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Film / A Fistful of Dynamite

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Let's blow up some shit.

"I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. 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, ah? 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. Shhh... So, please, don't tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!"
Juan Miranda

Directed by Sergio Leone in 1971, the film takes place during The Mexican Revolution in 1913. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), a Mexican bandit, has a chance encounter with early Irish nationalist John Mallory (James Coburn). Mallory also happens to be a demolitions expert with enough explosives to level a mountain.

Despite a rather heated, if ultimately non-fatal, first meeting, Miranda seemingly enlists the Irishman's talents in order to fulfill his life's ambition: robbing the Mesa Verde national bank. Unfortunately for Juan, the entire heist is an elaborate ruse and John is simply using him to further the revolution's aims. And so begins Juan's unwillingly entry into the revolution and of course his chaotic friendship with Mallory.

Despite the light-hearted moments between Juan and John, the romantic side of revolution is frequently deconstructed throughout the movie as both characters suffer significant losses. It's arguably Sergio Leone's most politically charged movie, capturing as much Leone's reaction to the chaos of Italy's Years of Lead, a cycle of terrorism and political warfare between left- and right-wing extremists, as it is a Western.note  Thus the revolution setting was intended to be symbolic according to Word of God, incorporating elements from a variety of events and time periods, and not an accurate rendering of the Mexican Revolution. The whole thing is, as with all Leone's westerns, set to epic Ennio Morricone...but this time, his Awesome Music has a trippy side.

The film never had the commercial success of the director's other Spaghetti Western classics, due in part to confusing trailers implying it was an actual comedy and poor marketing. Leone's insistence the movie be called Duck, You Sucker! in its initial U.S release, believing it to be a popular turn of phrase in the states, despite being repeatedly told this was not the case, didn't help things either. Critics reviewed it favourably (especially in Europe, where the movie's parallels to contemporary politics were perhaps better-appreciated) but certainly not to the extent of the director's other work, though it has begun to change since.

Sergio Leone's final western epic, it's also undoubtedly his most overlooked film.

