One of the results of John Lennon’s interest in El Topo was the teaming of Alejandro Jodorowsky with Beatles manager Allen Klein. While this would ultimately be a mixed blessing that ended badly, it afforded Jodorowsky a $1.5 million budget (rumored to have come from John and Yoko) to bring The Holy Mountain (1973) to the screen. And what exactly was it that made it to the screen? As with El Topo, that’s not such an easy answer—at least on the surface. The film appears to be—and in many ways is—another riot of weird imagery and sex and symbolism run rampant. In fact, it appears to be even less comprehensible than its predecessor. But appearances can be deceiving, and that’s the case here.
Not only is The Holy Mountain less unpleasant and more playful than El Topo, it is also more accessible once you strip it of its embellishments. The story is quite straightforward in its way. A Christ figure called the Thief (Horacio Salinas) climbs into a smokestack and finds the Alchemist (Jodorowsky), who shows him a series of symbolic characters who represent the various planets (Mercury is conspicuously absent) and who relate the stories of the various works they perform. Following this, the Alchemist convinces the symbolic characters to destroy their worldly goods and follow him to the mythical Holy Mountain where they will learn the secret of immortality. What happens then? Well, that’s the point of the film.
In retrospect, what’s most interesting about the film is how very much it’s really part of its time. Despite all its fanciful Buñuelesque surrealism and echoes of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), it’s not that far removed from the pop-culture movies that surround it. With its Alchemist character ordering events from his tower, it feels not that unlike a trippier version of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967) TV film, which was already pretty trippy and unstructured. The overall premise that the film is leading to is not but a few inches removed from Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969), a film just as deliberately messy and scattershot in its satirical targets as The Holy Mountain. The whole question of the Alchemist’s powers and wisdom could be—it certainly feels like—an expression of the way John Lennon felt about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And its actual ending treads ground already traversed by the much maligned Michael Sarne in his 1968 film Joanna (a case could be made that Jerry Lewis got there even earlier in 1964 with The Patsy).
This isn’t meant to detract from Jodorowsky’s film. It’s meant to point out that it’s not that out of step with the creative impetus that drove its era; it’s not so much an aberration as a logical outgrowth. Sure, it’s weird, excessive, brazen, foolish, silly and sometimes brilliant, but so is much of what surrounds it from that era. And just how seriously is it all intended? And how seriously are we to take it? To return to The Magic Christian for a moment, I keep thinking of Ringo’s line to Peter Sellers, “You’re certainly puttin’ everyone on today, Dad.” But just maybe that’s Jodorowsky’s multi-layered point. Not rated, but contains nudity, sex and violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke