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Shakespearean & Grecian Tragedy: Italian Style

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Western Wednesdays)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(Mild Spoilers)

(Review is of the Italian language version)

Keoma (1976) - IMDb

Keoma (1976) ****1/2 R

Franco Nero: Keoma Shannon

William Berger: William Shannon

Woody Strode: George, Keoma’s Ally

Olga Kariatos: Liza Farrow

Orso Maria Guerini: Butch Shannon

Joshua Sinclair: Sam Shannon (as John Loffredo)

Donal O’Brien: Caldwell, Raider Leader (as Donald O’Brien)

Antonio Marsina: Lenny Shannon

Gabriella Giacobbe: The Old Witch

Wolfgango Soldati: Caldwell Raider Member

Written by: George Eastman (as Luigi Montefiore), Mino Roli, Nico Ducci, & Enzo G. Castellari, with dialogue by Joshua Sinclair

Directed by: Enzo G. Castellari

Synopsis: Keoma Shannon, a man with White and Native American blood, returns from the Civil War to find the town he grew up in ravaged by a plague. A Confederate Renegade and his band have taken over the town under the pretense of keeping the epidemic under control, all the while stealing and selling much needed commodities as the sick die. With the help of his father and a faithful retired ranch hand, Keoma decides to help the town that shunned him against both the Renegades, and his evil stepbrothers, who’ve sided with the Renegades.


By 1975, the Italian Western genre was a shell of its former self and was completely overwhelmed with ultra-low budget fares that at times could be entertaining and comedies that were at times an insult to the genre. Genre star Franco Nero and Enzo G. Castellari, one of the key directors of the genre, decided it was time to bring the genre back to its roots with the hopes that it could be revived and kept going. Italian Western supporting player George Eastman at this period was beginning a second career as a screenwriter under his Italian birth name, and he wrote a story centering on a man considered an outcast by his adoptive brothers and the community they live in, and upon returning from an unnamed war, must save the town from his brothers. Castellari was intrigued by Eastman’s initial treatment and bought the rights from Eastman and began the screenplay. What came from Castellari and his co-writers was a story of a half Indian-half Anglo-Saxon man (these types of characters were usually portrayed as half Indian-half Spanish), facing prejudice from all sides, his only allies being his father, a dying pregnant woman, a ranch hand, and a dutiful doctor, and must face down evil one last time.

Keoma (1976) Review |BasementRejects

Castellari, Eastman, and the other screenwriters drew inspiration from playwrights of old like William Shakespeare, Sophocles, Euripides, etc, for the film, Keoma’s relationship with his brothers is very reminiscent of the relationship between Polynices and Eteocles in Oedipus at Colonus, the three daughters in King Lear, and any of the relationships among the gods and mortals in the varied stories in Greek Mythology. Sibling rivalry and racism is the main point of the film as Keoma was the favored son of his father, and the constant enemy of his step brothers as they feel his mother being Native American stains the family name. It’s only when the father confesses that Keoma is in fact blood related to one of the others, and thus keeps them from killing Keoma as that would leave the mystery sibling guilty of legitimate fratricide. Hatred of Native Americans and those of Mixed Ethnic roots were still shunned regularly in the Old West and rarely was anyone willing to speak up for those who were different.

Franco Nero as Keoma in Keoma (1976) | Once Upon a Time in a Western

Franco Nero, in his third to last Western, gives a heartfelt and memorable performance as the title character of Keoma Shannon. Keoma is probably Nero’s most complex role ever, both in genre cinema and art house cinema, a man filled with conflicting emotions and uncertain of where life will lead him. A man born to two different worlds, that of European Caucasians and the Native American tribes, and belonging to neither in that he accepts both the cultures he has roots in, Keoma is given no other choice but to wander the land trying to do what he believes is right and stand up for those who can’t help themselves. Much of his idealism was lost while fighting for the Union during the Civil War, even going so far as to ask his father if certain aspects of the conflict were really worth all the death and chaos. Keoma doesn’t necessarily try to be heroic, as he knows no one will ever give him the credit for helping, but his sense of honor and integrity won’t allow him to stand by while suffering and violence is happening. That he must battle both his racist half brothers who loathe him more than anything, and the Confederate Raiders they’ve sided with because they felt the town never took them seriously. Keoma will soon have to face a journey of both spiritual and emotional proportions if he intends to go on living and learns to live with the imperfections of those around him.

William Berger and Woody Strode make up two of the only people that have accepted Keoma for who he is and love him dearly.

