By Alan L. Chrisman
My hero, John Lennon, said El Topo was the best film he’d seen, so of course, I had to check it out. It contains everything I usually don’t like in films: bloody violence, gratuitous sex, heavy symbolism, etc. The first time I saw it, half the audience walked out; the rest gave it a standing ovation-my kind of movie! By the end of the film, I found myself weeping. I didn’t know just what I had just seen, but I knew it was great.
El Topo is an American-Mexican film written, directed, and acted by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean avant-garde theatre director who studied mime and it was originally released in 1970. It’s hard to describe really-perhaps Fellini meets The Good, Bad, and The Ugly. Some have called it an Eastern-Western. It’s basically the story of a violent, leather-clad gunman who has to meet and defeat several “masters” while on a journey to enlightenment. El Topo is loosely based on a South American allegory: El Topo (The Mole, in Spanish) spends its life underground and when it finally reaches the surface, it is blinded by the sun.
Along the way, Jodorowsky skewers every Western icon and adds in eastern spiritual influences. He juxtaposes the most brutal images of our civilization with, somehow at the same time, the most touching human images (the visuals are stunning), with biting, satirical humor. The first time I saw it I didn’t really understand its many layers, but gradually after more viewings over the years, I began to realize it all did fit together like a clockwork. El Topo became a cult film and instigated the concept of special regular Midnight Screenings in New York and in cities around the world. I first saw it in Montreal and it was shown Saturday mid-nights for several years after.
John and Yoko attended that first New York screening in New York and championed it, arranging for the Beatles’ manager at the time, Allen Klein, to take over its distribution and release its soundtrack (Jodorowsky also wrote the music). An experience, I suppose, is the best way to describe the film. Some, as I say, will like it and others will be revolted. But it was loved by Lennon (an equivalent, perhaps, to his surrealist songs, I am The Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever) and by George Harrison and Bob Dylan, and had an influence on many other artists, musicians, and directors from David Lynch, Dennis Hopper, to Marilyn Manson. Peter Gabriel says it inspired the Genesis album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
Jodorowsky would make a sequel of sorts, The Holy Mountain in 1973 (in which he even includes a character satirizing Allen Klein, his producer) and Klein would later sue Jodorowsky, preventing him from making more films for years. But recently, there was a documentary about a proposed project where Jodorowsky was to make a film of the Frank Herbert classic Sci-Fi. book, Dune, which never got off the ground. El Topo then is a unique cinematic experience; some will love; some will hate, like all great art. But for those without weak stomachs, but yet for those with strong minds, it’s highly recommended, checking out at least. By the end of the film, as happened with me, you might even find yourself crying at humanities’ both ugliness and beauty.
El Topo along with The Holy Mountain and some of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s other work was finally released in 2007 on DVD.
Below Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trailer from the film, " El Topo":
The main character goes through many changes and appearances, all played by Alejandro Wodorowsky: