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This is a review of the single disc MGM DVD.
'A Fistful Of Dynamite' has several names; it is also known as 'Duck, You Sucker' and 'Once Upon A Time...The Revolution'. It is the second part of director Sergio Leone's trilogy of films which began with 'Once Upon A Time In The West' and ends with 'Once Upon A Time In America'.
The story focuses on two drifting bandits from different sides of the tracks. There's Mexican Juan Miranda [Rod Steiger], an opportunist thief who travels the Mexican countryside with his large family and extended group of followers. And then there's John Mallory [James Coburn with a very suspect Irish accent] who's an IRA man on the run from the British in his native land. The film is set during the Mexican revolution in the early part of the 20th Century. I'm pretty sure that no date is mentioned in the film, but there are scenes with motorcars and bikes so it's around the First World War era.
After an impressive opening scene in which Juan and his group hold up a stagecoach full of snooty aristocrats, we are introduced to James Coburn's John/Sean character with a hail of explosions. After establishing the fact that Coburn is clearly a dab hand with explosives, Juan is keen to team up with him and hold up a bank in Mesa Verde. Leone casts Coburn and Steiger but it could easily have been Eastwood and Wallach from 'The Good The Bad and The Ugly'. Juan is motivated by greed, and has little interest in fighting for the revolutionaries, a cause which has become close to John's heart after he left Ireland following a betrayal by one of his close friends.
Juan makes an impassioned plea to John to join him; 'we are both called John!....it is destiny!'. Although John deplores Juan's obsession with making a fast buck, he finds it hard to shake him off as they both meet up again on their travels, and as the film progresses both men gain respect for each other.
At 2 and a half hours Leone's film is going nowhere in a hurry, plenty of time is allowed to see the two characters bond as the film progresses, taking in lots of beautiful scenery along the way. There are lots of explosions and machine gun fire [I quite like that sort of thing!] and I found the film totally engrossing and entertaining throughout.
On the originality stakes I suppose the film is let down slightly, this is essentially a 'buddy-buddy' movie which by the 1980s had become completely done to death. In several cases though Leone is actually ripping himself off more than anything else!. The only actual thing that I didn't like about the film was Coburn's Irish accent, which was pretty poor. It was a nice touch to have him being an IRA man in Mexico [fish out of water style], but he should have worked a bit on that accent!.
Apart from this, the performances of the two lead actors are exceptional, this is effectively a 'two hander' Steiger and Coburn are onscreen for almost the entire 2.5 hour duration, and its to their credit that their performances didn't drag one bit.
Ennio Morricone's score is beautiful, much more sentimental and emotive than his previous Spaghetti Western ones. It sounds almost like a Beach Boys song [the main theme] with a dreamy and ethereal atmosphere. I suppose this could divide some people, I could see some hating it. But I personally thought it complimented the film really well.
Steiger's character had a great sort of 'Luddite' mentality. There's a scene where he has to operate a huge rolling machine gun and he can't figure out how to operate it. When the gun starts going off he just lets it go....amazed at this piece of 'modern' technology. This also happens in any scenes with motorised vehicles; Steiger looks on amazed as people drive past in cars and on motorbikes. In this way, Leone beautifully shows the demise of the 'old west' as it becomes replaced with modernisation and engines replace manual functioning.
I particularly enjoyed Rod Steiger's performance in this, when I was younger I saw the film 'The Specialist' with Sylvester Stallone and Rod Steiger had quite an embarrassing role in that film where he basically says 'Bastado!!' and is then blown up. Its good to be reminded of how good he was in his heyday [ he's particularly good in 'In The Heat Of The Night' also].
I was very impressed with 'A Fistful Of Dynamite', Leone is one of my favourite directors and I love Westerns anyway, so it was always likely to be a safe bet , but I'd still highly recommend this to anyone.
There is a very attractive looking 'Special Edition' DVD version of this film [released through MGM] and that actually appears to be cheaper [?!] to buy new than the original 'no frills' version. So I shall be ordering that very soon from Amazon. Perhaps rent the film first as I did, but I reckon if you even remotely enjoy Westerns you'll love this!.
