Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Alejandro Jodorowsky|
|Produced by||Juan López Moctezuma
|Written by||Alejandro Jodorowsky|
|Music by||Alejandro Jodorowsky|
|Editing by||Federico Landeros|
|Distributed by||ABKCO Records|
|Running time||125 minutes|
El Topo (The Mole) is a 1970 American-Mexican western film written and directed by and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky. Characterized by its bizarre characters and occurrences, use of maimed and dwarf performers, and heavy doses of Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy, the film is about the eponymous character – a violent, black-clad gunfighter – and his quest for enlightenment.
The film takes place in two parts. The first half resembles a western; albeit a surreal one. The second is a love story of redemption and rebirth.
The first half opens with El Topo (played by Jodorowsky himself) traveling through a desert on horseback with his naked young son. They come across a town whose inhabitants have been slaughtered, and El Topo hunts down and kills the perpetrators and their leader, a fat balding Colonel. El Topo abandons his son to the monks of the settlement's mission and rides off with a woman whom the Colonel had kept as a slave. El Topo names the woman Mara, and she convinces him to defeat four great gun masters to become the greatest gunman in the land. Each gun master represents a particular religion or philosophy, and El Topo learns from each of them before instigating a duel. El Topo is victorious each time, not through superior skill but through trickery or luck.
After the first duel, a black-clad woman with a male voice finds the couple and guides them to the remaining gun masters. As he kills each master, El Topo has increasing doubts about his mission, but Mara persuades him to continue. Having killed all four, El Topo is ridden with guilt, destroys his own gun and revisits the places where he killed those masters, finding their graves swarming with bees. The unnamed woman confronts El Topo and shoots him multiple times in the manner of stigmata. Mara then betrays him and rides off with the woman, while El Topo collapses and is carried away by a group of dwarves and mutants.
The second half of the film takes place years later. El Topo awakes in a cave, to find that the tribe of deformed outcasts have taken care of him and set him up as a God-like figure, while he has been asleep and meditating on the gun masters' "four lessons". The outcasts dwell in a system of caves which have been blocked in — the only exit is out of their reach due to their deformities. When El Topo awakes, he is "born again" and decides to help the outcasts escape. He is able to reach the exit and, together with a dwarf girl who becomes his lover, performs for the depraved cultists of the neighbouring town to raise money for dynamite.
A young monk arrives in the town to be the new priest, but is disgusted by the perverted form of religion the cultists practice. He also discovers that El Topo is his father, who had abandoned him to the mission. He threatens to kill El Topo, but agrees to wait until he has succeeded in freeing the outcasts.
With the help of his now-pregnant girlfriend and son, El Topo creates a new exit from the cave. The outcasts come streaming out, but as they enter the town they are shot down by the cultists.
El Topo helplessly witnesses his community being slaughtered and is shot himself. Ignoring his own wounds he massacres the cultists, then takes an oil lamp and immolates himself. His girlfriend gives birth at the same time as his death, and she and his son make a grave for his remains. This becomes a beehive like the gun masters' graves.
As the film ends, El Topo's son, girlfriend and baby ride off on horseback, the son now wearing his father's clothes.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky as El Topo
- Brontis Jodorowsky as Son of El Topo, as a boy
- José Legarreta as Dying Man
- Alfonso Arau as Bandit #1
- José Luis Fernández as Bandit #2
- Jacqueline Luis as El Topo's wife
Phil Hardy, in his Encyclopedia of Western Movies (1985), wrote of El Topo: "Rather in the manner of Federico Fellini, whose self-conscious conflation of the roles of charlatan and ringmaster of the unconscious Jodorowsky apes, the film is a breathtaking concoction of often striking, but more often ludicrous, images. The result is a movie that, though it impressed many at the time of its original release, in retrospect is clearly a minor, albeit often very funny work."
Some critics, including Gary Arnold of The Washington Post and Times-Herald, were offended by the film's visuals. Arnold wrote of the film: "There's not enough art to justify the sickening reality of Jodorowsky's artistic method. The meaning of the film is not to be found in the mystical camouflage of the gunfighter-turned-guru-and-martyr (for what, one wonders? Evidently self-agrandizement rather than the well-being of his congregation of the deformed), but in the picturesque horrors and humiliations".
The visuals were the main point of contention amongst El Topo's critics, who debated if the sequences and montage were meaningful or merely exploitative. Concerning the symbolism within the film, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: "They're all there, in a movie that is all guts (quite literally) but that has no body to give the guts particular shape or function". Canby found the film to be a con. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune commented on how the visuals were perceived within the framework of drug culture. Siskel's review states: "Under the influence, El Topo becomes a violent, would-be erotic freakshow, and that, I suppose, can be very heavy. For others, it is enough to make one yawn".
Peter Schjeldahl, writing for the New York Times, described the film as "a very strange masterpiece". His review states: "On first blush it might seem no more than a violent surreal fantasy, a work of fabulous but probably deranged imagination. Surreal and crazy it may be, but it is also (one realizes the second time through) as fully considered and ordered as fine clockwork".
