#4 in my ranking of Sergio Leone’s films.
I wouldn’t really call this a Western, though everyone labels it as such. It’s too modern (set in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution) and too focused on an actual revolution to fit. I’m not one for genre games, but it just helps settle me when I’m able to firmly state that Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s last Western. Duck, You Sucker isn’t a western.
Anyway, put into production very quickly after his previous film, Leone developed a story of an Irish revolutionary finding a place in the Mexican revolution through the help of a bandit who also finds himself become a hero, their central friendship binding the action together. Done without the help of Bertolucci or Argento, instead utilizing his frequent collaborators Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, the script is Leone’s next film that uses a large scope to tell a more intimate story. It feels more like his Dollars trilogy in execution, rougher at the edges while also more expertly managing a larger story, making it almost a compromise movie between Leone’s earlier work and his later work.
It is the story of Juan and Sean (well, John). Juan (Rod Steiger) is the Mexican bandit, out robbing rich carriages of all their wealth, humiliating the rich denizens of the carriages, and making off with all their stuff. Along his path comes John (James Coburn), an Irish demolitions expert driving on his motorcycle towards Mesa Verde. In that largely wordless and entertaining way, the two get to know each other as Juan shoots out John’s tires, and John blows holes in Juan’s carriage until Juan convinces John to go with him to Mesa Verde to rob the bank there which, Juan assures John, is loaded with gold. They end up in Mesa Verde, becoming part of Pancho Villa’s revolution as represented by Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli), a bespeckled white suited man. It turns out, as Juan discovers during the robbery process, that there’s no gold in that bank. It’s filled with political prisoners, and his “selfless” act has made him a hero of the revolution.
There’s a sharp intelligence to the film especially around the questions of the revolution. Juan wants no part in it. He’s deeply cynical about how revolutions overturn power structures but leave the poor people behind in the dust to continue fending for scraps. John ends up convinced, and it’s represented not by a speech or anything, but by John simply taking the book The Patriotism by Mikhail Bakunin and throwing it in the mud.
The rest of the film is the two finding their way through the revolution together. They set up an ambush of two machine guns and explosives that takes out an entire enemy column. The rest of the revolutionary army went ahead to hide, and they’re quickly all murdered as vengeance with Dr. Villega surviving for John to witness his identification of revolutionaries to the military that leads to their executions. When Dr. Villega shows up on a revolutionary train later, John has to make a choice about what he knows, and this is where Leone’s use of flashback finally works fully.
When John was in Ireland, he was a member of the IRA and he had two friends, a man and a woman. They’re never named as all the Ireland sequences are told in slow motion and silently, much like the flashbacks to Harmonica’s past in Once Upon a Time in the West, but they start earlier and actually function to build up some character based storytelling for John. He had to flee from Ireland because he not only was a member of the IRA but he also killed several people including his male friend in an act of self-preservation that the friend knew was coming and approved of. This gets revealed right about the same time as Dr. Villega reappears in the film, creating a mirror situation with John’s past. There’s real intelligence to this film’s construction that I appreciate quite a bit.
Rod Steiger refused to work silently on the film, so this is the first time Leone actually filmed sound live on set. I feel like there’s an appreciable difference in the moment to moment of the film, the silent approach having some certain positive qualities (allowed the use of music on set, for instance, especially with Ennio Morricone’s music that he wrote before filming was completed) but ultimately creating a barrier between the film and the audience that was shared across the entire Italian film industry from giallo films to Fellini. It’s a small enough thing that I find easy to get around (just looking through my Fellini reviews should demonstrate that), but it’s still something to get around. There’s a slight increase in immediacy to most of the moments that helps sell them, bringing in the natural ambient noise and closer match of lips to sound.
Overall, the film kind of snuck up on me, and that has everything to do with the character work around both Juan and John. It’s the story of a friendship that starts amusingly and becomes a rather deep connection between the two as they navigate a revolution that one becomes a hero in and the other becomes disillusioned with. Steiger is wonderfully entertaining as Juan, large and extravagant in performance, something I could imagine Eli Wallach doing similarly. James Coburn as John, though, is different. In most of Leone’s films you can see where he would have put Clint or Lee or Eli in different roles (most evident in the previous film), but this Irish rogue feels uniquely Coburn’s. He fits the role like a glove, and I could never see anyone else in it.
It’s rough and tumble, but A Fistful of Dynamite…or Duck, You Sucker…or Once Upon a Time…The Revolution (my favorite is probably the first, but I wish it had the third to make the second trilogy of Leone’s career slightly more cohesive) is an entertaining and surprisingly emotionally resonant film. It also feels like a slight step backwards while also stepping forward at the same time for Leone as a filmmaker.