Sergio Leone was done with westerns after Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968, not wanting to do another western again. It had a lot to do with how his perception of the old western ideals had began to sour and how he could not get that enthusiastic about it anymore than he had in the past. Not to mention he felt like he had already done just about everything he could with the genre, so there was no point in continuing. He would still continue writing and producing westerns, but he didn't have any real interest in directing any more or to be involved in the extensive work this would require. However, it was in 1971 when a new film, written by him with Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, detailing the popular subject of many other contemporary Italian westerns of the time, the Mexican Revolution of 1913, that he ended up in making something like this for one last time. Leone was very leftist when it came to politics and Giù la Testa was his take on the rampant Zapata western. However, instead of doing one of those hopelessly patriotic films, he instead wrote something that was a lot grimmer and certainly not light-heartedly amusing at all. He was very critical of fascism and how higher classes would oppress the lower by ruling with violence instead of advocating peace. In his mind violence could only breed more violence, and revolution should be one to advocate change toward a more peaceful solution and friendship should be a ruling doctrine in which individual change and personal reform would outdo the need of guns and death. Therefore Giù la Testa set out to severely criticise the way a lot of other people were viewing revolution as being and instead went off to take a distinctly leftist approach to the rules of Maoism. What came out of it was Leone's most politically and socially heavy script he ever tackled, completely removed from the simple worlds inhabited by the profiteering bounty hunters of the Dollars films.
However, despite being very much into the story and was willing to produce the film, Leone didn't want to personally direct it. In fact Leone tried anything to get away from that charge by trying to appoint somebody else to the job. Originally the film was to be directed by Peter Bogdanavich, but he in the end didn't suit Leone's style of making films, and every other director outlet also fell through, one of those approached even being Sam Peckinpah who obviously was not interested in doing another director's film. The final nail for Leone came when two of the film's main stars, James Coburn (Leone's original choice to play Eastwood's character in A Fistful of Dollars), who only agreed to star in a film of this kind due to Henry Fonda's praise of Leone, and the studio draftee in place of the originally planned Eli Wallach, Rod Steiger, refused to perform for nobody else but Leone. After all, if the main incentive in the first place was that it would be a Sergio Leone film, then of course it should also be directed by Leone himself, otherwise why bother. Thus Leone ended up being essentially coerced into directing, but what came out of it was perhaps his most adult and serious film. It doesn't really start that way, though, and in many ways the first half of the film is indeed more in line with a lot of standard western shenanigans. With Steiger's roguish peasant Juan going around the Mexican deserts with a band of poor robbers, in the beginning stealing a luxurious stagecoach and properly defiling its high society occupants who look down on the peasants and are meant to be disgusting caricatures of the aristocracy, the merry bandit meets an Irish explosives expert John (or Sean) on the run from his past.
The two then through various circumstances end up teaming together, with Juan wanting to harness John to help rob the bank of Mesa Verde, only to find that everything doesn't go exactly as planned. Before he knows it, he is thrown right in the middle of the revolution, a reluctant hero, who in the midst of it all loses everything. Now Giù la Testa is a film that is highly satirical for a lot of its running time, upping the ante on the violence shown as something almost ridiculous as Leone had already done in a lot of his other films, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly most notably. But unlike his previous films, Leone also brings about it the new thought of consequence. Whereas there was essentially no true fallout left after the duels, or the deaths, or the murders in his other films, Giù la Testa has a very strong sense that every action can and will have an effect of some kind. These are explored a lot through John's flashbacks pertaining to his dear friend who, after torture, ratted out to the authorities his part in the IRA, which essentially made John an exile from his home country and his whole look on life taking a decidedly cynical outlook. This same is later repeated as another lead member of the revolution is tortured (though this is never shown) and as a consequence because of his inability to take it anymore ends up bringing a lot of other people in front of the firing squad, prompting John's painful memories back again. It more than anything shows Leone in a mood to not make a comic adventure like the Dollars films and that he was after something considerably more weighty.
The main cast of Rod Steiger and James Coburn offer performances that are far removed from what you could consider as being "authentic". Coburn is certainly no Irishman, and Steiger is equally unconvincing as a Mexican bandit, but by and large this doesn't matter as under Leone's direction the two end up taking part in the satire of it all to not seem terribly unfitting to the film. In that end, their performances are actually pretty good and it doesn't necessarily cause one to roll their eyes at how much they are attempting to be something they are not. Their chemistry is good and their participation in the flow of the story makes one quickly forget such inconsequential considerations. The secondary cast is less constant in their application, but work well for all the things they are needed for. The most notable of these come in the form of the revolutionary Dr. Villega played by Romolo Valli, who is a stout advocate of the revolution, but who even then cannot help but give away to his own human weaknesses, and the other the Nazi-like military commander Gutierrez (or Günther Reza) played by Antoine Saint-John is an imposing and grim looking SS commander, being a clear throwback to the Second World War in order to make the film's message of anti-fascism all the more relevant.
The film also uses flashbacks to an ever increasing degree. There are many instances where John ends up remembering his past in Ireland, which are two-fold in application. The first is the happy times he, his best friend, and their apparently shared girlfriend had in the early part of their lives, something which fleshes out the close relationships John enjoyed before, and which come to a head in a particularly long such memory at the very end of the film (originally edited out from international releases). The second is the betrayal flashbacks I mentioned above, where John remembers his best friend handing him out to the police, which results in his escape from Ireland, and the disillusionment, as well as disappointment, that tainted and embittered his life from there on end. All these flashbacks are shot in slow motion, as if they take place in dreams. The happy memories in particular are so surreal in their dream-like atmosphere one almost questions whether those memories are actually real at all. The flashback is a technique that Leone had extensively used before in Indio's marijuana dreams in For a Few Dollars More, in Harmonica's memories in Once Upon a Time in the West, and he would later use the flashback as a major structural device in Once Upon a Time in America. Furthermore Leone also stacked up more spectacle in the form of some massive explosions the scale of which he had not done before, the most notable being the blowing up of a bridge enemy troops were just traversing across, and another involving a head-on collision of two trains.
Otherwise the film, as always, employs a lot of the basic shooting tropes Leone had been cultivating since A Fistful of Dollars, while the pacing is slow as always, though not quite to the extent of Once Upon a Time in the West thanks to the more action oriented storyline. The music of Ennio Morricone is as well-suited as always, if somewhat unusual than normal in its application of the main characters' spoken names integrated into the music (burping Juans is "The March of the Beggars" and soaring Seans in the Edda dell'Orso accompanied lyricism). However, despite the deeper style of storyline Leone was doing - or perhaps partially because of it - the film was not a success. Many critics found Leone's critique of revolutions to be against what was "right" and "agreeable". Also, as the film was shown in America (the primary target country), the length of it was deemed too much and a lot of important material was cut away to make the film more palatable, only to cause it to loose coherency. Not to mention the subject matter was not what was expected of Leone from the crowd knowing him from his adventure westerns, making the whole film feel alienating. And it certainly didn't help that Leone's title for the film, Duck You Sucker (a phrase Leone believed was a popular one in America), made the film sound like a comedy that it most certainly was not. Consequently in France the film was re-titled as Once Upon a Time... The Revolution, and as the film was given its UK premiere, the title was once more changed to the now more familiar A Fistful of Dynamite, an equally ill suiting name like the original, a clear attempt to cash in on the fame of A Fistful of Dollars. Thus there was a lot going against the film upon release and as a result it has received a bit of a bum rap, undeserved as it is.
