A Fistful of Dynamite (Duck, You Sucker!): Sergio Leone’s spectacular ‘Zapata’ Western starring Rod Steiger and James Coburn was also his most political film

Duck You Sucker (1971) aka Giù la testa aka A fistful of Dynamite is the final Western from spaghetti western maestro, Sergio Leone. The film starring Rod Steiger and James Coburn in lead roles is set during the Mexican revolution of the 1910s.

Opening with a quote from Mao Zedong that describes Revolution as violence & chaos and not a garden party, director, Sergio Leone’s penultimate film and his final Western, “Duck, You Sucker!” announces its political intentions loudly albeit cryptically. At first it could be mistaken that Leone is following in the footsteps of his fellow Spaghetti-Western masters like Sergio Corbucci and Damiano Damiani, who were at the time making ultra-leftist, anti-capitalist Westerns. But Leone, who revels in postmodern revisionism, has done a revisionist take on the politically-charged Euro-Westerns of the time by making a very cynical and comedic film that tells the common folk to keep their head down (the literal meaning of the film’s Italian title) and never take part in revolutions, as nothing is going to be gained from them and it will only get them killed. Of course, this goes against the prevalent philosophy of the critical and artistic (especially European) community, who are always left-leaning and particularly so in the late ’60s and early ’70s.. Also, this film released in 1971, is a strong rebuttal of the French student revolutions of May ’68- of which Leone was one of the heroes , thanks to his 1968 Western, “Once upon a time in the West” that was widely perceived to be a critique of American capitalism. This explains why “Duck, You Sucker!” is least known among Leone’s films- apart from the fact that mainstream critics despises its political message and, hence, never bothered to champion it, the film was also a big flop in America and only moderately successful in Europe. Also, the film exists in three different titles and in so many different versions that one loses count.

The title “Duck, you Sucker!” was given because Leone mistakenly believed that it was a common American slang. When the film released in US with this title and flopped, the distributors changed the title to “A Fistful of Dynamite” to capitalize on the success of “A Fistful of Dollars.”; and it was with this title that the film made its UK debut. The film got released as Once Upon a Time…The Revolution in France, because “Once upon a time in the West” was a huge hit there. In all cases the title was meant to engage with the very idea of revolution, a concept that Leone felt was too often romanticized, especially by the Italian filmmakers. This idea of subverting the concept of revolution was the major impetus for Leone in making this film; because after completing his Western opus magnum, “Once upon a time in the West.” Leone had announced that he was done with the genre. He was planning to make an epic gangster movie based on the book, “The Hoods,” (he would ultimately make it as “Once upon a time in America (1984)”) and he was only planning to produce “Duck You Sucker!.” with his assistant directing. But he couldn’t line up any major American star to act in the film, and it’s only when he took over the direction himself that Rod Steiger and James Coburn consented to act in the picture. Thus, the film ended up generating a second trilogy for Leone (After the highly successful Dollars\Man with no Name trilogy), becoming the second film in the director’s “Once upon a time..” trilogy.

Set during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, “Duck, you Sucker!” tells the story of two “Johns”: Juan Miranda, an amoral Mexican bandit (Steiger), and Sean H. Mallory (Coburn), a member of the IRA and an explosives expert, who is hiding out in Mexico as a silver prospector. Juan is planning to rob the National bank at Mesa Verde and, when he accidentally runs into Sean on the road and witnesses his skills with dynamite and Nitroglycerin, he realizes that Sean could be a big help to him in the robbery. But Sean refuses to help Juan and escapes from the clutches of Juan’s gang- which includes Juan’s father and Juan’s many children (all from different mothers). Arriving in Mesa Verde before Juan, Sean makes contact with Mexican revolutionaries led by Dr. Villega and agrees to use his explosives in their service. When Juan arrives, Sean inducts him into the revolutionaries’ ranks. The bank is hit as part of an orchestrated attack on the Mexican army. Juan, interested only in the bank’s money, is shocked to find that it has no funds and is instead being used by the army as a political prison. Sean, Juan and his family end up freeing hundreds of prisoners, thus transforming the reluctant Juan into a hero of the revolution.

