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It combines the violence and gunplay traditionally associated with the Western with Jodorowsky's obsession with mysticism and The Occult. It's also intended to evoke a similar reaction to a psychedelic experience (Jodorowsky occasionally fed acid to his actors before filming) so that may explain some of the odder elements in the plot.
The movie is divided in three parts. During the first part, a Badass gunslinger known as El Topo (who travels with his naked 7 year old son) murders a group of bandits in revenge for the massacre of an entire village. The bandits are strangely dressed, degenerate and led by a fat, balding Colonel.
In the process, he liberates a woman he calls Mara (who the bandit leader was using as a slave). El Topo falls in love with Mara and rides off with her, abandoning his son at the monastery the bandits had occupied.
In the second part, Mara convinces El Topo that before she can love him he will need to be the best gunfighter in the world. In order to do so, he needs to find and kill four Great Masters who live in the desert. With the aid of a semi-topless woman who speaks with a man's voice (see above re: LSD) El Topo tracks down the four Masters and kills them all by means of tricks. Once he has killed them all, the mysterious woman shoots him, seduces Mara, and leaves him to die.
The third part begins with El Topo awaking in an underground cavern filled with deformed people, who believe he is some kind of god. He discovers they're trapped in the cavern, and their deformities are the result of inbreeding. After sucking on a psychedelic beetle (see above re: the LSD, again) and undergoing a symbolic rebirth (ummm... never mind, you probably get it by now) El Topo volunteers to dig a tunnel out of the mountain and in the process falls in love with a dwarf girl.
The film provides examples of:
- Animal Stereotypes: Too many to count.
- Badass: El Topo during the first half.
- Badass Back
- Badass Preacher
- Bilingual Bonus: Desconocida means "Unknown".
- Corrupt Church
- Crucified Hero Shot
- Disturbed Doves
- Eagle Land: The town ruled by the Corrupt Church
- Enlightenment Superpowers - the Four Master Gunfighters.
- Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: Actually, maybe El Topo is Jesus.
- Or perhaps Siddhartha?
- Gainax Ending
- Groin Attack: when El Topo castrates the Colonel!
- Immune to Bullets: The first great gun master.
- And El Topo by the end, as the bees on his grave would imply.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Have you tried to shoot a crow in the heart?
- Luke, I Am Your Father
- Messianic Archetype: A whole Deconstruction.
- Mind Screw: NOBODY can understand it.
- Mind Screwdriver: ...and then the DVD with the Director's commentary came out.
- Nightmare Fuel
- Platonic Cave: A very literal approach to this trope with the third part of the film.
- Pre-Ass-Kicking One-Liner: Colonel: "Who are you, to judge me?!" El Topo: "I am GOD!" This is followed by the Colonel being castrated by our hero.
- Psycho Lesbian: Desconocida
- Quirky Miniboss Squad: The Four Masters
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog
- The Gunslinger: El Topo and the four great gun masters.
- The Western
- This Is Your Premise on Drugs: Spaghetti Western on acid.
- Can also be considered a Buddhist Western. El Topo's quest to be the best gunslinger has many parallels to the quest for personal enlightenment, and each one of the Masters has a philosophy that, while ultimately getting them killed at El Topo's hands, nevertheless causes him a Heroic BSOD after defeating them. He even kills himself by setting himself on fire while sitting in lotus position, an obvious parallel to Buddhist monks who have done the same.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Numerous times with El Topo. At least once with Jodorowski: The rape scene with Mara was not staged. Despite this, Jodorowski is still hailed by many as a creative genius.
- Yum Yum: A girl offers sex to another girl by licking a fruit.