But as much as the film is considered as Leone's weakest, and in certain aspects it doesn't really measure entirely up to say The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, Giù la Testa is not a bad film, and it certainly is a good testament that Leone was not afraid to take risks instead of just repeating past successes, which this film could have easily been. The film is heavy in content, yet also has a lot of boyish charm at the same time until that innocence is soured irrevocably after the half-way point. It is Leone being more aware of society and politics, and not afraid to voice his own feelings on the subject, no matter how unpopular they might be. Giù la Testa is a film steeped in melancholy, yet it doesn't descend to despair even at its grimmest. Juan's final question to us all at the very end that is answered by the title of the film is pure genius and thanks to its release on DVD, the restoration of the edited scenes since its theatrical runs has truly helped make the film a lot more comprehensible and appreciated today. It may not be Leone at his very best, but it is Leone being more deep than he ever was, which is still extremely good.
© berlioz, 2009
This is a classic Spaghetti Western with some added dimensions that don't occur in many others.
Made in 1971, filmed in Italy, and spanning 157 glorious minutes this film shows off James Coburn's and Rod Steiger's acting talents to the full.
The great Sergio Leone directs and the equally great Ennio Morricone provides the music.
This Spaghetti Western is unusual in so far as it is set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution and James Coburn's character is a motor cycle riding IRA nitro glycerene explosives expert on the run from the British!
You may wonder how you could possibly get a great film out of this but believe me this film is awesome and along side The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in my opinion is the joint best of all of the Spaghetti Westerns ever made.
The two best highlights for me in the film are the opening sequences showing rich, well to do passengers eating like animals in the first class section of a train. This is a piece of cinematographic and directorial genius, and, the main "Sean, Sean" musical score that crops up at various points in the film when Coburn's character is having flashbacks to happier days.
This film is in my top 10 of all time and I have watched and enjoyed it many times.
This review is also posted on www.ciao.co.uk
under my user name bella6789
Made in 1971 this is one of the later Sergio Leone Spaghetti westerns so called because these films made in the 60s and 70s were Italian production of the classic American western genre. To begin with it was supposed to be directed by Giancarlo Santi and later by Peter Bogdanovich but the two big name stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn who had expected Leone to be in charge objected and so Leone was forced to come take over. By this time the Spaghetti western genre had developed quite a bit from the dollar trilogy. The films had in the late 60s proved themselves very bankable and the directors like Leone could afford known Hollywood stars rather than the untried talents of people like Clint Eastwood in the early 60s. It is interesting to note that James Coburn an actor that made his name in another western classic The Magnificent Seven was Leones first choice to play the Man With No Name in the first of the dollar trilogy A Fistful OF Dollars (a role that later went to Eastwood) but refused because the fee wasnt high enough but a few years on he was more than happy to star in this film.
Leones previous western had always tried to be more than simply violent entertainment and his third film with Eastwood the magnificent The Good The Bad And The Ugly had a very strong anti war message at a time of increasing anti Viet Nam protests. A Fistful Of Dynamite originally titled Duck You Sucker! also carried a thinly disguised political undertone whilst still retaining the trademark violent action and comedic interactions of many of Leones movies.
A Fistful Of Dynamite also represents a interesting sub-genre of the Spaghetti Westerns often called the Zapata Western after the Mexican revolutionary Zapata. Leone was so keen to make this point that he starts the film with a quotation by Mao Tse-Tung on the nature of revolutions. The Zapata westerns whilst recognisably in the Spaghetti western tradition dealt with more political themes based around revolution and mercenaries. A fistful of dynamite is not the first of these but certainly one of the best and better known and it highlighted a whole run of more politically engaged western in the 70s.
An IRA explosives expert John Mallory played by James Coburn is hiding out in Mexico there he meets Juan Miranda played by the great Rod Steiger a Mexican bandit who immediately sees a way of using Mallorys knowledge of blowing things up in order to rob a large bank that has become an obsession for him. The problem for Juan is that Mallory has no interest in robbing the bank or attracting attention to himself, its only after Juan fits him up for the killing of some local soldiers John has little choice but to help out. However in the background a revolution is raging in Mexico and it is not long before the simple plan to rob the bank becomes complicated by loftier political matters. Gradually the committed revolutionary Mallory and the more self-serving Miranda find themselves in the middle of the revolutionary struggle.