The out-of-print El Topo: A Book of the Film contains a lengthy interview with a director that attempts to explain some of the film's visuals. It also contains the screenplay of the film. Both appear on the Subterranean Cinema blog.
Noteworthy figures said to be fans of the film include directors David Lynch, Russell Roberts and Samuel Fuller; video game writer and director Suda 51; actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper; comedians The Mighty Boosh and Patton Oswalt; and performers Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, Marilyn Manson, Jarvis Cocker, Peter Gabriel, George Harrison and John Lennon. Gabriel has claimed  that this movie was an inspiration for the classic Genesis concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. John Barham re-recorded the score for release on Apple Records at the request of John Lennon. Suda 51 cited El Topo as a key inspiration for his game No More Heroes. Gore Verbinski cited it as an influence on Rango.
There was no original intention to show El Topo in Mexico, where it was filmed and produced. Ben Barenholtz, an owner of a local theater called The Elgin, saw a private screening of El Topo at the Museum of Modern Art. Barenholtz recalled that despite several audience members walking out, he was fascinated by El Topo. On a failing attempt to purchase the American rights to the film, Barenholtz convinced the producer to have the film shown at midnight at The Elgin. Barenholtz chose the late showings of 1am on Friday and at Midnight during the week which would give audiences a sense of "self-discovery". The film premiered on December 17, 1970 and ran continuously seven days a week until the end of June 1971.
The film was distributed across the United States with the assistance of Allen Klein, manager of The Beatles. The film was shown late at night like it was at The Elgin. It has been argued[where?] that without support from people like John Lennon and Allen Klein, the film would not have found a sizeable audience.
Home video releases
For many years the film could only be seen at midnight screenings, in arthouses and via partially censored Japanese laserdiscs and bootlegged videos. Its official DVD release was on May 1, 2007. Its first Blu-ray release was on April 26, 2011.
Since at least the early 1990s, Jodorowsky has been attempting to make a sequel to El Topo. In 1996, a teaser poster was released, but, apparently, no shooting was actually done. The original working-title, The Sons of El Topo (Los hijos del Topo), was changed (sometime between 1996 and 2002) to Abelcaín, due to disputes over ownership with Allen Klein. Additionally, the name of the character El Topo (The Mole) was changed to "El Toro" (The Bull). Jodorowsky said of this: "I am now working on a Franco-Canadian production called Abelcaín, which is a new version of the same project. The character El Topo has become El Toro. A single slash added on letter P changed a subterranean rat into a charging bull. For a true artist, difficulties become opportunities. And clouds become solid present."
A 2002 article in The Guardian stated that Marilyn Manson was attached to star in the film, but that Jodorowsky was having great difficulty raising money for the project. In an interview for The Guardian in November 2009, Jodorowsky stated that his next rumoured project, a "metaphysical western" entitled King Shot, is "not happening" and instead he is to begin work on Son of El Topo, in collaboration with "some Russian producers".
- Midnight movie
- Acid Western
- List of submissions to the 44th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of Mexican submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
- "El Topo". BFI Film & TV Database. London: British Film Institute. Retrieved December 30, 2012.
- Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
- Hardy, Phil. 1985. The Encyclopedia of Western Movies. Octopus Books. Page 336.
- Arnold, Gary (March 10, 1972). "'El Topo': Brutal, Degrading". The Washington Post and Times-Herald.
- Canby, Vincent (May 23, 1971). "Is 'El Topo' a Con?". New York Times.
- Siskel, Gene (January 28, 1972). "'El Topo' Weighs In With Blood and Guts". Chicago Tribune.
- "El Topo (1970)". Chicago Sun-Times.
- Schjedahl, Peter (jun 6, 1971). "Should 'El Topo' Be Elevated To 'El Tops'?". New York Times.
- "PULP - ACRYLIC AFTERNOONS - Jarvis Cocker Interview". Acrylic Afternoons. 1995-09-20. Retrieved 2013-03-30.
- Havis, Allan (2008), Cult Films: Taboo and Transgression, University Press of America, Inc., page 59
- Banks, T.; Collins, P.; Gabriel, P.; Hackett, S.; Rutherford, M. (2007), Genesis: Chapter & Verse, St. Martin's Griffin, page 157
- Wii Interview: Suda 51 - ComputerAndVideoGames.com
- "'Rango' Director Gore Verbinski Reveals The Top Ten Inspirations Of His Oscar-Contending Animated Feature Film | The Playlist". Blogs.indiewire.com. Retrieved 2013-03-30.
- Rosenbaum, 1992. p. 93
- "'El Topo' & 'The Holy Mountain' Blu-rays Announced". High-Def Digest. 2011-02-07. Retrieved 2013-03-30.
- The Sons Of El Topo
- Rose, Steve (November 22, 2002). "I am not normal". The Guardian (London). Retrieved May 1, 2010.
- 'Lennon, Manson and me: the psychedelic cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky' | Interviews | Guardian Film