Once upon a time in Paris (on March 22nd, 1968 to be exact) a number of far-left groups comprising of students and artists gathered together to occupy the administration building of Paris Nanterre University to protest against class discrimination and political bureaucracy. The police were subsequently called and the protesters departed peacefully. This incident spawned a movement, called (somewhat unoriginally) the Movement of 22 March, but it wasn’t until just over a month later that the spark created on that day in late March ignited. May 1968 became a turning point in the history and psyche of France; a period of civil unrest and industrial action that lasted for some seven weeks and was so great that, fearing revolution, the president, Charles de Gaulle, had no option but to flee the country. France was the metaphorical blue touch paper and pretty soon the whole world seemed to be alight with the prospect of revolution.
Meanwhile, an Italian filmmaker called Sergio Leone was busy working on his latest film, Once Upon a Time in the West. Following the success of the Dollars trilogy, Leone believed that his new epic, featuring his hero Henry Fonda, would be not only his definitive statement on the western movie, but also his last in the genre. Leone felt that he had new horizons to explore and new worlds to create, and he began to dream of his next production, an adaptation of a novel he had come across about the prohibition years and gang warfare in America, entitled The Hoods by Harry Grey. But those events that were occurring in the real world had captured the attention of Once Upon a Time in the West‘s screenwriter, Sergio Donati, and he called on Leone with a treatment for a film about two outlaws; Juan Miranda, an amoral Mexican peasant, and John Mallory, an idealistic Irish revolutionary. Thrown together in the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, this mismatched pair possess a mix of anti-establishment opinion and violence that proves to be as volatile as the explosives Mallory routinely cooks up, and they set about, like modern-day Robin Hood’s, liberating political prisoners, robbing banks and confronting the heavily armed and deeply oppressive militia forces.
now cited as a progressive
and necessary step away
from the Spaghetti genre
Once upon a time in 1971, this cinematic response to the revolutionary fervour of the late 1960s starred Rod Steiger and James Coburn was originally released as Duck, You Sucker! (Leone seemed convinced that this was a phrase in common parlance in the US), though it became better known as A Fistful of Dynamite; trading on Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Or, if you prefer, Once Upon a Time…the Revolution; trading on Leone’s most recent film and setting the wheels in motion for another trilogy which ultimately culminated with what proved to be Leone’s final film, 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America – his long-awaited adaptation of The Hoods. Though if you’re Italian, then you’ll probably know this film as Giù la testa.
With this film (whatever you choose to call it), the Italian auteur saw an opportunity to not only tap into the current climate of left-wing radicalism, but also puncture the romanticised myth of revolution in the manner in which he had deconstructed the cliche of how ‘the West was won’ in Once Upon a Time in the West. Donati’s screenplay, which he began to work on in earnest with Luciano Vincenzoni, may well have been about the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s – a fierce and lengthy armed struggle borne out of President Porfirio Díaz’s inability to choose a successor and a number of opposition forces made up of competing elites and those who sought agrarian insurrection – but Leone only ever viewed that revolt as a symbol. Like many a filmmaker in the ‘Spaghetti Western’ genre that he had ostensibly created, Leone used his setting as something of a Trojan Horse; banking on its recognisable relationship with cinema audiences to instead offer up a tale that could draw parallels, not only with the revolutionary spirit that was happening abroad, but also the political instability of his own country and its recent history with fascism. This relationship with more contemporary politics is perhaps best evinced by the decision to open the film with a quotation from Mao Zedung; “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; It cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence”, whilst the cynicism that Leone invests in the picture is just as clear from the off too; in the very first shot, we witness Juan pissing on a teeming ant-hill.
What’s interesting however is that Leone never actually intended to direct (what I’ll refer to as) A Fistful of Dynamite. His original preference was to find an American director to helm the movie, one who could replicate the style he had now established and made popular whilst he set about mounting his beloved The Hoods project. His chosen successor was Peter Bogdanovich. However, when it became clear to Bogdanovich that he would have very little artistic control on the film, he left the project. Some claim that Leone then considered Sam Peckinpah, though Donati contests this, arguing quite convincingly that Peckinpah was too individualistic to agree to imitate another filmmaker. Instead, Leone’s regular assistant director, Giancarlo Santi, took the job…but only for the first ten days of the shoot. Difficulties arose when it was revealed that Rod Steiger – who was cast as Juan after Leone’s preferred choice, Eli Wallach (Leone believing that Juan was the natural ‘cousin’ of Wallach’s Tuco character from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), was nixed by the studios who preferred Steiger – would only be directed by Leone himself. From that moment on, A Fistful of Dynamite became a Sergio Leone picture; the second in what is now known as the Once Upon a Time…trilogy.
