HCF REWIND NO. 260: A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE AKA DUCK YOU SUCKER, GIU LA TESTA [KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN], EL ETAIT UN FAIS DE REVOLUTION [ONCE UPON A TIME.. THE REVOLUTION], Italy 1971]
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 157 min/154 min/138 min/121 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Revolution-torn 1913 Mexico, Juan Miranda is a Mexican outlaw leading a group of bandits comprised largely of family members. After seeing some explosions going on in the distance, he’s given a ride by a coach of rich folk, but after they humiliate him, he and his band rob them, killing some of them, and he rapes the female passenger who insulted him. He sees those explosions again, and, heading towards them, encounters Seán Mallory, an Irish Republican explosives expert on the run from the British who is currently employed looking for silver. Discovering his skill with dynamite and nitroglycerine, Juan relentlessly tries to get John to join him on a raid on the Mesa Verde National Bank….
Fans of the brilliant Sergio Leone generally point to either The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon A Time In The West or Once Upon A Time In America as his greatest work. I love Leone and adore the three films I’ve just mentioned like few others, but for me it’s the least known, seen and appreciated of his major works [he worked on several sword and sandal epics, and even directed one, The Colossus Of Rhodes, before he went on to revolutionise the western and make a star of one Clint Eastwood] that I adore more than any of the others. I’m not sure if it really is a better film than those other three masterpieces – sometimes one’s love for a film can blind one to its flaws, and those flaws can even be seen as positive attributes – but it’s the one that touches my soul the most. It’s incredibly entertaining, and features for me one of the greatest buddy team-ups in cinema history, but is also the man’s deepest and most beautiful film. It’s also his most political picture, but not at all in a preachy manner, and I suppose is a bit separate from his other work for that reason, and also because it features genuine character development, something Leone deliberately avoided for the most part. In Leone fashion though, it’s still an object lesson in how to make the most out of scene after scene and shows the man’s almost unparalleled mastery of cinema.
Leone actually didn’t want to direct A Fistful Of Dynamite, and was originally just going to produce it, but Peter Bogdanovich, his original choice for director, soon abandoned the film due to perceived lack of control. Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct, but he was too expensive for United Artists, then Leone recruited his regular assistant director Giancarlo Santi to direct, but after ten days of shooting stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn refused to play their roles unless Leone himself directed. Eli Wallach was cast as Juan Miranda, but UA wanted a bigger name and Rod Steiger took over the role, causing Wallach, who had been promised the role by Leone, to sue. John Mallory was to be played by Jason Robards, but the studio again wanted a bigger name, so, after George Lazenby and Clint Eastwood turned the part down, James Coburn was recruited. Exterior filming mostly took place in Andalucía, Spain, sometimes in locations previously used in Leone’s trilogy, with some shooting in Dublin. The Italian title Giu La Testa translates as Keep Your Head Down, but it was changed to A Fistful Of Dynamite in the UK, Duck You Sucker [which Leone thought was a common American expression] in the US, and, my favourite title because it links with the two Leone films that came before and after it, Once Upon A Time…The Revolution. The film was a commercial success in many European countries but flopped in the US, though I’m not sure that entirely explains why it has existed in so many versions.
Leone cut scenes of Juan leading Sean into the desert with no water [which explains why Sean suddenly has a rather dry and burnt face], Dr. Villega helping a patient, getting captured and being tortured, and maybe some flashback footage, to arrive at a 157 min cut. He then cut a flashback at the end of the film because some people at previews walked out a few min early, and this 154 min version hit Italian cinemas, but some European countries saw the complete 157 min version. The US and UK saw a 138 min version that reduced the violence in many scenes, removed two f***s, the opening Mao Tse-tung quote and Juan dynamiting Sean’s boss and his men, and re-edited and shortened some other bits notably Juan finding his family killed, though oddly a drastically edited version of the final flashback, losing much of its meaning, was left in. It was this version, for years the only one available, I fell in love with and it does work very well. A 121 min version was also released, though details on that cut are very scant. Now you would expect the film to be totally complete on Blu-ray, and it is, but unfortunately the US Blu-ray is the same terrible version that was released on DVD by MGM in 2007 in many countries including the UK. It’s full of audio problems, most notably having the wrong music in two crucial scenes near the end. Obviously the cretins who put it together couldn’t tell the difference between several different versions of one piece. The Italian Blu-ray has some problems, including an English track that sometimes goes out of synch and doesn’t dub the final line, plus some odd colour correction, but it’s still vastly preferable to the US disc. As usual with Leone’s films though, the perfect release doesn’t exist.