CAST, PERFORMANCES AND MY OPINION
James Coburn .... John H. Mallory
Rod Steiger .... Juan Miranda
Antoine Saint-John .... Col. Günther Reza
Directed by Sergio Leone, written by Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni.
The key to the success of the film is the contrast between the two main characters played by Coburn and Steiger. The laconic Coburn sporting a very dodgy Irish accent is as cool as always and has his hands full keeping one step ahead of the devious machinations of the more genial Miranda. Coburn always expresses an economy of effort in his cat like movement and exudes a laid back ultra cool persona, which was his trademark in whatever role he played on screen. This film is no exception and he breezes through the role as the charming Irishman on the run. Steiger is truly one of the Hollywood greats and time and time again he has proved himself to be a excellent character actor from his early role in On the Waterfront where he just about matches the great Brando with his performance to his Oscar winning part of the southern Sheriff in In The Heat Of The Night Steiger is has always excellent. It is also a mark of his acting ability that he can adapt to a variety of different roles and this includes playing comedic roles as well as dramatic ones. Steiger portrays the bandit as a loveable rogue but with great deal of charm that you cannot fail but warm to him, much in the same way that Anthony Quinn would have done in some of his best roles.
Coburns character also has shades of the earlier Man With No Name once again we are presented with a loner embroiled in matters that spiral outside of his control and Steiger plays the bandit Juan with a nod to an earlier Spaghetti bandit Tuco (the ugly) from Leones previous film and you feel that Leones is consciously playing with and subverting the iconic characters that he had created a few years before.
Of course the political message of the film is ever-present but not intrusive, initially this is like any other Spaghetti western although the setting of revolutionary Mexico is a little different from the others previously made but as the characters start to become more aware of the revolutionary struggle that is going on in the background of the story then Leone also starts to express his own left wing sensibilities. Knowing the commitment that Leone had to his political beliefs it is no surprise that the most effective parts of the film are those later in the story where the action takes a more serious turn and we are presented with a great deal of emotional upheaval.
The simple message seems to be that revolutionary struggle is often bloody, violent and everyone in the end suffers but that it is still justified. The parallel is made between the turn of the century revolution in Mexico, which the government tried to oppress with extreme measures and the then current (at the time the film was made) troubles in Northern Ireland, the presence of a IRA characters emphasises this point.
Leone makes more general political points by highlighting the class differences that under lies the revolutionary struggle in Mexico. The main villain of the film is Col. Günther Reza (brilliantly played by the French actor Antoine Saint-John) a sadistic Nazi like commander who goes around in an armoured car. The Colonel in good fascistic tradition goes around ruthlessly executing the poor hapless Mexican revolutionaries and we are left in no doubt where our sympathies should reside.
Leone fans wont be disappointed, the overall spectacle is epic in its scale and we have the trademark imaginative use of camera and music provided once again by Leone's long time collaborator Ennio Morricone.
There are some spectacular uses of scenery, sprawling panoramic views across desert landscapes and as usual Leone challenges us stylistically by incorporating various cinematic devices flashback, close-ups etc to tell the tale. A point needs to be made here that the original version has been edited in different ways through the years and the running times of the film varies from 121minutes to a more recent (1994) edit of a basically uncut 162 minutes. I would advise seeing the longer version to get the full impact Leone intended from the film.
The mix of comedy action and political message is managed with great skill by Leone and the film ends up being an enjoyable action romp.
Inevitably this film will be compared to Leones other works, the dollar trilogy that made his name and the later masterpieces Once Upon A Time In The West. It does share the panoramic view and theatrical almost operatic exuberance of Leones other big budget films and the distinctive Leone style is in clear evidence. The acting performances from the two lead actors especially Steiger are top draw. The message of the film is a serious one but overall maybe due to the plotting of the story it probably isnt quite up there with Leones very best work but having said that it certainly is up near the very top of the Spaghetti genre. Certainly this is a film that fans of Leone and spaghetti westerns in general will love.
The film does have a few violent bits and one particularly bloody scene that although might be considered a little milder by todays standard still warrants a 15 certificate.
© Mauri 2006