Taking a clear-eyed look at Alexander Jodorowsky's trippy 1970 cult hit ''El Topo,'' one of the first ''midnight movies'' -- and maybe the weirdest western ever released

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated May 07, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Everett Collection

”El Topo”: Weirdest western of the ’70s?

Maybe it was all of the drugs. Strike that. It had to be all the drugs. Looking back at some of the seminal and ”deep” countercultural touchstones of the late ’60s and early ’70s, you can’t help thinking, What the hell were they smoking?

Of course, the short answer is lots and lots of weed. But that still doesn’t satisfactorily explain how the Jefferson Airplane, the pseudo-mystical writings of Carlos Castaneda, and the small-screen comedy of the Smothers Brothers were so beloved by the Woodstock generation. Could it really have been that easy to be a pop-culture genius back then?

I don’t mean to harsh the collective mellow of folks who are now in their 60s and pop Lipitor with the same reckless abandon with which they once gobbled magic mushrooms on Yasgur’s Farm. But come on! Have you actually seen an episode of Laugh-In lately? Or listened to a Frank Zappa album? Good God.

Maybe ours is a generation immune to far-out heaviosity, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit skeptical when I sat down recently to rewatch 1970’s El Topo, the centerpiece of the new, long-awaited boxed set The Films of Alexander Jodorowsky. Hailed as the first midnight movie, Jodorowsky’s El Topo is like a spaghetti western crossed with The Passion of the Christ — but not nearly as cool as that probably makes it sound.

When El Topo came out in the States, playing to packed late-night crowds of resin-addled hipsters, venturing downtown to the Elgin Theater to see Jodorowsky’s film was shorthand for being ”with it” in the same way Deep Throat would be two years later. Any squares who didn’t dig its candy-colored brand of psychedelic mysticism and ultraviolence were out of touch. Even critics at uptight publications like The New York Times and Newsweek swooned. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars. And countercultural icons like John Lennon hailed Jodorowsky as a genius and a visionary. This is how a cult movie was born back in the day.

Even without the assistance of your pharmacist though, El Topo is undeniably beautiful to look at even now. You may or may not like it, but you won’t shake it off easily. Some of its scenes will haunt you for days and weeks afterwards. Whether or not the whole thing adds up to anything is another question. To me, it’s like one of those 3 a.m. college bull sessions fueled by bong hits and Budweiser that doesn’t seem quite as deep the next morning.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, I’ll do my best to describe it without giving too much away. The shaggy, bearded Jodorowsky himself stars as the mystical ”El Topo” (Spanish for ”the mole”), a gunfighter in black leather who appears in the middle of the desert on horseback with a naked child riding shotgun. He tells the seven-year-old naked boy that he’s now a man and that he must bury his childhood toys in the sand. The two then wander into a Sergio Leone-looking town and find the aftermath of a massacre. Bullet-riddled bodies line the streets and there’s rivers of congealing blood and skinned animal carcasses — the whole megillah.

Then a band of Mexican outlaws ride up to El Topo and the kid and start harassing them. El Topo blows them away. Then he moves on to find ”The Colonel,” a ridiculous pasty-faced military bigwig whose men are terrorizing Franciscan monks, stripping them naked and riding them like donkeys. El Topo claims to be God to the Colonel and then kills him with extreme biblical prejudice. He leaves the boy with the monks and takes on a beautiful woman as his new visionquest companion. She seduces him, he plays the flute, they fool around in a pond, and then he performs some water-and-wine-style miracles.

Then, out of nowhere, she turns into a harpy and tells him that for her to love him he must kill the four great gunmen of the desert. And the bloody saga kicks in to head-scratching overdrive for the next hour and a half as guns are drawn, the body count escalates, and weirdness (like an underground race of deformed mole people) lies around every corner. The lame and crippled treat El Topo like Jesus Christ, women fight over him, he kills a bunch of bad guys, gets killed himself, is resurrected as an albino, marries a dwarf, and…well, I think I’ll stop there.

Depending on your tolerance for such things, El Topo can be a beautiful movie or a jaw-droppingly pretentious one, wonderfully strange or utterly infuriating. But be prepared to throw logic out the window. It makes Fellini’s Satyricon look like Meet the Parents. But just like those now-dated Jefferson Airplane albums, if you care about pop culture, it’s something that should be experienced. And if you like it, it may even spur you on to Jodorwosky’s more-cryptic follow-up The Holy Mountain (also included in the new boxed set). And if you love that one too, and you’re on a roll, well, maybe you were born in the wrong decade after all. If that’s the case, I’ve got some used Country Joe and the Fish albums you can have for next to nothing.

Any other El Topo fans out there? Post your thoughts about the film, Jodorwosky, and the ’70s midnight movies phenomenon on the message board below.