Soon enough, Sean and Juan are working fulltime for the revolutionaries in their fight against the Federales, lead by a German officer named, Colonel Günther Reza. Meanwhile, Juan’s father and children are killed by the army in a cave which served as the rebels’ hideout. Grief-stricken and enraged, Juan goes out to fight the army alone and is captured. Sean saves Juan from the firing squad and the duo hide in the animal coach of a train- which coincidentally is also boarded by the tyrannical Governor Don Jaime, who is fleeing with the money belonging to the revolutionaries. Juan kills the governor and steals the money- an act that once again makes Juan a revolutionary hero, as he gives away the money to revolutionary General Santerna. Sean and Juan then help the revolutionaries in derailing an army train carrying 1,000 soldiers and heavy weapons, led by Colonel Reza, that was meant to overpower rebel positions before the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata would mount an ambush . But despite this successful maneuver, and the revolutionary forces managing to mount a successful ambush against Huerta’s Federales, the film ends on a tragic note, with Sean getting shot down and Juan stranded in the middle of all the fighting, not knowing what to do next.

Before he became a Spaghetti Western trailblazer in the mid 1960s, Sergio Leone was a second unit director on massive Hollywood epics filmed in Italy, like “Quo Vadis,” “Ben-Hur” and “Cleopatra.” Also, what’s not well known is that Leone’s first couple of full-fledged stabs at direction were the cheaply made Italian, Sword & sandal ‘Peplum’ epics, “Last Days of Pompeii” and “Colossus of Rhodes.” Leone always wanted to become a maker of epics, and his desire to leave Westerns behind was actually geared towards realizing this ambition. He wanted to be a filmmaker like David Lean, and he was driven to make a sprawling gangster epic like “Once upon a time in America” on account of that. And though “…America” is a mesmerizing and overwhelming epic, “Duck, you Sucker!” is the most spectacular epic that Leone has ever made. It’s definitely the closest he has come to making a David Lean style epic. Though the film has the look and feel of a ‘Zapata’ Western, it’s actually a war epic, with Huerta’s regime portrayed as the Nazis of their time (lead by a German colonel for added emphasis) and the revolutionaries as Italian partisans. The random images of firing squads and mass graves that litter the film is a conscious attempt to invoke the imagery of WWII. As for inspirations from Lean’s epics, there is a spectacular ‘Bridge blowing up’ scene reminiscent of “Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)”; a train derailment scene and several battle scenes filmed in the desert inspired from “Lawrence of Arabia (1962)”; and brutal images of revolution and state-sponsored genocide inspired from “Doctor Zhivago (1965)”- here Leone even outdoes Lean by choreographing a spectacular overhead tracking crane shot which shows the firing squads shooting down civilians and dumping them in mass graves; it’s one of the greatest sequences I have ever seen in movies. Though Leone had tackled the American Civil war in “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” that was only meant to be a spectacular backdrop to the colorful main story of treasure hunt, but here the revolutionary war is at the front and center of the film, and Leone shows great sensitivity and maturity in handling the violence and tragedy of it.

This film is a great testament to Leone’s growth as a filmmaker. Though the film begins in the same bizarre, comic vein as his “Dollar” films, it slowly moves away to acquire a very meditative and sad tone. The film opens with some of the most baroque and ugly images Leone has committed to film. We see the filthy barefooted peasant, Juan, urinating on an anthill (Leone’s tribute or Leone mocking the opening images of Peckinpah’s great ‘Zapata’ Western, “The Wild Bunch,” and its imagery of a scorpion being devoured by a bunch of ants) and then hitching a ride on a grand stagecoach (the kind one can find only in Leone’s Westerns) filled with the upper-class elite who looks down upon the peasant and pass uncharitable remarks about the peasantry. This sequence is a montage of rapidly edited together tight closeups of people’s mouths swallowing food – it’s a truly disgusting image that’s meant to unsettle the viewer. But as Leone often does with his ‘delayed reveals,’ it’s soon revealed that Juan is a bandit, who is out to rob the elite- the robbery sequence is followed by an implied rape scene, and then a slapstick moment where all the high-class passengers now robbed and stripped to their bone are dumped into a pigsty by Juan’s gang. All these change in moods and plot\character takes place within the first 20 minutes. The tonal changes of the film somehow reflects the state of the Juan-Sean friendship. At the beginning, their friendship is purely a business relationship, and the film is comic, playful and even silly; but once their friendship deepens, the film starts becoming more and more serious; by the final act there is no humor in the film at all, and it becomes a very straightforward movie without any of Leone’s postmodern pranks. The ending is very sad and tragic; this is the only Leone Western that ends in the darkness of the night and amidst mass destruction.