I guess one of the things that some don’t like too much about A Fistful Of Dynamite is that it starts off quite light and even comedic, than gets more serious about an hour in and from then on gets progressively darker. In a sense you could say that it starts off as The Good The Bad And The Ugly and finishes as Once Upon A Time in America, though that’s rather simplistic if you think of, for example, the serious commentary on war in the Eastwood movie. In any case, it’s clear that the supposed unevenness in tone of A Fistful Of Dynamite was clearly intended, because there is so much structural preciseness to a great deal of the film. For instance, it begins, and ends, with Juan alone seeing some explosions, while the film’s descent into seriousness actually makes a great deal of sense when you look at its politics. The late 60’s were full of idealistic films which were in favour of revolution, and amongst them were many left-wing spaghetti westerns. Leone’s film takes a long hard look at that point of view and finds it wanting. The political centre of the movie is a speech given by Juan when he says how revolutions don’t change much for the poor people who are inspired by: “the people who read the books” to overthrow their leaders. The intelligent Sean may make the less clever Juan into a better person, but he doesn’t awaken any real revolutionary fever in him and, considering some of the events that occur, Juan would probably have been better off if he’d never met him. The film says that the best thing to do is to, as per two of its titles, Keep You Head Down or Duck You Sucker, and as for all this revolution stuff – family, friendship and faith are far more important.
A Fistful Of Dynamite is in some ways Leone’s strangest film, and it certainly has his strangest opening sequence when Juan is humiliated by some rich folk in a carriage as we are treated to lots of close-ups of their mouths eating and their eyes. There’s a woman who says she is repulsed by the supposed promiscuity of the peasants but possibly yearns for a bit of ‘peasant rough’, the satirising of the cliché taken to its logical extreme when Juan rapes her in a scene which is quite discreet but still has its troubling aspects despite it clearly not being intended to be taken entirely seriously [which in a way makes it more uneasy]. It’s not unreasonable to assume that some of Juan’s other ninos are the product of rape. Part of the film’s genius is that you soon begin to like this grubby, irresponsible [he arms his kids and takes them on all sorts of dangerous endeavours] killer and occasional sexual criminal even though initially you may not want to [and no, I don’t believe this is condoning sexual assault or murder], while in typical Leone fashion the film doesn’t really get its main story underway for around an hour.
The tone is picaresque for quite a while, even when Juan encounters IRA dynamiter Sean and tries to get him to join him in robbing a bank, scenes with much amusing duelling between the two. However, Mesa Verde turns out not to be the place Juan expected it to be. It’s full of soldiers and executions, and before he knows it Juan is unwittingly roped in to help with the revolution. Though there is almost always interesting stuff going on, A Fistful Of Dynamite’s big set pieces don’t start up until an hour or so with the taking of the bank, Juan expecting to find gold and instead releasing lots of political prisoners in a superb sequence of mounting excitement choreographed, as often with Leone, to Ennio Morricone’s tremendous music, here a mock-serious march [with a Beethoven quote] that just builds and builds. From Juan and Sean facing off with machine-guns against a whole army to some of the best explosions you’ll ever see, the action rarely slows from then on in what is a very long film, but the ‘fun’ element certainly dissipates as Juan and Sean are embroiled in a world of confusion and tragedy. Possible Leone’s saddest scene is when Juan finds his family all dead. The camera remains on his face for several minutes and, even when Sean appears, we don’t actually see the bodies until a few minutes later when Juan has gone, the camera tracking all over the corpses. There is simply no way the scene could have been done any better.
The most intriguing aspect of A Fistful Of Dynamite for me is its several brief, slow-motion flashbacks of Sean to Ireland. They thinly sketch out a really tragic story [probsbly influenced by John Ford’s The Informer] of idealism, love and betrayal, and are mostly set to one of the most beautiful film music themes ever written, a haunting piece which you probably won’t get out of your mind for days afterwards. Leone shows two similar betrayals happening in two different times simultaneously, lingers on a man’ s beaten, pleading face in one of the most agonising close-ups in cinema history [this is David Warbeck of The Beyond fame, in a role where we don’t hear his voice, but he haunts the entire film], and ends his film with a almost insanely gorgeous, lyrical sequence which simply consists of two men kissing a girl. This scene was one of the ones often cut, and the film does work very well without it. With it though, it adds an extra dimension to Sean’s back-story though, as with many great films, you’ll left to work out the finer details for yourself. Leone was a master of action and suspense, but he could also be very beautiful, and the final scene of A Fistful Of Dynamite illustrates that more perfectly than any other scene.
There’s been much criticism of Steiger’s acting, mostly of its over-the-top nature, but this was often Steiger’s way and a part of what often makes him so enjoyable to watch. In any case, almost as if the film was shot in sequence, his performance gets deeper and eventually very moving. Coburn’s Irish accent is stronger in some scenes than others, but it remains probably his best performance, Coburn playing it outwardly cool but with so much pain and hurt inside. He and Steiger are just wonderful together with immense chemistry. Morricone’s score is fantastic even outside of that heavenly flashback theme and Juan’s march. His use of odd sounds and instrumentation in his Leone scores reaches its peak here, but it’s also often very gorgeous. The score is a near-perfect mix of musical unity – lots of cues use or develop Sean’s whistling motif – and diversity, with several memorable themes. The soundtrack, even the short regular edition, is a revelation to hear the first time as it contains some great music not used in the film, notably some very dark, atonal music for the villains. A Fistful Of Dynamite is just fantastic entertainment from beginning to end, really showing the brilliance of Leone as a film-maker, but also with a lot to say, and, even if it isn’t his best film, for my money it reveals the heart beating behind the genius more than his others.