Stark says: “If you shoot me, I’ll fall. And if I fall, they’ll have to alter all the maps.”
A Fistful of Dynamite… sounds almost like a Leone film doesn’t it? Yeah, well that’s because it is a Leone film: his least known and most overlooked Western, but a Leone film all the same. It also marks his exit from the Western genre with a deafening, nitroglycerine-fuelled bang.
We’ve covered a few Western subgenres – weird westerns, acid westerns, dinosaur westerns, surrealist animated Westerns – but get ready because here’s another one coming at you: a revisionist-epic-spaghetti-Zapata Western.
What in tarnation is a Zapata Western? y’all might be mumbling. Zapata Westerns are, believe it or not, are a subgenre of the Spaghetti Western in their own right. Named after the Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, they're usually set around the time of 1913 Mexican Revolution. They tend to use the Mexican struggle, and indeed the West, as less of a faithful historical depiction, and more of thematic prism to reflect back political themes prevalent during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. For Italian filmmakers, many of whom had lived under Mussolini, this often meant anti-fascist allegory, as well as anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian sentiments, and criticism of US involvement in the Vietnam War.
But weirdly, and in typical Leone style, Duck, You Sucker manages to be both overtly political and anti-rhetorical at the same time; it’s at once hard-eyed look at the hopelessness of revolution, and a tongue-in-cheek buddy heist-adventure Western crammed with explosions. Go untangle that one. Oh wait, that’s what I’m meant to be doing… shit. Alright, I’ll try:
Characters, characters, characters. The actors in Leone’s films create, in my opinion, the best characters in all Westerns. Leone had the ability to shoot an actor’s face in the same way he shot a landscape; lingering over a view, so that we can only guess at the multitude of stories hiding beneath. Just think of Charles Bronson’s brooding reserve as Harmonica, Jason Robards’ charm as Cheyenne, Eli Wallach as the magnificent Tuco the Bandit, not to mention to silent, distinctive squint of our man with no name…
Duck, You Sucker is no exception. James Coburn and Rod Steiger dominate the film with their performances; the former as “John” Mallory, an IRA explosives expert who has fled his homeland for Mexico (yes, you read that right) and the latter as Juan Miranda, a tough, self-interested Mexican bandit. Sure, Coburn’s accent sometimes strays towards the realm of cod, but he has a magnificent moustache to make up for it. His cool, jaded, bad-assery combined with Steiger’s hot-headed Juan, make them a compelling duo. That being said, I think Steiger might narrowly steal the show: here, he's a thousand miles away from Brando’s brother Charlie in On the Waterfront. He fumes, spits, curses, brags, is grief-stricken and powerless and heart-broken… basically, it’s a masterful example of range and characterisation.
Range – that’s an important word when describing this film, because tonally, it’s hard to get a handle on. It’s more serious than the cover, or the name/s, would have us believe, with some fairly heavy, emotionally-charged scenes. The shift from stereotypical desert landscape to the authoritarian town of Mesa Verde is a jolt to the system; a stark contrast between lawless, frontier justice and oppressive, dictatorial control. Far from a plot device, these scenes form an emotional backbone to the film. Famously, Leone gave Director of Photography Giuseppe Ruzzolini prints from Goya’s “The Disasters of War”, as inspiration for the firing squad scenes in Mesa Verde.
Leone’s Westerns are well known for their revisionist tendencies, de-romantizing both the West and the Western, so it’s hardly surprising that with Duck, You Sucker, he takes a step further, to de-romanticize the idea of revolution itself. As John says:
“When I started using dynamite... I believed in… many things, all of it! Now, I believe only in dynamite.”
At first, it seems that the film is setting out to achieve this with the broadest of strokes: Leone juxtaposes a title card quote by Mao Tse-Tung with an opening shot of Juan pissing on an anthill. A stagecoach of finely-dressed, racist, bigoted passengers humiliate Juan and treat him with scorn, before he turns the tables, assaulting and robbing them. Likewise, John and Juan initially see each other only in simple terms: as problem to be solved by shooting or explosives, or as a means to an end. However, as the film progresses we see the two characters become embroiled with each other, changing as a result. Their notions of idealism and self-interest become tangled and confused in the heart of the violent resistance they find themselves a part of, in Juan’s case, unwillingly. “I don’t want to be a hero,’ he protests, “all I want is the money!”
At the same time, Duck, You Sucker somehow manages to fit in laugh-out-loud moments of comedy, a horse in a hat, some neat visual metaphors and a whole host of explosions; there’s even a classic Leone bridge demolition.
This film is about half an hour too long. It could have come full circle to meet itself in an elegant conclusion. But, it seems, elegance was not high on Leone’s list of priorities. Perhaps he wanted to wrap up the film’s loose ends, perhaps he just wanted to blow up some trains. Either way, the film gets a bit rambling towards the end, which is a shame really, because the final scene between Juan and John is a good ‘un.
There are also a few elements of Duck that feel incongruous; Colonel Günther Reza, for example, is a sort of cartoonish, evil-Nazi villain who seems at odds with Leone’s previously well-drawn antagonists. In turn, Juan’s assault of the aristocratic woman in the stagecoach, and his interactions with the rest of the passengers, are painted in pretty broad, somewhat crude brush strokes. In general, the scale of human destruction is far higher than in other Leone films, which is typical of a Zapata Western, due to the introduction of automatic weapons. I'm all for explosions, but in the end I’m not sure how much the high body count, especially during fight scenes, adds to the film overall.
All of these criticisms could be partly blamed on a disagreement between the writers as to what the film should fundamentally be. Leone envisaged an epic story, while Sergio Donati and the “script doctor” Luciano Vincenzoni – who invented the title The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – wanted to make a faster paced, lower-budget action-thriller. The same problems plagued the film's release: it was heavily edited and even censored in some countries to remove the overt, revolutionary content. And the studios wanted to market it as a light-hearted, comedy romp, cutting it again to get it a PG rating and changing the title to A Fistful of Dynamite to pull in fans of Leone's Dollars trilogy. Thankfully, Duck, You Sucker has now been restored to a decent cut, but it's still neither / nor when it comes to epic historical western or buddy comedy action. Which, in the end, is part of its appeal.
I never thought I’d say this but… the score. Ngggah, the score. Now listen, I love Morricone, you only need to take a look at Once Upon a Time in the West to know that he’s a damn fine composer. And in Duck, You Sucker there are examples of his classic style: diegetic objects merged into orchestral tunes, jaunty character motifs and melodies, the best one being the “wup wup” noise that follows Juan around. However, there are occasions in this film where the score doesn’t fit the action. Mallory’s flashback scenes are the major offenders. The waltzing, sweeping, choral “oohs” and “shon shons” just end up jarring with, rather than complementing, the weighty themes. Maybe it's just me. Sorry, Ennio.
So, yes, Duck, You Sucker (or A Fistful of Dynamite if you prefer) isn’t as polished or coherent as Once Upon a Time in the West, or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but it’s still a fine film. It retains Leone’s highly distinctive style, while veering off down a slightly different, thematic road; one that fans of revisionist Westerns, or indeed, of explosions, will want to follow.