EL TOPO is the most famous film ever made by the incomparable Alejandro Jodorowsky, an early-seventies counterculture mainstay that retains much of its off-kilter brilliance. Best of all, it’s now readily available on DVD after years of obscurity.
EL TOPO was a 1970 Mexican import shot for a reported $400,000 on sets left over from THE WILD BUNCH and other Hollywood westerns. It kicked off a phenomenon when it premiered via then-unprecedented twelve PM-only showings at NYC’s Elgin Theater, making it the first-ever Midnight Movie. The film quickly became a legend on the counterculture circuit, as did its writer, director, production designer, composer and star Alejandro (then Alexandro) Jodorowsky.
A taboo-breaking genius, the Chilean-born Jodorowsky had already made a previous feature film (1968’s FANDO Y LIS, which famously caused a riot at a Mexican film festival) and a short (1957’s LA CRAVATE), and furthermore headlined the notorious Panic movement together with fellow provocateurs Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor. EL TOPO, with its Spaghetti Western-esque framework, was apparently an attempt at a more audience-friendly brand of art after Jodorowsky’s previous outrages, yet the end result was just as weird as anything he (or anyone else) had ever done.
Unfortunately, despite its initial success EL TOPO would vanish for over two decades. It was forcibly suppressed by the rock n’ roll impresario Allen Klein, who purchased the rights at the request of his client John Lennon; Klein would go on to produce Jodorowsky’s subsequent features THE HOLY MOUNTAIN and TUSK, which were likewise pulled from circulation after Klein and Jodorowsky had a falling-out. Over the next thirty years EL TOPO became a mainstay on the greymarket circuit, with Jodorowsky himself providing master copies for bootleggers to duplicate.
I and countless others had resigned ourselves to the fact that EL TOPO would never receive a legitimate release, at least until mid-2005, when a startling announcement was made: Jodorowsky and Klein had ended their feud and would at last be releasing EL TOPO on DVD. The result was Anchor Bay’s stunning 2007 ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY COLLECTION box set, featuring EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, LA CRAVATE and FANDO Y LIS in stunningly mastered digital transfers. Equally impressive were the new 35mm theatrical prints of EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, which gave the lucky few who caught them an eye and ear-popping primer on how these films should be seen. You’re strongly urged to pick up the DVD set if you haven’t already, but I’d also advise catching EL TOPO on a big screen if at all possible.
El Topo (or The Mole), a black leather-clad Wild West badass, rides through a vast desert together with his young son. Stopping, ET orders the boy to bury his “first toy”, a teddy bear, together with a framed picture of his deceased mother. The kid does so and they ride on.
They enter a deserted town lined with freshly slaughtered corpses and literal rivers of blood. The killings, El Topo learns, were apparently committed by three perverted bandits on the orders of a corrupt general. ET kills the bandits and then goes after the general, castrating him in front of a large crowd. Next ET meets a hot chick, inspiring him to callously leave his son with a band of monks so ET can romp with the babe.
But bagging the woman isn’t easy: Before giving him what he wants she demands that El Topo track down and kill four “masters”, to which he impulsively agrees. But the four masters are all wiser than ET; yes, he manages to kill each of them, but finds himself unfulfilled afterward and desperate for a deeper meaning. His gal pal is unimpressed by ET’s newfound spirituality and gloms onto an alluring lesbian, who shoots ET in his hands, feet and right side (the wounds of Christ) before riding off.
El Topo is dragged off by a band of freaks and cripples who live in a vast cave at the edge of a small town. ET spends a fair amount of time among the freaks, shaving off all his hair and becoming a full-fledged mystic. As such he agrees to help his companions escape the cave by raising money to buy dynamite; to this end he performs pantomimes alongside a dwarf woman for the edification of the neighboring townspeople, who pay them in coins.
What El Topo doesn’t realize is that his disgraced son is now a young man living in the town and wanting revenge for his dad’s abandonment years earlier. The two meet and ET’s son vows to kill his father once the latter’s task is completed. But when the time comes the son can’t go through with the killing—even worse, the freaks are prematurely released from their cave, inspiring the townspeople to take up arms against them. ET in turn embarks on a killing rampage, slaughtering everyone in sight before finally pouring oil on his body and immolating himself in the town square.
In its ceaseless barrage of bizarre and shocking imagery, EL TOPO unveils an unusually fertile imagination, but also an impeccable filmmaking sense. From the eeriness of the opening scenes to the bloody action of the middle section and the unexpected emotionalism of the final act, the film is an assured and exhilarating piece of cinematic insanity worthy of acknowledged masters like Bunuel, Fellini or Sergio Leone (an admitted admirer of EL TOPO). It follows no known structure, being a surreal shoot-‘em-up that gradually assumes a more spiritual, though still violent and surreal, dimension.
Despite its “heavy” subject matter (nearly every religion is explicitly addressed somewhere in the film), EL TOPO has an accessibility and sense of humor that make for an entertaining viewing experience, regardless if one understands it all or not. Of course there are things you’ll need to forgive, most related to the overly sparse budget; luckily the superb photography by Rafael Corkidi (a future movie director) carries viewers through with its gorgeously lensed desert scenery. What ultimately makes EL TOPO what it is, however, is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s passion and audacity, which remain unmatched over 35 years later.
Director: Alejandro (or “Alexandro”) Jodorowsky
Producer: Roberto Viskin
Screenplay: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cinematography: Rafael Corkidi
Editing: Federico Landeros
Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Alfonso Arau, Mara Lorenzo, Paula Romo, David Silva, Hector Martinez, Berta Lomeli, Juan Jose Gurrola, Victor Fosado, Agustin Isunza, Jacqueline Luis, Pablo Marichal, Beatriz Beltran Lobo, Jose Antonio Alcaraz, Patricio Pereda, Robert John