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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Keoma (Blu-ray)
Keoma (Blu-ray)
Arrow Video // R // April 16, 2019 // Region Free
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 14, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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"Doctor, Caldwell runs this place. You must pay for everything he gives you. Water, wheat...even air. And now even medicine!"
"I'll pay this time."
"And how much will you pay, Keoma?"
"Four cents."
"What do you mean, four cents? That's almost nothing."
"It's the price of four bullets."

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Keoma opens much as Django had a decade earlier: each with a titular gunslinger played by Franco Nero returning from the Civil War...each quickly finding himself embroiled in conflict after rescuing a young woman in dire need...each tasked with the salvation of a small, desolate cadaver of a town. Do not mistake Keoma as a retread, however; it's a eulogy. Released in 1976 as the Spaghetti Western was in its death throes, its central conflict mirrors that of the waning genre. Just as it's acknowledged in the film that the untamed west would soon be supplanted by something new, Keoma recognizes that the cycle of Eurowesterns is ending to make way for other cinematic trends. Though Keoma (Franco Nero) ultimately walks the same path as so many Western anti-heroes before him, he's among the only ones to wonder what the point of it is. What is to be gained by a listless existence, stumbling from one town to another to gun down the unjust? This is a film about death and rebirth – about family and identity – about duty and sacrifice.

As a half-breed, Keoma has always been an outcast. A couple of father figures aside, he wasn't embraced to any great extent in his youth – not even by his "brothers". Though he finds much has changed in a great many other ways upon returning home after the War, he is still perceived as something else. That he rescues a pregnant young woman (Zombie's Olga Karlatos) from being imprisoned in an abandoned mine only further alienates himself from the townsfolk. They fear retribution from Caldwell (Donald O'Brien) and his men – among them Keoma's half-brothers – who prefer to lock away those afflicted by a plague rather than allow anyone to bring in the medicines that may cure them. They control everything that comes in and out of this town. They effectively control life and death itself, and, indeed, only the dead may leave. Inspired by the words of his father (William Berger), Keoma enlists the help of his childhood friend and mentor George (Woody Strode) – a former slave who turned to alcoholism after discovering that "freedom" doesn't amount to much. As quick as so many are to sneer at a black drunk and a half-breed, they prove a force to be reckoned with. Alas, their every victory is countered by something nightmarish, and there soon may be little left to save.

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Many of the beats of its plot, admittedly, are rather routine. Keoma transcends the familiar formulas, however, courtesy of an accomplished cast, director Enzo G. Castellari's dazzling visual eye, and the unmistakable sense that the film has something greater to convey. While countless Eurowesterns could rightly be described as product – shamelessly cashing in on trends and/or mindlessly filling quotas so producers could bring in films from abroad – that cycle had all but ended. Castellari didn't set out to make Keoma because of a producer's mandate; it was a passion project, and that passion is deeply felt in every frame. The film is one bravura sequence after another, such as the "four bullets" scene I couldn't resist to have lead this review. It successfully melds past and present as few films have, with a decidedly adult Keoma among those with an active presence in their memories of days gone by. The compositions and cinematography are nothing short of spectacular:

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Melancholy pervades the film. Its villains are, to a point, celebrated while its heroes are reviled. What's right isn't defined in terms of giving people what they want. Its violence is at times exhilarating and at others hauntingly devastating. Such fantastic elements as the embodiment of death are deftly woven into the film, and it's not always clear what is real and what is imagined. The lines separating the past and present are similarly blurred.

Arguably the only element of Keoma that flounders is its score. Drawing inspiration from Leonard Cohen's Greek chorus score for McCabe and Mrs. Miller as well as the works of Bob Dylan, the music throughout the film is...well, the extras charitably describe it as "divisive". If you're not familiar, give this excerpt a listen yourself:


As intensely as I disliked the score when I was first introduced to Keoma, and as baffling as I find it when revisiting the film now, it's proven to be somewhat of an earworm. I'm writing this review several days after watching Keoma, and the score has been lodged in my head ever since. I've even found myself singing my own nonsensical renditions to no one in particular. I'm not sure if I have a sincerely greater appreciation for the music or if it's simply broken me, but I seem to have come around.

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Keoma is an exceptional Eurowestern – one deserving of far more than its substandard initial release on Blu-ray. Arrow Video has thankfully seen fit to right those wrongs, lavishing the film with an immeasurably superior presentation and nearly five hours of worthy extras. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.


