1971; directed by Sergio Leone; written by Roberto De Leonardis, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Carlo Tritto and Luciano Vincenzoni; 154 mins
“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, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They’re dead! That’s your revolution.” – Juan Miranda
About the only film I would say is a genuine underrated classic. Perennially lost amidst all of Leone’s other films, A Fistful of Dynamite (by which it’ll be referred from here on in because that’s the name by which I came to it) is the dirty, smelly, subversive cousin sandwiched in between golden children, Once Upon a time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It’s historically all over the place, to say nothing of the lead actors’ accents. When it came out, it was too ambivalent in it’s politics for the cultural elite and too arty for the studios, both of whom butchered it in their own way. This review is of the 154 minute version… that’s very important! Not the 121 minute version or the 138 minute version which miss out very crucial character beats.
Set during the Mexican revolution, we meet Juan Miranda, a two-bit bandit and his extended family of variable legitimacy, hijacking a massive stage coach and humiliating it’s bourgeois passengers, who’ve spent the last few miles ridiculing Juan as just an animal. Exploding his way into the situation, comes John (or Sean) Mallory, a mysterious, ex-IRA man, apparently working for a German silver mining company. When Juan discovers the cache of explosives John carries around, he sees this as his meal ticket to robbing the grand Bank at Mesa Verde, however, their relationship is stormy at best. Juan destroys John’s motorbike and John destroys Juan’s requisitioned stage-coach-cum-home. Eventually, the two double-crossers along with Juan’s clan descend on Mesa Verde and after meeting a certain Dr. Villega, the stage is set for an epic journey of betrayals and backstabbing, in which our two antiheroes’ personal lives will intersect and the outside world will come crashing in on the both of them!
It’s a movie that is at once bitterly cynical and achingly humane. This, for me, is the movie I’ve seen that cleaves closest to that turn, that essential personal-political journey that an ordinary person takes to join a revolution in times of struggle. Some movies start with a character who is dead set on joining anyway and others have an individual who begins outside and gets in but never quite believably enough. Here, through Steiger’s brash, hard-edged performance, we have Juan tricked into becoming a hero of the revolution and his principles then slowly but inexorably turning round. As he is stuck with the revolutionary army, personal tragedy tears through that and it is in the aftermath of a massacre that the film really flexes it’s cinematic muscles…
Of all Leone’s films, this is surely the darkest. Even up against the fucked-up psychology of Once Upon a Time in America, this has a soul-searching heart that looks deep within a bad man to find the reluctant hero inside being prodded and poked into the light by those both with and against him. What helps make it so powerful is how much Leone does with his trademark stares. He is often applauded for his Mexican standoffs where gunslingers and bounty killers squint across circular battlegrounds. In fact, the critic Richard Jameson once wrote that Leone’s films were; “operas in which the arias are not sung but stared”. This is usually used to applaud him on a purely stylistic level but here, there are at least three scenes in the second half in which the film pauses to watch the two characters first take in events beyond their control and then silently contemplate the seismic changes to their own worlds. Stowing away, in the train carriage filled with livestock, we watch John watch Juan and with no dialogue at all, Leone allows us to read the sea of thoughts crashing around in their heads.
Whilst Juan is going through his own turmoil, at the same time, what’s going on with John and those flashbacks? Why, when asked his name, does he say Sean and then correct it to John? My theory is that the connection is in the music which (despite Morricone having denied it) clearly says “Sean! Sean! Sean!”. Crucially, we hear it trail off for the first time as John shoots his old comrade* who has just betrayed him to the Brits. My feeling is that either the fabulously charismatic tooth machine, Coburn, is Sean, who has taken the name John from his friend, or that their relationship was so close (possibly a bisexual relationship, including the girl they clearly shared) that he is given to certain mix-ups, particularly when in a hungover state. It’s not much of a theory but I’ve only just thought of it. The double treachery of Nolan and of Villega is clearly too much for an already messed up John/Sean and dreaming of simpler times, coupled with disillusionment towards his chosen path prompts his suicide at the end.
On the production front, two key figures step boldly up to the plate for their only collaborations under Leone: Giuseppe Ruzzolini as DOP does great work finding a middle ground between the hyper-real painterliness of Leone’s compositions and the everyday grit of his sensibility. Taking over from the great Carlo Simi, Andrea Crisanti brings the early 20th century to life with his far-reaching and evocative sets and Franco Carretti‘s costumes which, combined with the cinematography, make the feel of the film a series of sense memories, even despite having no contact with that time or place.
No review of a Leone film can go by without a mention for Ennio Morricone and his work here is as strong and as curious as ever! It has a wonderful duality between it’s more mournful, nostalgic themes (accompanied with typically evocative vocals by regular Morricone collaborator, Edda Dell’Orso) and the guttural, belching sounds of ugliness and intestinal trouble. It’s like the soundtrack is echoing the film’s conversation between the romanticism of successes past and the everyday grind of a revolution.
There is a problem early on and that is the rape scene when Juan coerces the society lady from the stage coach into a ramshackle livestock shelter out the back of what is possibly his derelict home. Here is flagged up Leone’s odd relationship with his women characters. “Odd” being a nice way of putting it. This particular scene isn’t as problematic as I remembered it being, it’s certainly nowhere near as queasy as the rape/non-rape of Carol in Once Upon a Time in America but it is certainly too ambiguous for comfort. Not judgemental enough, I think is the phrase. It’s just strange, in the Dollars Trilogy, the women were either Madonnas or whores but in Once Upon a Time in the West, you got Jill McBain, a strong woman, finding her own way forward in a man’s man’s world. Here, we have a step back, ultimately. Women don’t feature in this story almost at all, except in this early set piece, which is essentially a revenge rape because of Juan’s being slighted on the carriage ride. Genuinely, I do wonder if it’s meant to be as uncomfortable as it is or whether it’s a 21st century sensibility getting in the way of a retrograde moment. Nevertheless, the fact that I’m even confused about that, makes it problematic. I hope you get where I’m coming from. What conclusions you wish to come to about the whole film is your own affair, I personally don’t think it’s overarching message should be written off because of one morally murky scene but it is a problem that stays with you and slightly tarnishes Juan. He’s meant to be ugly in character (he is, after all, an extension of Tuco from GBU) but this is perhaps a push too far.
All this being said, Sergio Leone’s films are hugely important to me and to my obsession with film and it’s nice to finally wax (née, wank) on about his work in full. Why start here? Well firstly, at the moment, it’s the only Leone film I own and secondly, as I stated at the beginning, this is that rarest of films that I think genuinely is a great film in terms of it’s achievements and how it achieves them. Despite his reluctance to actually make the film, it seems Leone had a lot to say on the hot-button topic of revolution and for me, it cuts closer to the bone than most other intellectualised, romanticised bullshit.
The director was pilloried by the intellectual left for not outright condoning revolution but his is a clear-eyed vision. I don’t think he’s against the idea of armed political struggle but he clearly is concerned that it’s the poor that suffer most now who will suffer most in the future and that his ideological critics were just a bunch of Dr. Villegas waiting to happen.
*Who is credited as “Nolan” but that, of course, is a surname.