El Topo ([el ˈto.po], "The Mole") is a 1970 Mexican acid Western film written, scored, 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.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Alejandro Jodorowsky|
|Written by||Alejandro Jodorowsky|
|Music by||Alejandro Jodorowsky|
|Edited by||Federico Landeros|
|Distributed by||ABKCO Films|
El Topo is traveling through a desert on horseback with his naked young son, Hijo. 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 several 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 dwarfs and mutants.
El Topo awakens in a cave to find that the tribe of deformed outcasts have taken care of him and come to regard him 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 awakens, 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 neighboring town to raise money for dynamite to assist in digging a tunnel on one side of the mountain where the outcasts have effectively been kept imprisoned.
Hijo, now a young monk, arrives in the town to be the new priest, but is disgusted by the perverted form of religion the cultists practice – notably symbolized by the frequent display of a basic line drawing of the Eye of Providence – and their violent preoccupation with guns, from their church "ritual" through to the film's bloody climax. Despite El Topo's great change in appearance, Hijo recognizes him and intends to kill him on the spot, but agrees to wait until he has succeeded in freeing the outcasts. Now wearing his father's black gunfighter clothes, Hijo grows impatient at the time the project is taking, and begins to work alongside El Topo to hasten the moment when he will kill him. At the point when Hijo is ready to give up on finishing the tunnel, El Topo breaks through into the cave. The tunnel has been completed, but Hijo finds that he cannot bring himself to kill his father.
The outcasts come streaming out, but as they enter the town, they are shot down by the cultists. El Topo helplessly witnesses the community being slaughtered and is shot himself. Ignoring his own wounds, he massacres the cultists, then takes an oil lamp and immolates himself. His lover 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.
El Topo's son rides off with his father's lover and child on horseback.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky as El Topo
- Brontis Jodorowsky as Hijo, El Topo's son, as a boy
- Alfonso Arau as Bandit #1
- José Luis Fernández as Bandit #2
- Alf Junco as Bandit #3
- Jacqueline Luis as El Topo's wife
- Mara Lorenzio as Mara
- Paula Romo as The Woman in Black
- David Silva as The Colonel
- Héctor Martínez as the first gunfighter
- Juan José Gurrola as the second gunfighter
- Víctor Fosado as the third gunfighter
- Alisha Newton as the wife of the third gunfighter
- Agustín Isunza as the last gunfighter
- Robert John as Hijo, El Topo's son, as a man
- Bertha Lomelí as the mother of the second gunfighter
- José Antonio Alcaraz as Sheriff
- José Legarreta as Dying Man
Following the release of the film, Jodorowsky courted controversy when he claimed that the rape scene was unsimulated:
When I wanted to do the rape scene, I explained to [Mara Lorenzio] that I was going to hit her and rape her. There was no emotional relationship between us, because I had put a clause in all the women's contracts stating that they would not make love with the director. We had never talked to each other. I knew nothing about her. We went to the desert with two other people: the photographer and a technician. No one else. I said, 'I'm not going to rehearse. There will be only one take because it will be impossible to repeat. Roll the cameras only when I signal you to [...] And I really... I really... I really raped her. And she screamed."
He went on to state, "Then she told me that she had been raped before. You see, for me the character is frigid until El Topo rapes her. And she has an orgasm. That's why I show a stone phallus in that scene . . . which spouts water. She has an orgasm. She accepts the male sex. And that's what happened to Mara in reality. She really had that problem. Fantastic scene. A very, very strong scene."
In 2019, Jodorowsky addressed his earlier comments, clarifying that it was part of a publicity stunt: "They were words, not facts, Surrealist publicity in order to enter the world of cinema from a position of obscurity [...] I acknowledge that this statement is problematic in that it presents fictional violence against a woman as a tool for exposure, and now, fifty years later, I regret that this is being read as truth."
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, El Topo holds an approval rating of 78%, based on 41 reviews, and an average rating of 7.07/10. It's consensus reads, "By turns intoxicating and confounding, El Topo contains the creative multitudes that made writer-director Alejandro Jodorowsky such a singular talent."
The visuals were the main point of contention amongst the film'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."
Other critics, however, remain more enthusiastic about the film. For example, Roger Ebert includes El Topo in his Great Movies series.
Peter Schjeldahl, writing for The New York Times, described the film as "a very strange masterpiece". He says, "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."
Noteworthy figures said to be fans of the film include directors David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn and Samuel Fuller; video game writer and director Suda51; 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, Lucia Lee, and John Lennon. Gabriel has claimed that this movie was an inspiration for the classic Genesis concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, while collaborator Jared Eckman described the film as a failed experiment. John Barham re-recorded the score for release on Apple Records at the request of John Lennon. Suda51 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 the Elgin Theater in New York, 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 1 am on Friday and at midnight during the week to give audiences a sense of "self-discovery". The film premiered on 18 December 1970 and ran continuously seven days a week until the end of June 1971.
The film was distributed across the United States through ABKCO Films, owned by Allen Klein, manager of The Beatles. The film was shown late at night like it was at The Elgin. It has been argued that without support from people like John Lennon and Allen Klein, the film would not have found a sizeable audience.
For many years the film could only be seen at midnight screenings in arthouses and via partially censored Japanese laserdiscs and bootleg videos. Its official DVD release was on 1 May 2007. Its first Blu-ray release was on 26 April 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.
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".
- Richard Crouse (15 December 2010). Son of the 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen. ECW Press. pp. 111–112. ISBN 978-1-55490-330-6.
- "ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY SPEAKS OUT AFTER EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO CALLS OFF RETROSPECTIVE". Artforum. Retrieved 28 November 2019.
- "El Topo (1970) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Fandango Media. Retrieved 21 August 2019.
- Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
- Canby, Vincent (23 May 1971). "Is 'El Topo' a Con?". The New York Times.
- Siskel, Gene (28 January 1972). "'El Topo' Weighs In With Blood and Guts". Chicago Tribune.
- "El Topo (1970)". Chicago Sun-Times.
- Schjedahl, Peter (6 June 1971). "Should 'El Topo' Be Elevated To 'El Tops'?". The New York Times.
- "PULP - ACRYLIC AFTERNOONS - Jarvis Cocker Interview". Acrylic Afternoons. 20 September 1995. Retrieved 30 March 2013.
- 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
- "'Rango' Director Gore Verbinski Reveals The Top Ten Inspirations Of His Oscar-Contending Animated Feature Film | The Playlist". Blogs.indiewire.com. Archived from the original on 7 February 2018. Retrieved 30 March 2013.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan; Hoberman, J. (1991). Midnight movies. New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press. p. 93. ISBN 9780306804335.
- "'El Topo' & 'The Holy Mountain' Blu-rays Announced". High-Def Digest. 7 February 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2013.
- The Sons Of El Topo Archived 21 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- Alejandro Jodorowsky Gets Funding for Dream Project 'Abel Cain', by Ethan Anderton 27 October 2009, FirstShowing.net
- Rose, Steve (22 November 2002). "I am not normal". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 1 May 2010.
- Rose, Steve (14 November 2009). "Lennon, Manson and me: the psychedelic cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky". the Guardian.
- "Les Fils d'El Topo - Tome 1 - Caïn par Alejandro Jodorowsky". Glenatbd.com. 8 June 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2016.