Keoma / Texas Adios Review
Argent Films have followed up their release of Sergio Corbucci’s Django with a double-bill of two other Franco Nero westerns, Keoma and Texas, Adios. Neither of these films are up to the standard of Corbucci’s classic but both contain points of interest. You can read my more extensive thoughts on the Spaghetti Western genre in my DVD Times reviews of Django and The Great Silence.
Made in 1975/76, Keoma is a very late addition to the Spaghetti cycle, a considerable time after it reached its critical and commercial zenith. It’s not surprising, therefore, to find that it’s an attempt to fix a fashionable collection of attitudes onto a very familiar storyline and the result is a paradox – a liberal-fascist film in which the cold-blooded taking of life is considered completely acceptable as long as it’s the right people getting killed and, of course, doing the killing.
Franco Nero, already past his box-office peak, plays Keoma, a half-breed Indian whose return to the town of his childhood is far from a happy one. He finds that the town has been taken over by a Civil War veteran named Caldwell who has bought the mine and subjugated the people to his will through the aid of a variety of unpalatable thugs, two of whom are Keoma’s half-brothers. Since his semi-siblings hated Keoma as a child, believing that their father’s love was unevenly distributed, it’s no surprise that they can’t stand him as an adult either. When Keoma rides into town he finds it in the grip of plague, which Caldwell is using as an excuse to get rid of all his opponents. Our hero, as right-on a civil rights supporter as ever donned a stetson, decides that this state of affairs cannot go on and, when a pregnant woman he has saved from the thugs is kidnapped, he decides to make a stand.
Keoma is an odd film, packed with cod-psychology that uses the hero’s childhood traumas to explain his attitude to the present. This mostly comes in the form of flashbacks which tend to repeat the same information over and over again. It’s probably intended to be a psychological western but the characters are too one-dimensional to stand up to any significant degree of analysis. So we tend to come down to the same clichés that we find in any western which is trying to give us a more ‘complex’ hero – notably the masochism that requires him to suffer mentally and physically before he can return in a blaze of vengeful glory. Unfortunately, once you’ve seen Django Kill, which takes this masochism to the point of absurdist black comedy, any similar scene looks pretty mild stuff.
To be fair, Enzo G.Castellari’s direction is of a quality which is above the call of duty. He’s got a great knack for the use of narrative time and atmospherics and the look of the town – all dusty mist and misty dust – is distinctive and memorable. I’m less certain about the necessity of his homages to Sam Peckinpah which mostly take the form of a narrative song running through the film (c.f. “Billy” from Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid) and an excessive use of slow-motion violence. The former would be alright if it wasn’t for the truly awful wailing voice of the singer and the latter misses Peckinpah’s whole point – that violent death is simultaneously repugnant and absurd. Castellari goes some of the way but then backs off, and the quality of the editing isn’t anywhere close to the brilliance of Robert Wolfe on The Wild Bunch. However, some of Castellari’s directorial conceits work brilliantly – one moment where his hand becomes the signifier of death is a masterstroke. He also uses Woody Strode better than any director since John Ford. Strode, who nursed Ford during the last year of his life and was devastated by his death, is excellent as George, the black banjo player who suffers from the racism of the town.
Franco Nero isn’t a great actor but he has a marvellous presence here – all blue eyes and flowing hair which go some of the way to mitigating the anachronistic nature of the character. The idea of a Western hero as a prototype Civil Rights marcher has more to do with the late 20th Century than the West of the post-Civil War era. I have nothing against genuinely complex attempts to provide a political and sociological spin on the genre – John Ford managed it brilliantly in The Searchers - but turning an over-familiar story into equal opportunities sludge isn’t the way to do it. There are few attempts here to examine the legacy of the Civil War and why there was so much resentment on the part of the South – whether justified or not – and the villains are, as usual, turned into hysterically grinning sadists who apparently deserve to be killed simply for being racist. If everyone in the Old West who had killed Indians and opposed the end of slavery were to be considered human scum, there would have been barely anyone left to populate the country. Approach the period from a superficially liberal and anti-racist point of view and you end up with anachronism because such attitudes simply weren’t prevalent (at least not to this extent) in that time and place. A far better approach is that adopted by Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales which concentrates not on liberal platitudes but on examining how a man of death and violence gradually moves into becoming a more complex human being.
The final half hour redeems the film. For one thing, it’s quite brilliantly directed and the final showdown with Caldwell’s men is a stunning set-piece that repays repeated viewings. Castellari’s use of light and dark imagery is a masterclass in itself. Also notable is the ending which tries to combine an incredibly downbeat tone with a final assertion of the power of freedom. This sums up Keoma. It wants to have it both ways, to be a film about tolerance and freedom while actually being as repressive and negative as the people it claims to be opposing. The incredibly derivative device of having ‘Death’, in the form of an old woman, comment on the action is only likely to impress you if you’ve never seen it before. It’s only reasonable to point out that my view on the film is in the minority and a lot of Spaghetti Western fans like it a great deal.
Keoma is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 format. I’ve seen differing opinions about the quality of the transfer. My personal view is that it’s middling at worst and acceptable at best. The image is fairly crisp and reasonably well detailed, although the soft-focus photography moments don’t come across too well. One or two moments are a little blurred in fact. There is a considerable amount of grain, rather more than necessary, and some obvious print damage in places. No serious artifacting problems but there is some unsightly edge enhancement.
