El Topo (1970), Lookback

For Cinqo de Mayo, a lookback at perhaps the most surreal Western ever . . .

El Topo (1970)
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Happy Cinco de Mayo fellow Geeks! We thought about how we should celebrate this festive holiday. We considered finding geeky margarita recipes for you. We also considered exploring Mexican contributions to horror (well, Jim Knipfel actually did that . . . ). But we settled on reviewing El Topo. So grab your margarita, piñata, stereotypically oversized sombrero because we are diving into one of the most surreal Westerns of all time.

El Topo, we should point out, means “the mole” and refers to the main character. Hence the film is filled with imagery of digging in dirt and emerging from darkness. We know there is at least one of you who saw El Topo and thought it meant “the top.” Now that the film makes sense (or MORE sense), feel free to thank us in the comments below.

El Topo is divided into two main sections. The first section could be considered the fighter’s downfall while the second section focuses on his redemption. The film follows a mysterious gun fighter clad all in black. This is notable considering his seven year old son remains naked for a good portion of the first part of the film. Which is a little strangely uncomfortable because there is no explanation given for this. We suppose it is symbolic of his lack of a role in his father’s life. But really, our main question is this: how is this kid not completely sunburned? Wandering in the desert naked seems like a poor idea in general, but we imagine the burns would make it mighty uncomfortable to ride a horse. Nevertheless we meet El Topo and his son as they ride up to the site of a grisly massacre. There is one thing that this film doesn’t shy away from and that is gore. But this gore is of a more realistic nature. Which could be more or less disturbing to people depending on their thoughts on violence. One thing we can say is that this film doesn’t shy away from showing the results of violence.

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El Topo goes to investigate who has committed such a horrific act and he is able to track down the Colonel and his goons. The Colonel is keeping a woman captive as a slave and before he turns her loose to be gang-raped by his henchmen, El Topo steps in and saves her. He then goes on to sexually humiliate the Colonel by castrating him. Sexual violation is a recurring theme in this film. (The priests in the mission were sexually humiliated by the Colonel and his henchmen.) Strangely, he receives assistance from the henchmen who are apparently too foolish to know they will soon be dead.

You may be tempted to think that El Topo is a moral and outstanding man. However, his next major act is to abandon his son to the mission and ride off with his new girlfriend that he names “Mara” after the bitter water she finds. They wander the desert having sex (owwww?!). She talks him into fighting the great gunfighters in the area. The rest of the first part of the film follows El Topo has he battles these men. These battles are full of religious symbolism and surreal imagery. The image of bees is used frequently within this film and seems to take on a great deal of meaning for El Topo. Eventually he is overcome with guilt and grief for killing these great masters. And we can see why. He doesn’t kill them by using his great skills. In almost every case he uses underhanded methods in order to win. He is unworthy of them as fighters and he knows this.

A woman comes and shoots El Topo and Mara leaves with her. He is left to fend for himself.

This is the beginning of the second half of the film that follows his redemption. He is rescued by a group of people with disabilities who are living in a nearby cave. His goal becomes to liberate them from their subterranean existence. He falls in love with one of the women and they travel into the town that has rejected her people. She eventually becomes pregnant. During the second part of the film, his son finds him and confronts El Topo for his abandonment. His son shows him mercy by not murdering him. El Topo’s attempts to liberate his saviors ultimately fails and they are slaughtered. His son, girlfriend,and child survive and leave town. El Topo self immolates.

This surrealistic Mexican Western is considered a cult classic. At the time it was released, it was considered a “midnight movie” and only select audiences saw its initial run. In 2013 this film doesn’t seem that horrific, but its use of actors with disabilities and its raw violence probably upset audiences in the early 1970s. It is considered an “Acid Western” and borrows from the counterculture of that era. This is particularly evident with the heavy use of Eastern, religious imagery. There is also a great deal of sexual imagery including queer imagery, cross-dressing and phallic/vulvic imagery.

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The use of actors with disabilities in El Topo has long been questioned by critics. Is it a form of celebration? It is, after all, normalizing the disabled body in film. Or is it a form of exploitation in which disabled bodies are used to create a “surreal” and “weird” feel to the film? We think both exist within the film. The fact that El Topo falls in love with a very beautiful woman with a disability gives credit to the “normalization” theory. However, there are probably far more instances of the exploitative use of the disabled body in the film than celebration of it.

Overall, it’s an interesting film and unlike any Western we’ve ever seen.

Den of Geek Rating 3.5 Out of 5 Stars


3.5 out of 5