By the close of the 1960s, the Western had undergone immense transformation. From the days of John Ford’s early films of survivalists on the prairie to the emergence of iconic characters portrayed by John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, the genre was near its apex with Sergio Leone’s breath of fresh air to the form. So popular were Westerns, Leone’s in particular, they were beginning to send ripples through to film makers in the Western film community, as evidenced by the enormous amounts of “spaghetti Westerns” that emerged around the time and in the wake of films such as the Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West.
By 1970 though, the psychedelic and the experimental effects of the 1960s began to emerge in more mainstream areas. Think progressive rock, “new age” religions, drugs, etc. Films began reflecting this as well. The cultural paradigm shift of the late 60s/early 70s had been almost removed from Western films, emerging in more visual and overtly psychedelic forms in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey for instance.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 film El Topo is unique when we’re discussing this time in film. Culminating in post psychedelic paradigm shift in consciousness that received much attention in the late 60s/early 70s plus the aftermath of one of the most pivotal time in Western film history, El Topo is anything but conventional. Drawing heavily on esoteric, occult and “mystical” symbolism, the vagueness and the uninhibited nature of the film can repulse, intrigue, hypnotise, entertain (and perhaps even bore!) viewers. It’s certainly a film that could be described as “weird” and if you’re in a headspace that’s accommodating to that, it might be worth your time.
We see El Topo, the man, undergo a number of transformations in the film. He is the lone wolf badass dressed in black, the teaching father, the vengeful do gooder. He is the eager student on a quest for enlightenment, Zarathustra coming down the mount. He is the clown, the worker and the liberator. But like most characters in Western films, at the end of the day he’s mostly in it for himself.