Directors: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vincenzoni
Starring: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli, Antoine Saint-John
Country: Italy, Spain
Running Time: 157 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I’m a huge Sergio Leone fan. I class Once Upon a Time in the West as, hands down, my all time favourite film and I adore his Man With No Name trilogy too. Once Upon a Time in America, whilst epically long, is also an incredible piece of filmmaking. However, as big a fan as I claim to be of the director, there have long been two gaps in his oeuvre that I hadn’t plugged, which is fairly considerable seeing as he only directed seven feature films. One is the, by all accounts, not particularly noteworthy The Colossus of Rhodes, which is plain hard to get your hands on and saw Leone first cutting his teeth as a director. The other film I hadn’t seen until now was A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker, Giù la Testa or Once Upon a Time… The Revolution). I wasn’t necessarily avoiding it, but it never had the reputation of Leone’s other westerns so I hadn’t rushed to seek it out.
There are several reasons that might suggest why the film is less favoured though. For one, there are the dozens of different titles (which I won’t reel off again) which made it harder to pin down and affected its box office success as word of mouth couldn’t spread easily. It even had a name change part-way through release in America, first coming out as Duck, You Sucker, before getting pulled and re-released as A Fistful of Dynamite due to it underperforming.
Another reason the film suffered initially was because, like Leone’s Once Upon a Time movies, it was butchered on its release. The US cut ran for only 121 minutes whereas the complete Italian version was 157 minutes. Even when some footage was reinstated in 1989 on Laserdisc, it was still only 138 minutes long and some subsequent versions only added a bit more. The full version has eventually been made available in recent years though and it’s finally hitting British shores on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka, who’ve added the film to their illustrious Masters of Cinema series. I saw this as a chance to finally see if A Fistful of Dynamite stood tall against its more famous brothers, particularly in this now complete version.
A Fistful of Dynamite is a tale of friendship between two contrasting men during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. One is Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), a Mexican bandit whose life’s ambition is to rob the bank at Mesa Verde. The other is the wanted IRA terrorist John H. Mallory (James Coburn), who has come to Mexico to put his explosives expertise to good use, supporting the Germans with his bike loaded with dynamite.
The two meet on the road and Juan swindles John into helping him achieve his dream bank job. John, however, ends up swindling Juan into supporting the Mexican Revolution and becoming somewhat of a hero in the process. Despite constantly screwing each other over, the pair become a mighty team and close friends as they face tragedy and struggle to find where to stand among the bloody and chaotic revolution.
Watching the film, another reason A Fistful of Dynamite didn’t excite audiences in the same way Leone’s Dollars trilogy did, is that it’s very different in tone. It’s a fact that surprised me when I watched the film. It begins with a fairly similar fun, jokey atmosphere and lots of double crosses. However, as the film moves on it becomes quite melancholic and serious. The protagonists aren’t your usual tough, invincible heroes either. In fact, when Juan accidentally becomes a legend among the revolutionaries, he doesn’t want to be one. He tries to run away because it’s not a fight he’s interested in.
This leads me to yet another aspect of the film that might have rubbed some up the wrong way originally. A Fistful of Dynamite was Leone’s answer to the raft of westerns being made about the revolution at the time, such as A Bullet for the General and Tepepa. These films usually used the setting to symbolise radical modern politics unfurling at the time of their production. However, Leone was cynical about such things and cynical about the Mexican Revolution too. The message of A Fistful of Dynamite seems to be that revolution doesn’t help the people, it only gets them killed and they should keep out of it and worry only about their family and friends instead. The Italian title to the film, Giù la Testa, even roughly translates to “keep your head down”. As such, the largely left wing, radical arts establishment of the early 70s likely disapproved of Leone’s take on the revolution.
Whether or not keeping your head out of politics or revolution is a stance that should be endorsed, I found the angle made for an interesting and quite unique film. It’s also a film that feels very mature (other than perhaps its poor treatment of women – never Leone’s strongpoint). As great as Leone’s Dollars trilogy is, those films aren’t deep or thoughtful, whereas here Leone tackles some heavy subject matter and even provides some emotional depth in the second half.
There’s a lot that impressed me in fact and I’ve spent far too long pontificating about what might not have been endearing to original audiences.