Video
When Keoma first stormed onto Blu-ray as part of a Mill Creek "Spaghetti Western Double Feature" back in 2012, half the genre films out of Italy were being remastered by the same post-production facility, saddling them all with the same frustrating set of quirks. The same as the Blue Underground release of Django as well as countless others before it, any sense of definition and clarity you think you're seeing in Mill Creek's presentation of Keoma is from a sheen of CRT noise floating above the actual image. Everything underneath is soft, smeary, and devoid of any fine detail whatsoever. The flat contrast and inexorably video-like color timing further contribute to that earlier release of Keoma ranking among the absolute worst Blu-ray releases among the literally thousands that have passed through my hands over the years:

Mill Creek (2012)
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And while I could tell you just how astonishing this release from Arrow Video – newly-remastered from the original camera negative – looks by comparison, these screenshots honestly speak for themselves:

Arrow Video (2019)
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Though hazy by design, our first glimpse of Keoma is thin, wispy, and all but monochromatic on the Mill Creek double feature. This new remaster unearths long-hidden colors and immeasurably more detail (though, admittedly, it has its own set of chromatic quirks):

Mill Creek (2012)Arrow Video (2019)
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In this saloon confrontation, the shift in contrast in the Arrow release better reflects Keoma's ominous, foreboding tone:

Mill Creek (2012)Arrow Video (2019)
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Arrow's remaster also exposes more of the image on all four sides of the frame, and without the windowboxing of the earlier Mill Creek double feature. Its presentation is strikingly filmic, courtesy of this new 2K scan and Arrow's accomplished authoring team. Aside from some not-altogether-unexpected wear during the credits, Keoma is immaculate. I don't believe I spotted so much as a stray fleck of dust throughout its 102 minute runtime, and yet the image isn't marred by any excessive noise or scratch removal either. The image is so well-defined and richly detailed that I was barely a minute into the film before reflexively muttering "holy shit!" – just...in awe of the presentation in front of me:

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The end result is every bit as perfect as I could've hoped to see.

Keoma and its extras devour most every available byte on this dual-layer disc. There are distinct Italian and English credits that bookend the film, branching depending on which language is selected. Keoma is, of course, presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. I did notice when snapping screenshots that the image can move around slightly within the letterboxing bars. The rain-drenched scene with a crucified Keoma has letterboxing that's a sliver taller on the top than at the bottom, for instance. It's so extremely subtle – to the tune of 8 or 9 pixels in height – that I never would've noticed in casual viewing, though.


Audio
The audio options on Mill Creek's bargain bin Blu-ray release began and ended with a tinny, gratingly thin English soundtrack. That English dub sounds far more robust on Arrow Video's special edition, which – the same as the accompanying Italian audio – is presented in uncompressed, 24-bit mono:

Mill Creek (English)Arrow (English)Arrow (Italian)

Only having seen Keoma until now in English, it's a thrill to at long last experience it in Italian. As essentially everything you're hearing in this international co-production was looped in post, neither track is any more right than the other, so it all boils down to personal preference. While I typically opt to watch Eurowesterns in Italian, the English audio is especially compelling in the case of Keoma. Franco Nero lends his voice to both soundtracks, and the English performances in general are a cut above what I'm used to hearing. I'm not sure if Woody Strode was present for the English track, but the voice I'm hearing sounds far closer to what I'd expect as opposed to George's less remarkable voice in the Italian dub. The English track sounds more forceful to my ears as well, as I'm sure you've noted in the comparisons above, which are all balanced based on peak volume. Throughout the entirety of the Italian track and the portions of the English dub I sampled, I couldn't spot any flaws of note: no intrusive background noise, no excessive clipping, no dropouts, no pops or clicks. Well-done, just as you'd expect.

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While the Mill Creek release didn't feature any subtitles at all, Arrow Video has provided both an SDH stream based on the English dub as well as a proper translation of the Italian dialogue. For that handful of folks with constant image height projection rigs, it's also very much worth noting that the subtitles don't spill over into the letterboxing.


Extras
  • Audio Commentary: Among the many highlights of C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke's compelling, well-researched commentary are discussions about what makes Castellari such a distinctive director, Woody Strode's unsuccessful attempt at reviving John Ford's career in Europe, the rarity of Native Americans in Eurowesterns, Castellari's disinterest in repeating setups, the many hats worn by Joshua Sinclair both during production and in the dubbing booth, its uncharacteristically lengthy shooting schedule, and the influence its director's background in boxing has on Keoma's well-staged fight sequences. Their encyclopediac familiarity with Eurowesterns helps to place Keoma in a greater context, its similarities to and significant deviations from other notable genre entries, and even the business end of European film production. Highly recommended.

  • The Ballad of Keoma (22 min.; HD): The first of Keoma's many interviews is, of course, with Franco Nero himself. He delves into the film's central metaphors and Shakespearean influence, how wildly different the completed movie is from the lackluster script that was handed in, and having to shoot his subsequent film in a cast after breaking his hand in frustration here (and not even getting his point across to a stubborn horse in the process!). Nero speaks warmly about his co-stars, while also noting that William Holden was offered the role of Keoma's father that would ultimately go to William Berger. He also points out that work is still underway with Castellari on The Fourth Horseman, a Keoma sequel long in the making.

  • Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust (29 min.; HD): Much of this conversation with director Enzo G. Castellari is oriented around the writing of Keoma – being saddled with a screenplay so dreadful that they worked from an earlier treatment instead, writing the film as they shot. Castellari also discusses embracing such decrepit standing sets, the film's unusual approach to flashbacks, and the critical moments when he himself was operating the camera. Along with explaining how his background in architecture and art influence his process as a filmmaker, Castellari touches on hair, costuming, and the score.
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  • Writing Keoma (16 min.; mostly SD): Better known as George Eastman, writer/actor Luigi Montefiori explores the fantasy elements and very different relationship between the Shannon brothers that ultimately didn't make it into Keoma. Montefiori also notes that its working title suggested a Django sequel, the inspiration drawn from a comic based on The Hussar of Death, and that he was originally tapped to play one of Keoma's stepbrothers but was axed for being so much taller than Nero. This looks to be an archival interview; while the excerpts from Keoma are natively HD, the interview itself is clearly from a low-resolution source.

  • Parallel Actions (22 min.; HD): Castellari's longtime editor Gianfranco Amicucci speaks about his preference for briskly paced films, the aching beauty of Keoma, and how the many options offered by such a skilled director proved far easier to piece together than one might expect, even with the unconventional flashbacks, on-the-fly rewrites, and the staggering amount of footage and cuts.

  • The Flying Thug (24 min.; HD): Massimo Vanni explores stuntwork throughout this era of Italian cinema: the DIY approach back in those days before CGI and quick-inflating bags as well as Italy's small, tightknit community of stuntmen. Yes, Vanni marvels at the colossal 45 foot fall near the end of Keoma, and he speaks to the debt he owes to both Castellari and Giuliano Gemma (Day of Anger).
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  • Play as an Actor (30 min.; HD): Wolfango Soldati charts his transition from a photographer in Milan to a camera operator in Rome to...well, winding up on the other side of the camera altogther. After noting that he'd known Castellari since he was a child, Soldati speaks about how his role was expanded throughout the course of production, the fistfight that nearly broke out among stuntmen having a literal chicken/egg debate, Woody Strode's peculiar diet, and the detail and specificity of Castellari's direction. Soldati also touches on his other collaborations with Castellari, the struggles of being typecast, and why he chose to leave acting behind.

  • Keoma and the Twilight of the Spaghetti Western (19 min.; HD): This exceptional video essay by Austin Fisher delves into the blurring of past and present a la I guappi, the parallels between the imminent loss of the Old West with the decline of the Spaghetti Western, Keoma's existential crisis serving as metatextual commentary on the Eurowestern, and elements of the film that recur throughout Castellari's work or pay homage to Sam Peckinpah, among a great many other topics. Perhaps the most essential viewing of an already exceptional special edition.

  • An Introduction to Keoma by Alex Cox (5 min.; SD): This introduction – dating back to 2004 – addresses Keoma's arrival at the end of the Spaghetti Western cycle, how its accomplished cast and masterful direction transcend a relatively routine story, and Castellari and Franco reteaming in 1994 for the first Russian western.
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  • Original Trailers (8 min.; SD): Showcased here are an English-language international trailer as well as an Italian clip. Both are technically presented in 1080p but look to my eyes as if they've been sourced from something lower resolution.

  • Image Galleries (HD): Over 130 images are divided across four galleries: Production Stills, Poster and Press, Lobby Cards, and Home Video and Soundtrack Sleeves. My favorite...? Discovering that the film was once released as Coolman Keoma.

Keoma features terrific new artwork by famed comic artist Sean Phillips, though if that's not to your tastes, the reversible cover showcases vintage poster art on the flipside.

Presumably limited to the first printing is an extensive 36 page booklet, led by "'He Can't Die': Keoma and the Widely Reported Demise of the Spaghetti Western" by Simon Abrams. This essay delves in greater depth into the film's divisive score than any of the on-disc extras, why its title character's relationship with George is so much more compelling than that of Keoma and Liza, and Keoma's struggles with a mythic status that presents him as more legend than man. As Abrams explores Keoma's meta-commentary on the Spaghetti Western, he also addresses the influence drawn from the greatly varied likes of Macbeth, The Seventh Seal, and The Searchers.

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Abrams' essay is a bit at odds with the one that follows – Howard Hughes' "Shooting from the Hip: The Westerns of Franco Nero" – with conflicting reports about which among Django and Keoma was the most successful at the Italian box office. Rather than simply rattle off a laundry list of titles, Hughes converses and analyzes while charting Nero's career as an actor in Westerns – among them Texas, Adios, Man, Pride, and Vengeance, Compañeros, Long Live...Your Death, and Cry, Onion!. Much attention is directed towards Keoma in particular.

Also included are five very brief contemporary reviews, dating back to 1976 and 1977.


The Final Word
Admittedly, with the price that Arrow Video's special edition releases of Keoma and The Grand Duel are currently going for, you could buy Mill Creek's double feature of the two nearly ten times over. But, like the man says, you get what you pay for. Arrow has delivered another in a long line of world-class presentations – one that's so immeasurably superior to the Mill Creek release that a comparison almost seems unfair – along with more than four and a half hours of compelling extras. Keoma has at long last been lavished with a special edition release as exceptional as the film itself, and the result is deserving of this site's highest possible rating. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.
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