In order to properly talk about the plot of the film, I need to first establish the way in which the film's events occur. Everything in the film is circumstantial. El Topo is quick to jump from theme or tone to the next. The way the picture begins is nothing like how the picture ends. Many people feel that the film's biggest change of tone comes at the halfway mark, but in my opinion it happens constantly from beginning to end. The story begins with a rite of passage sequence in which the unnamed and heavily bearded title character (played by Jodorowsky himself, lets just call him El Topo) who is dressed in black allows his son (played by Brontis Jodorowsky, Alejandro's own son) to proceed upon his path of manhood and bury his possessions, which include a little stuffed animal and a picture of his mother. From then on, El Topo and son proceed along the path, arriving to the aftermath of a massacre and encountering some murderous thieves. El Topo is a courageous and skilled gunman, however, and it becomes clear that his son is a kind of apprentice to him as he trains him in the art of gun slinging. This goes on for a while before they eventually encounter a woman. El Topo ditches his son, who you know is going to have a grudge later on in life, and finds, to truly win her heart, he must defeat four highly skilled gunmen who all are gifted in the arts of spirituality, loyalty, agility, and strength. To say anymore would be to spoil the wondrous images that this film has in store for the viewer, but I can promise that it has a novel worth of plot and that nothing is ever as it seems in the world of El Topo.
El Topo is a film that I had previously always wanted to see ever since I got into surrealist cinema. I had seen Santa Sangre on VHS and I fell in love with it. I tracked down an old, shitty copy of Fando Y Lis and it pissed me off in a way that no other film has. I read all the reviews for El Topo, I watched all the documentaries that discussed El Topo, and was waiting patiently for the film to finally be released on some kind of viewable format. I knew that it was John Lennon's favorite film, I knew that it was a midnight movie sensation, and I knew that it was notorious for it's religious subtext, it's gory violence, and it's hypnotic and ridiculous camp value that many people had seen in it. I didn't care about any of that stuff, however, I just wanted to see it. This was when I was about thirteen. Eventually I went into high school and I had all but lost hope of ever seeing El Topo, until Anchor Bay released it on DVD as well as in a box set which came with Fando Y Lis, The Holy Mountain, La Cravate, and two soundtracks. I almost bought El Topo on it's own because that was really what I was waiting for, but curiosity got the better of me and I just said fuck it and bought the box set. As soon as I got home with it I watched El Topo. Then, after I watched the rest of the films in the box set, I watched El Topo again. I ended up watching El Topo about four times before the week ended. It became an instant favorite of mine.
This film had a bigger effect on me than I realized it would. I was sixteen years old when I first watched El Topo, at that age I was very vulnerable and confused about my own mortality. I had already lost my faith by that time, but I wasn't sure how I felt about spirituality in and of itself. To be honest, I still don't really know. There are times in which I think people who have faith and are devout are smart to feel the way they do about life. Then there are other times in which I begin to think that religion is the worst thing that ever happened to the human race. One thing I can certainly say is that faith and religion has had a profound effect on my life, and this film did more than just remind me of what that truthfully means to me. Because a lot of the more unusual imagery comes from a more personal place for Jodorowsky, I feel that the film feels more or less like a celebration of mass differences of human thought and opinion. Since much of the religious imagery is borrowed and inspired by several sources, it feels more logical to view the film as less a passion piece and more an exploration of the soul. Not only is Jodorowsky pouring his heart out on screen for us to see the inside of his mind, but the film is also spiritually cleansing for the viewer as well in that it is alternately a celebration, an attack, a dramatization, an exploration, and a satire of religion and religious worship.
As a western, this film is as good as you get. For a low budget picture, it is chock full of mesmerizing set pieces, wild gun fights, incredible suspense, and plot twists that may be predictable but are still remain arresting to see play out. The film also rivals Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch in it's barrage of onscreen bloodshed. Also like The Wild Bunch, El Topo is one of the most violent films I have ever watched, but unlike The Wild Bunch, El Topo has a more stylish artistic approach to it's blood and gore similar to Akira Kurosawa's 1985 picture Ran. This approach actually works very well. The film feels like some kind of weird fantasy picture, and so the violence feels more hard hitting and grueling, yet still very spellbinding. The blood looks extremely saturated and nobody gets killed cleanly. Jodorowsky's approach obviously was intended to evoke a sense of survival of the fittest. The violence is all very animalistic and outlandish, and often it's done with some degree of purpose. None of the violence is excessive or gratuitous, all of it is part of the story. This film isn't like Robocop or Pulp Fiction, where the characters live in a world where violence is an important part of the culture in which these characters live. This film is about violent people who meet other violent people. The characters all have motivations and the set pieces completely set the scene for all of the mayhem and mass murder. Much of it is shocking and intense, but none of it feels thrown in for no reason. The only thing that is excessive about it is the amount of blood spray, but Jodorowsky obviously did this as a stylistic choice. He didn't want any of the deaths to mean more or less than any of the other death scenes. Violence, in this film, is violent, and in Jodorowsky's eyes, violence and death is all non-discriminate. In this world, even if someone gets slapped, there is blood.
