El Topo: Latin America’s Craziest Western

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Synopsis

El Topo (1970) follows the titular character, a gunman who, on his journey in the desert, defeats a group of murderous bandits. Their female slave convinces him to slay the four gun masters. He defeats the first three with trickery and not superiority and is defeated by the last. After that, he is taken on a spiritual journey when he becomes the religious leader of a group of deformed cave people.

The “Acid Western” was a popular experimental genre throughout the 1960s and 70s. The Last Movie by Dennis Hopper or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid by Sam Peckinpahmay stand out as the most popular in the genre and possibly the most influential, but it was legendary film critic Pauline Kael who coined the term while reviewing this surreal epic, El Topo. Born out of counterculture politics, the acid Western turns the plot of the traditional Western on its head. Whereas the traditional Western views the journey west as one of liberation and improvement, the reverse is true for the acid Western. Only death can come from this journey. 

Tony the Greaser

Utilizing absurdist or surrealist tactics, these films challenged the binary storytelling and prejudice of Old Hollywood. For Latin American audiences, no other American genre needed more of a makeover than the Western. The earliest Latino characters in Hollywood appeared in silent Westerns like Tony the Greaser (1911) or The Greaser’s Revenge (1914). “Greaser” was a term that described Mexican bandits and other lazy, untrustworthy Mexican characters. The complaints against this representation got so bad that a boycott of Hollywood films by the Mexican government in the early 1920s led film producers to make these bandits broadly Latino rather than Mexican. Still, into the 1940s and 50s, Latino characters were relegated to the role of shifty bandit or submissive cantina girl.

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky was born to challenge the Western and turn the popular political. Born in Chile to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Jodorowsky often felt like an outsider in his own land. Locals made him feel unwelcome and the presence of American mining industrialists who overworked and exploited the country made him a fervent anti-imperialist. As a young man, he moved to Paris and became a founding member of the Panic Movement. Inspired by and named after the god Pan and influenced by the Theater of Cruelty, the group sought to make chaotic, surrealist art. Their pieces were designed to be shocking and set off a kind of primal release of destructive energies.

El Topo

The villains of El Topo serve this purpose well. When we are first introduced to the bandits, Jodorowsky shows a montage of them making a picture of a naked woman with baked beans and proceeding to make love to it as well as rounding up monks, dancing with them, kissing them, and riding them like horses. Jodorowsky exaggerates the servile henchman role by having them literally paw and lap at their leader, the Colonel, as he offers them his leftovers, ie his female slave. They set the stage for a protagonist who challenges the well-established cowboy figure of American cinema. Though El Topo starts as a typical American lone gunman, he becomes something much different. To defeat these oddly perverted criminals, he doesn’t take the honorable route. In his duel with the colonel, he disrespectfully turns his back and shoots his Napoleon-like hat off. In a gesture of humiliation, he strips him of the rest of his clothes and finally castrates him. The colonel’s flock surrounds him and he declares he is God.

El Topo’s is a spiritual journey that is anything but linear. As Jodorowsky announces at the beginning of the film, the mole or “el topo” spends its entire life digging to find the sun only to be blinded by the light when it reaches the surface. In this way, his story resembles that of the Tower of Babel which sought to build a path to paradise leading to a warning from God against seeking him in the external world. The confusion of languages serves as a reminder that God must be found internally since there is no way to communicate outwardly. The more El Topo tries to reach enlightenment, the further away he gets from it. When he is convinced to fight the four masters, he wins the first three by the skin of his teeth and his confidence diminishes. The situation reaches its boiling point when the fourth master beats him by killing himself. It was a deceptive path. It may have ended with him having stigmata shot into his hands and feet, but that is not enough to transport his soul to heaven. Like a mole blinded by the sun, he is taken to a cave community and descends into a coma.

El Topo

His path to true enlightenment comes in an unexpected way. He decides to free the cave community who now worship him and to do so, he travels to the nearby town and degrades himself by performing on the street. Through this, he earns enough money to blow up the cave and free the deformed and incestuous inhabitants, but it’s useless. They are immediately gunned down and in a final act of defiance, the wounded Topo kills most of the townspeople before dousing himself in oil and lighting himself on fire. It’s hard to ignore the parallels between his death and that of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who also immolated himself in protest of the Vietnam War. Jodorowsky creates an anti-American Western that also recognizes the idealist delusions of the counterculture movement with this death. Still, in the place of his dead body, bees appear just as they had for the four masters. 

In a mirror image to the first, his son rides off with his father’s lover and their child and seems set to repeat the same journey, for better or worse. Unlike the mythical figure of the American cowboy, El Topo’s enlightenment comes in ambivalent darkness. Apart from deconstructing the cowboy’s journey, Jodorowsky critiques Mexican society. The contrast he offers between the cave community who live peacefully and separately from society and the nearby, debaucherous town creates a pointed critique at Mexico’s so-called modern and advanced society. The cave people, most of them indigenous, may have strange beliefs but they are kind overall while the townspeople kill indigenous people for sport, are over-sexed, and have slaves. They are the underdeveloped ones. 

Drawing a clear historical parallel, the mass assassination of the cave dwellers is extremely reminiscent of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in which​​ the Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas who were protesting the upcoming 1968 Summer Olympics, killing 400. This town of oppressors is also under the spell of a cult-like religion that displays posters across the town of the Eye of Providence and has its believers engage in a game of Russian Roulette to prove God will protect them, until, that is, a child dies. This stronghold is akin to Mexico’s PRI, the party that ruled over the country for 70 years. Jodorowsky’s absurdist exaggeration draws very real concerns. This film would be an incredibly revolutionary reconstruction of the Western genre and take down of Mexican society if it were not for one major aspect of the film. When El Topo rescues the female slave from the colonel he proceeds to rape her. It’s an aspect that exaggerates the sexism of the traditional Western but doesn’t comment on or critique it. 

El Topo

Adding to that Jodorowsky vulgarly recounted that “When I wanted to do the rape scene, I explained to [Mara Lorenzio] that I was going to hit her and rape her. There was no emotional relationship between us because I had put a clause in all the women’s contracts stating that they would not make love with the director. We had never talked to each other. I knew nothing about her. We went to the desert with two other people: the photographer and a technician. No one else. I said, ‘I’m not going to rehearse. There will be only one take because it will be impossible to repeat. Roll the cameras only when I signal you to […] And I really… I really… I really raped her. And she screamed…Then she told me that she had been raped before. You see, for me, the character is frigid until El Topo rapes her. And she has an orgasm.” Even though Jodorowsky later apologized for the remarks, claiming they were bad jokes, it leaves a giant stain on a work that was close to dismantling a genre.

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