To my knowledge, there’s never been an acknowledged link between Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower septology (the first story of which was published in 1978), and Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 film El Topo. The latter, about a wandering black-clad gunman with an innocent boy tagging along on a harrowing desert odyssey colored by weird strains of apocalyptic mysticism, seems as if it shares at least some of the same motivations and imagery.
Fifty whole years after its debut, the violent, gory, acid-trip of a Western is a kind of indictment of the macho Bible-and-a-gun ideal of the Western, and a surreal twist on the Spaghetti Western in particular. It’s one of the few other Western genre entrants I’ve seen in any medium that veers so explicitly into mystical weirdness that would seem right at home in a Shaw Brothers kung fu movie. It’s baddies are straight up videogame bosses. It recklessly endangers its cast and crew on several occasions, leers at male and female bodies alike, spills galloons of fake orange-red “blood,” is almost never fully coherent, and at times must be seen to be believed.
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. — The Gunslinger by Stephen King
A man in black heads across the desert with his naked son in tow. The boy is seven—old enough, his father explains, that he must become a man—and the first thing his father orders him to do is to bury his first toy and a picture of his mother in the sand. We’re never sure where or exactly when El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) and his nameless son are wandering—if it’s Mexico or some strange fantasy world. If it seems like the man is trying to harden his son, it’s immediately revealed to us that he may be justified in doing so: They soon encounter the gory aftermath of a group of bandits slaughtering an entire town, chattel included. Jodorowsky’s real-life son Brontis played the young man, the first of many times he’d be put to work realizing his father’s mad visions.
El Topo’s judgment is as harsh as his gun is quick, but after he makes short and bloody work of the bandits and mutilates their leader, he leaves his son in the care of monks, barking a line about how it’ll make the boy stronger even as he runs off with a woman and dedicates himself to pleasing her by facing off with four master gunfighters. The quartet of warrior-mystics, to a man, thoroughly outclass El Topo, who is only capable of beating them through treachery. A pit trap for the blind man who’s Zen-like stoicism allows his body to simply let bullets pass through him painlessly, and who comes into battle naked save for his guns and painted representations of his chakras is just one such gambit. Each of the masters represents a different kind of philosophy, complete with bizarre semi-mystical fixation: The blacksmith with the tarot card-reading mother and the violinist who keeps rabbits and insists on firing only one shot both bring El Topo to the brink of defeat but are undone by a few shards of carefully placed glass and an ingeniously concealed little copper plate, respectively.
The last of these duels finally breaks El Topo. Faced with an old man who long ago gave up his revolver but whose supernatural reflexes make him impossible to tag with fist or bullet, El Topo insists that his opponent still has a life to lose. Wrong, his enemy smiles, and kills himself, robbing El Topo of victory. Not long after, the strange gunslinger woman who has been tagging along with him and tempting his own lover convinces her to turn on him. They shoot him up with stigmata wounds and leave him for dead. When he awakens, he’s in the care of a society of mutants trapped in an underground cave, and returns to the surface humbled by his fall from power and determined to free them. In the attempt, he must face the gravest sin of his past life.
“El Topo” means “the mole” in Spanish, a connection the movie’s brief and only bit of narration clarifies at the beginning by saying that a mole tends to seek the sun, only to be blinded when he finds it. It’s unclear exactly what El Topo is searching for as he plods through the desert beseeching God for aid and doling out violent retribution to criminals. Love, justice, supremacy, enlightenment, some holistic unification of all them—his actions belie one or more of these things depending on the scene. When his tunnel finally does reach the sun, however, what he finds breaks him.
El Topo is one of the standout entries in the extremely slim and weird “Acid Western” genre, a subgenre that popped up around the same time as the Spaghetti Western was making its way to America and that similarly played with the conventions of the most self-aggrandizing and patriarchal of storytelling modes just as its most rigid traditionalism was starting to fade. There was controversy around the movie for the usual reasons—that it was gory and had a lot of naked people and rape in it—but it’s remained controversial for at least one reason: Jodorowsky openly bragged about raping a female co-star, claiming it was the only way to get a realistic take. In 2019 he walked it back, saying it was bluster at the time, though the actress hasn’t spoken publicly.
Other scenes, with extras that look as if they’ve been out filming in the Mexican sun naked for a good long while, or where an actual lion is stalking about free and unchained in the background, make you wonder if you’re complicit in something by watching.
There’s a scene, late in the film, that reads so bleakly on point 50 years later that even though it fits perfectly into late ’60s counterculture, it still feels as if Jodorowsky is addressing it directly to the America of 2020.
In the town where El Topo is trying to tunnel through to his trapped people, a young monk whose identity we have already guessed witnesses a perverse sort of worship ritual at the local church. As the people chant about how the Lord protects them, the preacher pulls out a gun, loads a single bullet, and invites the congregants to play Russian roulette—each empty chamber is met with cries of milagro! “Don’t worry,” the preacher whispers to the reticent monk as he hands him the revolver, “it’s a fake bullet.”
The monk silently ditches the spent bullet, loads a real one from one of the gunbelts of the banditos in attendance, and the gun clicks empty on him, and the next man … but not a toddler. The movie smash cuts to the dejected charlatan preacher, lamenting that nobody is likely to come back now, before packing his things up and presumably moving on to the next town.
El Topo traffics often in that sort of shocking violence and black comedy, but as mysterious and uncertain as its main character’s motivation might be until the very end, the folly of violence and the fallibility of a man armed with a gun and the absolute certainty he’s holy are never unclear.
Kenneth Lowe is an animal that digs tunnels under the earth searching for the sun. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.