Similar to films like Come and See, Irreversible, A Serbian Film, Cannibal Holocaust, and Salo, the violent, graphic atrocities in El Topo often get hyped up so much that the more quiet, tender, sweet natured moments get overlooked and forgotten about. Such is especially true in this film's case. There are scenes of incredible romance in this film, the kind that you rarely see in films today. The romantic scenes in this film strike a kinder, more pure stance in that they are passionate without being erotic, natural without coming across as revolutionary, and indiscriminate without seeming awkward or mismatched. The scenes I am thinking of mainly occur in the second half of the film. The first half mostly has to do with the relationship between a father and his son. In this film, the son is left abandoned and at the mercy of a cruel and unforgiving world, and then returns to seek revenge. Early in the film, the child, except for a hat is bare. Later on in the film, he becomes a dark figure similar to his father. However, unlike his father, he is less a symbol of death and violence and more a symbol of what a savage world can create in a human being who was once small and slim. There is a kind of poetic beauty, but there is also a kind of unspoken sadness that makes a lot of these scenes ring a lot more truthful and personal. It is of my understanding that Alejandro Jodorowsky had a rough childhood. He was born from his father raping his mother. As a result, neither his mother nor his father ever showed him any type of affection or love. This leads me to believe that Jodorowsky made this picture as a means of understanding himself and expressing his feelings toward his father, and this is why the scenes with his son feel so personal and poetic to me. In the midst of all this, the film also has a lot of humorous slapstick that somehow don't feel out of place in this already strange story.
The film is a joy to watch, but this does not take away from the fact that the story it tells is extremely tragic and will probably be very infuriating for most people to watch. I was very moved by the ending of this picture, but this does not mean that I had an easy time witnessing the ending sequences. The film ends with a character recreating the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức, which was captured in the infamous photograph known to some as "The Burning Monk" photograph. This ending somehow evokes an almost similar feeling of despair in the viewer, and we don't know whether we should view the act as pathetic or brave. The reasons for this particular character doing it have more to do with a reaction to the aftermath of an event rather than the fury of the events taking place, but that doesn't make it any more disheartening. The actions of this character, however, don't come as a surprise to the audience. The character goes through many different arcs, but only one of them completely changes who he is in a emotional sense. We see a character do what they're good at, but when he changes who he is he doesn't ever forget what he used to know. This is why this ending still manages to be believable. I bring this up because it has come to my attention that some people I know see the ending as trite and contrived. To me, it was anything but. I think, if the viewer is paying attention to the events of the film (and believe me when I say that you don't have to pay particular close attention) it makes perfect sense why the climax of the film. I honestly found it to be quite original, even if the image is not.
Putting aside everything I've said, however, El Topo is just entertaining as hell. It has everything you could ever want in a motion picture. Not to sound like the trailer or anything, but El Topo is creative, it's dazzling, and it has imaginative visuals and sequences. El Topo will make you think, it'll make you laugh, it'll make you gasp, and it'll make you cry. El Topo is bizarre, stupid, mind numbing, terrible, horrific, creepy, and disturbing. El Topo is funny, furious, violent, suspenseful, beautiful, sexual, and exciting. All of the actors command the screen in a masterful way, the landscapes will be imprinted in your mind, everyone gets naked, the violence is a spectacle to behold, and even though all of the voices are dubbed they all sound right for the style of the film. I can definitely see why this film was such a smash on the midnight movie circuit because it is the best kind of film to show a wide audience. If you want to see a film with a large group of people, you simply cannot get better than this. Everyone will react differently to it and nobody will agree on anything. This is what art is, and the fact that it is a low budget picture only makes it even more of a joy in my mind to know that so much blood, sweat, and tears went into this think. People will complain about the violence toward animals, but I think that if you are involved enough in the film you will not be all that bothered. I think El Topo is everything film should be. Alejandro Jodorowsky said, "If you are great El Topo is a great picture. If you are limited than El Topo is limited." It's such a ridiculous statement, and only a film like this could really match such a ridiculous statement.