Leone may have considered Juan to be spiritual kin to Tuco, but it’s fair to say that Juan is written as a far more amoral and much darker character than the one Wallach portrayed. A ruthless bandit, Juan shows no compunction in killing in cold blood during a hold up, or in raping a woman simply because she insulted him. He is also the father of six children, all to different mothers, and this extensive family form his outlaw gang. Likewise the character of John Mallory, a dangerous yet deeply charismatic stranger in a strange land, initially appears to be cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s iconic ‘Man With No Name’ character from Leone’s Dollars trilogy. However, it soon becomes clear that the reason for his exile suggests a much darker and more textured character than Eastwood depicted. In a series of flashbacks filmed in Dublin, it is revealed that John was a member of the IRA and is now a fugitive from his native Ireland after murdering two British soldiers and his friend, Nolan, who had informed on him. In many ways with A Fistful of Dynamite, it seems like Leone is no longer content with deconstructing the Western myths of Old Hollywood, he wants to take apart his own iconic take on the genre, showcasing a greater dimensionality in his heroes, or arguably anti-heroes. Both Steiger and Coburn rise beautifully to the challenge, creating a memorable buddy-buddy pairing. Steiger played against Leone’s desire to play to the naivety and humour of Juan as written on the page to deliver something more serious in the vein of Mexican revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Elfego Baca. This initially made the relationship between star and director a strained one, but both men seemed satisfied with the final result. Coburn may be lacking in the ability to deliver a believable Irish accent, but he makes up for this by trading on his unrivalled natural charm which makes his story of an idealist seeking atonement in a new revolution a sympathetic one. Leone himself viewed the film as one about friendship, claiming it was essentially “Pygmalion in reverse”. As with Shaw’s celebrated and oft-made story, here the naive peasant thief and the intellectual rebel find a common bond, with the former surprising us all by teaching the latter a valuable life lesson. For Leone “revolution means confusion” and, as he was still waiting for an answer to the turmoil that his film was addressing; the promise of a better world, he felt it important to have the intellectual who was loyal to a cause lose some of his ideals in the face of the bandit whose only loyalty is to himself and his family. This is perhaps best exemplified in one key scene, which arguably calls back to the opening quotation from Mao Zedung, in which Juan rails at John’s dreams of revolution; “I know all about the revolutions and how they start! The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change. And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That’s your revolution!”
In keeping with this understanding of violence, Leone depicts considerably more brutal and more authentic action setpieces here than either Hollywood or he himself had done with earlier films. “It cannot be done with elegance and courtesy” indeed. His depiction of revolution and warfare is a dirty, ugly business in which the poor people do indeed die and in ways in which it is clear there is little room for honour or misty-eyed sentiment. The Beatles had responded to the events of 1968 with their song ‘Revolution‘, and Leone too seems to be singing from the very same page; encouraging the revolutionaries of the world to take off their blinkers to see the harsh realities of the action they may be proposing. Just as Coburn’s John Mallory searches for atonement in the arid Andalusian landscapes, so too is Leone for the cool shootouts and Kensington gore glamour that populated his Dollars trilogy. A devastating massacre recalls Italy’s own history with occupation and political violence, bringing to mind the Ardeatine massacre by Hitler’s SS in 1944, whilst cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini took inspiration from Goya’s prints The Disasters of War – themselves a passionate artistic response to the Dos de Mayo (Second of May) Uprising of the people of Madrid against Napoleons’ occupying forces in 1808, and the subsequent Peninsular War – for the execution sequences.
Clearly then this is a mature work, but bewilderingly A Fistful of Dynamite was unfairly overlooked upon its initial release and was, for many years, viewed as little more than the poor relation in the context of Leone’ other, more successful films. It is only in recent years that this thoughtful yet anarchic meditation on rebellion has found the audience and the respect that it always deserved and is now cited as a progressive and necessary step away from the Spaghetti genre and a step towards Once Upon a Time in America. This rightful reappraisal has now led to this summit – a Blu-ray release in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series that is literally a fistful of dynamite extras, including two versions of the film, two commentary tracks (Alex Cox and Sir Christopher Frayling), interviews with Kim Newman, Austin Fisher and Sergio Donati and various featurettes.
Be advised too that Ennio Morricone’s score is not only a delight but also a real earworm.