point of view of it being a horror tinged western opens the limits of the film even more and allows the depth of the film to reach a level of the fantastic. The Italian western staples are still there, but the mythos surrounding weaponry and the physicality of the anti-heroes is taken to a supernatural level. Keoma’s foundation rests on three of the more common plot devices in Italian westerns: the hero returning from war, the evil town boss, and revenge.
When Keoma arrives in town and kills two men without even looking, we have the continuation of the larger-than-life men who propagated these films, who in turn were outgrowths of the heroes showcased in the Italian brand of peplums—sword and sandal films—which predated the Italian westerns, and gave way to them after that series of films died out. Beginning with the Sergio Leone ‘Dollar’ films, the use of weapons and physical superiority grew and grew to outrageous proportions, until My Name is Trinity took the whole over-accelerated masochism to another level via comedic parody. Keoma, along with his father, are the only two men able to kill someone without looking at their target. When questioned by his father if he has met anyone faster with a gun, Keoma replies, “not yet…maybe I never will.”
Keoma is a half-breed, who after his mother’s Indian tribe is wiped out by the white man, is raised by his Caucasian father, and introduced to his three new step-brothers, who have a profound hatred for any races beyond their own. Race is a prominent issue throughout Keoma, with disdain thrown down on both the African-American character George (Woody Strode), who withstands continual abuse via the “N” word. Keoma is assaulted over his mixed ancestry both physically and verbally.
Keoma’s tribe is slaughtered only when he is chosen to survive by the witch (Gabriella Giacobbe), who is introduced in a ghost town left abandoned after the war. She questions Keoma as to why he came back home, to which he replies, “The world keeps going round and round—so you end up in the same place.” He fought in the civil war, winning medals, but he still doesn’t belong anywhere. He keeps living so he can claim his destiny, which he does not want to change.
The town is different since Keoma left to fight the war, but not for the better. It is now under the death grip of a man named Caldwell (Donald O’ Brien) who allows no one to leave unless they are dead. A plague has settled onto some of the townspeople from a contaminated well, water that Caldwell had made them pay to drink and use. Since no one can leave town alive, no one can go for medical supplies, or to alert authorities to the situation. After the war Caldwell had lead a bunch of ex-confederate soldiers there, and after buying the local mine, began to force the people to sell their land, using any method possible to achieve his goal.
The people who have come down with the plague are taken to the old mine to live under harsh circumstances, appearing almost as zombies in their bloody, dirty bandages and physical decomposition. Upon his arrival, Keoma comes to the aid of a pregnant woman, Liza Farrow (Olga Karlatos), who was forced to the old mine because her husband had contracted the plague. Liza Farrow represents the miracles of birth and life in this production.
The three half-brothers, sons of the famous William Shannon (William Berger), have affiliated with Caldwell, thus joining the supremacist order. They have a deep-seated hatred of Keoma, making his youth fraught with pain and degradation.
While Italian westerns are known for their violence, this film takes it to another level, with spiraling, diving, slow motion shots of men in the throes of death and dying. In this movie, a life is worth nothing, best exemplified when Keoma equates the lives he is about to take to four cents, the cost of four bullets.
Keoma is like the grim reaper, the prodigal son returned, and must fulfill his father’s wish to have his three other sons killed. Keoma is a restless soul, who keeps searching for something he hasn’t found yet. He is a lonely character who has only felt love from his mother and father. His father wants to act against Caldwell, but has developed a fear as he has aged—a once fearless man, the fastest man with a gun, has come to the point that he fears death. The fear of death is introduced by all parties except the Caldwell gang, including George, the town doctor, the townsfolk, and the plague victims. Keoma questions each—why go on living, if you are dead already?
The witch appears numerous times throughout the proceedings to warn or alert Keoma and to foretell the outcome, as she does with the Liza Farrow character; according to the witch, Liza will not live long. She also professes shapeshifting abilities, as is evidenced when Keoma is tied to a wheel in town and she appears before him in the pounding rain. Yet, when the lightning strikes, it is Liza standing before him. The town is lit with torches, garbage all around, full of fog, generally looking like a graveyard. The town is heavily guarded by Caldwell’s thugs, who systematically hunt down and shoot the ill that have attempted to escape. Constantly playing cat and mouse with their victims until bored with the hunt, the thugs shoot bystanders down in cold blood. Liza and Keoma’s escape from the town and the ending shootout between the brothers are claustrophobic affairs, building the suspense tautly, with prevalent darkness lit by flickering flames, not unlike the looks of Gothic horror films produced in Italy in the 1960’s. The use of death and resurrection is also addressed in the movie, notable when the town’s doctor has to smuggle George out as a dead man to get past the guards and go for medical supplies.
Towards the end, Sam Shannon tells the townsfolk that Keoma is the reason the plague victims had infected the town, and that he had brought despair and was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The score by the De Angelis brothers is unlike anything offered up in Italian westerns up to the point, as its vocal songs bring forth an obvious comparison to the great Leonard Cohen. While a point of contention with some fans of the film, the score accompanies the action wonderfully, and through darkness and bitterness the film and score unfold together brilliantly, like a wall of pain, encompassing everyone in the audience.
The final showdown with Keoma’s brothers is downbeat, taking place in the ghost town, intercut with Liza still in pain from the birth of her son. The brothers die, as does Liza during birth, but her son lives on. When the witch pleads with Keoma not to leave the child with her as he prepares to leave, he replies, “He can’t die, you know why? Because he’s free… A man who is free never dies.”