William Berger as William Shannon in Keoma (1976) | Once Upon a Time in a  Western

Berger, an Austrian actor who acted all over the world, plays William Shannon, the father of Keoma and his half brothers Butch, Sam, and Lenny. The senior Shannon is a war hero and successful rancher who faces Shakespearian difficulties when he has an impassioned affair with a Native American woman that leads to the birth of Keoma. His other sons, firmly believing in their Caucasian roots from his first marriage constantly torment Keoma because of his mixed heritage, and the Shannon Patriarch only prevents all out bloodshed when he tells his other sons one them is also the product of his relationship with Keoma’s mother, but his refusal to tell which brother is blood related to Keoma is what in facts stops the more lethal bullying. (This aspect was more prominent in George Eastman’s original treatment, but only hinted at in the final script.) While he loved all his sons, William knew Butch, Sam, and Lenny were far more spoiled and acted out aggressively, leading to their eventual turning as outlaws, and leaves him right in the middle of the feud Keoma has landed himself in with his brothers and the evil Renegade leader destroying the town.

Woody Strode as George in Keoma (1976) | Once Upon a Time in a Western

Woody Strode, the football player turned actor, and the first African American to really feature prominently in the films of the 1960’s thanks in part to his friendship with John Ford, plays George, a former worker on the Shannon ranch turned drunken vagabond. It’s never really made clear if George was a slave that William Shannon later freed and kept him on as a paid employee, or if he was a free black man with whom Shannon hired in regular fashion to work on his ranch, but it is clear he was treated very well by his employer, and acted as Keoma’s tutor and protector, teaching him the art of music, the skill of the bow, and many other necessities of living deep in the country. How and why George became a drunkard is never fully explained, but it’s strongly hinted he suffered quite a bit of bad luck over the years and this led to much misfortune that broke his spirits for a time. When Keoma returns and decides to get rid of the Raiders and his brothers, he also inspires George to clean himself up and help him out, reliving some of his glory days and earning back his self-respect.

Joshua Sinclair as Sam Shannon in Keoma (1976) | Once Upon a Time in a  Western

US expate actor and writer Joshua Sinclair who plays Sam Shannon in the film, and would later rise to fame with his finely detailed biodrama trilogy novels of the story of Shaka Zulu and the Zulu people, did uncredited work on the film’s dialog. Since the film was a mix of traditional genre storytelling, Art-House style imagery and photography, and poetic dialog from writers of ages past, Castellari felt, after sampling some of Sinclair’s writings, would be perfect to hone the casts lines and mannerisms and give it the feel of a Shakesperian or Grecian Tragedy, which both Castellari and star Franco Nero felt was greatly achieved by Sinclair’s help.

Keoma (1976) Review |BasementRejects

Religious Symbolism also plays a huge role in the film. Keoma sometimes comes off as a Christ-like figure in his dignity, honor, and commitment to peace, but his experiences in the Civil War and the various discrimination he suffered throughout the years have him fairly weary of other people, thus giving this reference a bit of complexity. Liza, the sole main female character of the film also has her place in this use of Symbolism. The baby she’s about to give birth to acts as the representation of a new generation of people to come in the wake of the loss of many due to the war and the various sicknesses that came after. The characters of Keoma, his father, his brothers, George, and even the Raiders represent the dying era of racism, bigotry, and old-world values that were slowly becoming irrelevant and out of touch. The child represents a chance to start afresh and learn from the mistakes of the previous generations so such evils may never grow into what they were in the past.

Keoma (Blu-ray) : DVD Talk Review of the Blu-ray

Keoma was seen from the get-go to be a comeback film for the Italian Western genre, to show it could return to the prosperous period it had enjoyed in the 60’s, and was a genre that wouldn’t die out. In spite of a very compelling story, creative cinematography, subtle mixtures of symbolism and relevant materials of the day and so on, the film’s chaotic switching from Art House style to genre style so frequently that both audiences and critics were uncertain of how to classify it.

(I do highly recommend this late era Italian Western as its one of the few outside Sergio Leone’s style of film-making that can pull you in emotionally as well as be entertaining. That you can feel for the characters on so many levels even with the chaotic crisscross of genres and cinematic style is a feat in-of-itself as at times as a viewer its hard to pinpoint how to view the film. The music by the De Angelis brothers, while good on many levels, suffers a little from an unusual style of singing that, while viewed by many of the genre as a weak point of the film, actually helps guide the viewer through the story, acting as an unusual folk ballad. Arrow Video once again outdoes itself with its usual immaculate audio and visual restorations of the film. The film keeps its 70’s vibe will looking very pristine at the same time, an d both the English and Italian audio ring loud and clear. A slew of extras including interviews with Nero, Castellari, George Eastman, and others are a real treat to have and offer really nice insight into the making of a late era classic.)

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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