The characterization of the lead protagonists in this film also mirror this narrative progression. The characters of Juan and Sean are the Leone archetypes that we have seen in his previous films. The gregarious, outgoing, man-child Mexican bandit, Juan Miranda, is cut from the same cloth as the crazy Mexicans Gian-Maria Volante played in the first two Dollar movies, Eli Wallach played in Third and Jason Robards played in “… the West.” The laconic & laidback Sean Mallory is very similar to the cool gunslingers that Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson embodied in Leone’s previous Westerns. Actually, Leone’s original choice for these two characters were Wallach and Eastwood, but Eastwood by then had found success as a movie star in America and was not willing to return to Europe, so James Coburn was cast; and Wallach was considered not bankable enough by the studio and was replaced by Rod Steiger, who was quite hot at the time having just won an Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night.” Juan and Sean start out as the typical Leone caricatures of classic Western characters – each one repeatedly humiliating the other in a game of childish one-upmanship until they both run out of steam; then they form an uneasy business alliance like Blondie and Tuco; then after a point in the narration they start emerging from their cartoonish shell to become real characters. They both have tragic backstories and an inner life, as opposed to the very stylized, cartoonish characters in Leone’s previous films. The characters have arcs and they change during the course of the film. Sean is on the run after killing his friend and fellow IRA comrade after his friend had betrayed him. Now Sean is attempting to recreate that friendship with Juan in the middle of another revolution. And here too Sean runs into another betrayer of the revolution, Dr. Villega, who turned informer on being tortured by Reza and was responsible for the death of Juan’s family. But Unlike before, Sean does not kill Villega, but gives him a chance to redeem himself, and also keeps his betrayal a secret. Juan, who starts out as a selfish, immoral glutton, and is tricked into joining the revolution, becomes a tragic figure by the end who has lost his family, and also his only friend.

The only problem with the character is Steger’s uneven performance; Steiger could be really good in a “Doctor Zhivago” and “On the Waterfront,” but he is a big ham. And Leone likes big hammy performances; and since here he is playing a crude, unsophisticated character, Steiger hams it up unabashedly most of the time; it gets very irritating to watch after a point; what’s even more irritating is that horrible Mexican accent that he affects. Coburn is much better, though his Irish accent is also problematic, but he has very few dialogues and carries the role with ease in his trademark laidback style. The other characters in the film are not that detailed. Romolo Valli is very good as Dr. Villega, the typical crooked intellectual who turns traitor after being tortured. Horror\exploitation star, David Warbeck, makes a wordless cameo appearance in the flashback sequences as Sean’s IRA friend, Nolan, who betrays him. Antoine Saint-John as Colonel Günther Reza is the one-note evil antagonist. This film is very much a two-character driven masculine picture, with very little in the form of feminine presence; Maria Monti appears at the beginning of the film as Adelita, a wealthy female passenger on the stagecoach robbed by Juan, and Vivienne Chandler appears as Sean’s girlfriend in the flashbacks. The flashback portions, which is Sean reminiscing about his time in Ireland, has a wordless, fluid, dreamy quality to it, with most of it shot using fog filters and in super slow motion. Ennio Morricone’s music also accentuates this mood. Morricone provides his usual avant-garde score for this Leone Western, complete with choir-like music and a quirky leitmotif that goes like shom, shom, shom… After this film, it will take thirteen years for Leone to release his next picture. “Duck, You Sucker!” is the missing link between “…the West” and “…in America.” and you can see Leone expanding here on a lot of themes he used in “…the West” and also carrying forward a lot of themes and styles he tried here into “..in America.” The mournful, elegiac tone of the last act of this film as well as the dreamy nature of the flashback portions are carried fully into Leone’s next epic, “Once upon a time in America,” which is trance-like, elliptical, the least self-reflexive and the most serious of all Leone films.


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