A bloody spaghetti western, heavily infused with Eastern spiritualism, it centres on a hero (played by Jodorowsky himself), who is the western genre’s archetypal ‘man in black’. Known only as ‘El Topo’ (‘the mole’), he is an enigmatic, leather-clad gunslinger who travels the plains with his naked seven-year-old-son (Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis). In the opening section, father and son encounter a grisly massacre. They track down the evil ‘Colonel’ behind it and castrate him, rescuing Mara, a beautiful young woman (Mara Lorenzio) who is being threatened by the Colonel’s henchmen. ‘El Topo’ then abruptly abandons his son to fulfill a mission set by Mara. He defeats a series of ‘gun masters’, only to be shot, seemingly dead, by another incredibly beautiful woman. The film’s second half sees him wake up, pale with a ginger shock-haired wig, looking rather like a Fraggle in a nappy. He is in a cave inhabited by a community of disabled people, who venerate him as a saviour before he sets himself alight and undergoes transmogrification by bees.
Creating a whole new sub-genre, the so-called ‘acid western’, El Topo is a heady, arguably at times unwatchable, brew of Chinese philosophy, Zen Buddhism, astrology, Sufism, European surrealism, the Kabbalah and, above all, the tarot, a life-long passion for Jodorowsky, who has written many a treatise on the subject and created his own deck. In this overwhelming mélange of baffling allegory, it’s fair to say that story or plot is not a priority, and, as with the intuitive meanings of tarot, you have to tune in or drop out.
That it became a cult hit in 1971 New York was a question of right time, right place. It’s not hard to see its appeal to Lennon and other leading lights of the contemporary counter-culture, who were looking to the East for new mind-expanding philosophies. Though even the most esoteric head freaks at the time struggled to keep pace with Jodorowsky, who concluded one hilarious 1971 interview by insisting that “a piece of cheese can be Christ” to a bewildered ‘uh huh’ by the journalist.