As is to be expected from Leone, the film looks fantastic. His mastery of mis-en-scene is incredible. Shooting largely on location in arid areas of Spain, his framing, positioning of characters and use of depth and movement is second-to-none.
Leone has always been a lover of big spectacle too and, this being one of his most expensive films, he lets rip with huge explosions and large-scale set-pieces. I tend to hark on about ‘less-is-more’ in my reviews, but when Leone is behind the camera I don’t mind things going a little over the top. It’s not all about epic action for thrills either, he also directs one truly shocking sequence that sees him use a long crane shot over hundreds of Mexicans being executed and dumped in mass graves.
Leone’s go-to composer Ennio Morricone is also on hand to work his magic. It’s not his best score perhaps – the ‘Sean’ or ‘John’ singing can get a little tiresome, but it’s still up there, utilising some unique orchestration and featuring a few wonderful cues that largely work on character themes. You get some of the beautiful wordless operatic passages familiar from the Once Upon a Time films too.
Away from the style, you’ve got some great performances anchoring the film. Coburn, at first, feels like his usual super cool self, but as the film moves on his character is given more depth and he handles it well. His Irish accent threatens to get a bit much, but he just about carries it off. Steiger, who’s given the unenviable task of playing a Mexican, is superb. It’s an incredibly rich and surprisingly nuanced performance for a character that initially seems larger than life. Steiger reportedly clashed with Leone on set but in later years praised the director as one of the finest he’s ever worked with. He certainly elicited a great performance from the actor.
Overall then, the film wasn’t what I expected going into it but was still everything I hoped for and more. It’s a surprisingly deep look at the futility of revolution and the greater importance of friendship and brotherhood. Adding Leone’s usual cinematic mastery to this, you get an under-appreciated classic that should finally get its dues in this complete and remastered form.
A Fistful of Dynamite is out on 9th December on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. There are two versions of the film in the set (more if you include the two versions of one cut with different title cards), the Italian cut and the full international version. The Italian cut is a fraction longer (and the version I opted to watch), but I think that might just be down to extra restoration credits at the start.
Speaking of restoration, the film looks very good. I wasn’t totally convinced by the colours at times and it’s not always as super sharp as some restorations, but overall it’s a decent transfer that allows you to appreciate the gorgeous cinematography. For audio you get the original mono tracks, including both English and Italian on the Italian version. I watched in English on the Italian version and the audio came through nicely – no issues.
Extra features include:
– Hardbound Slipcase
– PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION 60-PAGE Perfect Bound Collector’s book featuring new and archival writing on the film
– Two versions of the film presented in 1080p across two Blu-ray disc, including a transfer from the 2K restoration completed by Cineteca di Bologna in 2009.
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Original Mono Audio available on both versions
– Audio Commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox
– Audio Commentary by film historian Sir. Christopher Frayling
– A brand new and exclusive interview with film critic and writer Kim Newman
– A brand new and exclusive interview with Austin Fisher, author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema
– The Myth of Revolution [22 mins] Sir Christopher Frayling on Duck, You Sucker!
– Sergio Donati Remembers Duck, You Sucker! [7 mins]
– Sorting Out The Versions: An Analysis of Duck, You Sucker! [12 mins]
– Once Upon A Time… in Italy [6 mins] featurette
– Restoration, Italian Style [6 mins]
– Location Comparisons [9 mins]
– Radio Spots
It’s a wonderfully comprehensive set of features for an oft-neglected entry to Leone’s filmography. There’s a lot of good stuff here too. Alex Cox’s commentary is decent. He isn’t afraid to point out the film’s flaws and has plenty to say about the film. He’s such a passionate lover of cinema I always enjoy listening to his thoughts. Sir. Christopher Frayling’s commentary trumps Cox’s contributions here though. He is a veritable fountain of knowledge on Leone and the film. His commentary and other featurettes are packed with fascinating facts about the production and wonderful little details/readings that you may not have picked up on originally.
Kim Newman delivers his usual enjoyable yet illuminating take on the film too and the other handful of videos are all worth a watch.
The collector’s book is the icing on the cake, filling any gaps left elsewhere in the features helping make this another fine and easy-to-recommend release from Eureka.