The 2 channel English Mono soundtrack is more than acceptable and comes across very clearly. The music track does tend to dominate and how much you like this depends on your tolerance of sub-Joan Baez wailing.
The extras consist of a five minute Alex Cox introduction, where he expresses reservations without really explaining them, an exceptionally good 15 minute interview with Castellari and trailers for Keoma, Texas Adios, Django, Django Kill and A Bullet For The General. There are 16 chapter stops, nicely designed animated menus and, inexcusably, no subtitles at all.
TEXAS, ADIOS 5/10
Compared to the psychological stylings of Keoma, Fernando Baldi’s 1966 Western Texas, Adios looks very simplistic indeed. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t made with anything like the same level of loving care that Enzo G. Castellari or Sergio Corbucci lavished on their Westerns with Franco Nero, but it’s rarely worse than mediocre and if you love the Spaghetti genre then you’ll probably find points of genuine interest.
What we have here is an old-fashioned revenge western. Burt Sullivan (Nero) and his brother Jim (Kitosch) travel into Mexico to find Cisco Delgado, the killer of their father who is now a powerful landowner. We see this happening in the obligatory flashback sequence. However, all is not as it seems and in a terribly predictable plot twist, Burt finds that the past contains some unsuspected surprises,
The tone of Texas, Adios, right down to the music score and set-pieces, is straight out of second string Hollywood genre product. Indeed, bad dubbing apart, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish it from the movies being made at the time by Andrew V. MacLaglen such as The Rare Breed or Bandolero!. It’s considerably less dark than the majority of Italian Westerns and the characters are more simplistic than the heroes played by Nero elsewhere. Burt Sullivan is simply a vengeance seeking tough guy who could have been played by any actor. Franco Nero looks alarmingly young in this film without his beard and his good looks and strong profile make it easy to see why Joshua Logan cast him as Lancelot in the screen version of Camelot. One can’t blame him for the abysmal English dialogue in this version of the film but, perhaps due to indifferent direction, he doesn’t have the same presence he does in the contemporary Django. Jose Suarez has a few good moments as Cisco Delgado but he’s simply the bad-guy-from-column-C, a stereotype with few redeeming features. The plot twist allows him some moments of introspection and an brief but interesting sideline in moral confusion, but that’s about it. An amusingly sadistic habit of flipping the cork from his drink flask to tell a firing squad to shoot is the most entertaining thing about him. It’s interesting to note that the lessons of Leone’s For A Few Dollars More seem to have gone unnoticed. In Leone’s film, the shading and unexpected character edges of superficially stock villain figures like Gian Maria Volonte’s Indio add a great deal to a relatively simple plot.
However, the simplicity of Texas, Adios is not unattractive and the lack of pretension means that it’s fast paced and quite exciting. The violence is fairly brutal in places but no more so than in most Spaghettis. A few boots to the head might make you flinch but otherwise it’s all quite mild and certainly not as flamboyantly sadistic as the some of the Django films. The director, Ferdinando Baldi, was a competent plodder rather than a craftsman like some of his contemporaries. His career covers a range of genres popular in Italy; Peplums such as the wildly silly Massacre In The Black Forest (starring an embarrassed Cameron Mitchell); crime thrillers like The Sicilian Connection; Giallo with Nine Guests For A Crime; knockabout comedy such as Carambola’s Philosophy: In The Right Pocket; and exploitation horror with the gratuitously nasty Terror Express. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his later career was a sudden embarkation into the revival of 3-D movies in the 1980s. He made the delightfully awful Comin’ At Ya in 1981 and the Raidersrip-off, Treasure Of The Four Crowns, both of which are essential viewing for bad film aficionados. But his favourite genre was clearly the Western and he kept coming back to it, rarely in a manner which was particularly impressive but always with a certain bare competence. His best film is probably the Django sequel, Get A Coffin Ready, which affectionately parodies the form and provides a good opportunity for Terence Hill as the hero.
Texas, Adios is predictable, badly dubbed and silly, full of lines like, “Ha! I knew we would see each other again...” However, genre fans may well have a good time with it. It looks fabulous, thanks to the splendid Scope cinematography of Enzo Barboni who also worked as DP on Django and does well with the arid desert landscapes. The music score by Anton Garcia Abril is hopelessly derivative but quite amusing – he worked with Paul Naschy on several projects which is a bad omen if ever I heard one – and the opening song by Don Powell is so dreadful it’s bound to make you laugh while you’re wincing. Although I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone except genre die-hards, as a free bonus on the Keoma disc, it’s worth a look.
Presented in an anamorphic transfer framed at 2.35:1, Texas, Adios doesn’t look particularly great. There’s a good deal of artifacting and the picture is sometimes rather murky and lacking in fine detail. However, the blacks are quite nicely defined and the overall level of grain is suitably filmic without being excessive.
The soundtrack is in straightforward 2 channel English Mono. Again, this is a good track and eminently clear.
The only extra on the disc is a trailer for the film. There are no subtitles.
Keoma is somewhat overrated but certainly very interesting indeed and more than worthy of your attention. Texas, Adios is workmanlike and mildly diverting and probably of more interest to genre fans than casual viewers. Argent’s DVD is generally pretty good value and I cautiously recommend it.