The movie has been released under many titles; Duck, You Sucker! was derived from the film's Italian name, Giu La Testa (literally meaning "Duck Your Head"). During a re-release it was renamed A Fistful of Dynamite for commercial reasons, to make it the fourth film in the Dollars Trilogy. And finally, in some places, it was originally marketed under its working title of Once Upon A Time... The Revolution (or the Revolution), making it a second part in a thematic "Once Upon a Time" trilogy.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Hero: Despite Juan's best efforts to the contrary he is constantly being lauded as a hero of the revolution.
  • All There in the Script: The flashbacks are silent, so the name of John's friend (Nolan) is never known.
  • Anachronism Stew: When he is captured by the Governor, Mallory uses a Hi-Power handgun, which was first made around 1935. Later on, Juan uses a Nazi MG-42 (The 42 meaning 1942, when it was made) to blow away a government convoy. Both weapons are used in a film set in 1913. Then again, the film abounds in thinly-veiled allusions to Nazis (see A Nazi by Any Other Name below), so at least some of anachronisms could be deliberate.
  • Armies Are Evil: We don't meet a single sympathetic soldier. They're all shown or implied to be like Reza.
    • However we see a Mexican deserter dressed like a rebel being shot by firing squad.
  • Artistic License – History: Sergio Leone took many liberties with regards to the actual Mexican Revolution. This was however for the most part deliberate as it was intended to be symbolic portrayal of revolutions in general, rather than an accurate description of Mexican Revolution in particular (that's why the film refers not only to Mexican, but also to Irish and, through Mao's quote, Chinese revolutions, along with fascist imagery borrowed from World War II).
    • John being an Irish nationalist in 1913 owns an IRA flag. Problem is the Irish Republican Army didn't exist until 1919, because it was the army of the Irish Republic. He would have most likely been in the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), a secret organization, if any at all. This failing is further compounded by countless reviews and summaries of the film labelling John ex-IRA or an IRA terrorist. The later secret terrorist organization was not the same as its earlier namesake which became the Irish Defence Forces. Probably justified though, as the terrorist IRA was a much more well-known (and nominally Marxist) organization and active at the time of the film release, and Leone certainly wanted the viewers to draw the necessary parallels.
    • A newspaper which designated Mallory as a terrorist (and uses his English name "John" instead of Irish "Seán"). By definition it should have been a pro-British newspaper then, but we get to see the title - and it's United Irishman, which actually was a nationalist newspaper (named after the 1798 rebels) and so highly unlikely to print a "Wanted" ad of Mallory. The mistake is understandable, as after Irish War of Independence anything Irish termed united came to be associated with pro-British unionists rather than Irish republicans.
      • And another one related to this: Irish Freedom nationalist newspaper didn't start to circulate until 1910, and the last issue of United Irishman (which described Mallory as a fugitive) was put out in 1906. Which means Mallory couldn't possibly have witnessed Nolan distributing Irish Freedom in Dublin.
    • The movie appears to be set in 1913-1914, during the rule of Victoriano Huerta (who's mentioned by name several times), so it's unclear which "wee fart of a revolution" John took part in. The closest in time would have been either the Curragh Mutiny, an affair of 1914 which mostly involved Ulster unionists, or the Easter Rising, which occurred two years after the film's events. Of course it's possible that John and Nolan's planned "revolution" was disrupted by British authorities before it actually took place - or that he refers to something more distant in time (see "Genius Bonus" on the YMMV tab).
  • Asshole Victim: The rich people Juan robs at the beginning of the film, who discuss, in his presence, how Mexican peasants are just animals. When he kills one of them (who tried to reach for the gun in the first place), rapes the woman, and robs the rest, it's very hard to have any sympathy for them.
    • John's boss, according to Juan. An unpleasant German man who fired a woman Juan got pregnant without Juan suffering any repurcussions at all.
  • Badass Biker: John rides a motorcycle early in the film until Juan ruins it by shooting it up. He uses another one in his Big Damn Heroes moment to rescue Juan from the firing squad.
  • John Mallory.
  • Colonel Reza sports a badass greatcoat.
  • Bank Robbery: Subverted. Juan relieves the bank of all its valuables but unfortunately for him it's full of political prisoners, not money.
  • Becoming the Mask: Slowly but surely, Juan starts to become the revolutionary hero he was tricked into being, and while still defiant of the revolutionary cause he grudgingly helps those who believe in it. Whether he'll proceed with it after the film's ending is unclear though.
  • Berserk Button: Shooting at Mallory's bike twice results in him retaliating with explosives.
  • BFG: The big-ass machine guns used at San Hoglay.
  • Big Damn Heroes: John saves Juan's life at the last minute from a firing squad, in typical explosive fashion.
  • Big Bad: Colonel Reza.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The protagonists are a greedy bandito and a smug guy obsessed with dynamite. The opponents are an evil army bent on imprisoning and/or killing anyone they meet. The revolutionaries are shown as somewhat idealistic, but equally prone to mass killing and betrayal.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Mallory who reads anarchist literature and really loves his dynamite (and liquid nitroglycerine, and so on). Unusually for the trope, he's one of the protagonists.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How one of the carriage drivers dies at the beginning, thanks to one of Juan's sons.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Mallory, with his obsession with explosives (and apparent belief that they solve all problems) is one. So too is Colonel Reza who starts his mornings by sucking a raw egg dry, brushes his teeth with frankly startling ferocity in front of his men (and rinses his mouth with what appears to be tequila), and almost never speaks.
  • Catchphrase: Mallory's "Duck, You Sucker!" It's usually said right before he blows something to pieces.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Short fuse.
  • Close on Title: In the end the Italian title of the film, Giù la testa ("Down with the Head") is shown. It can be seen as the answer to Juan's last words, which are "What do I do now?".
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Compared to the Westerns of the period, there are a lot of F-bombs.
  • Colonel Badass: Reza is an evil psycho but goddamn if he isn't a badass.
  • Cute and Psycho: Chulo Miranda, one of Juan's sons, whose name actually means "cute".
  • Darker and Edgier: Christopher Frayling notes that this movie takes the violence, tangled motives and betrayals committed by its main characters much more seriously than Leone's other Westerns. Whereas Blondie and Tuco can double-cross each other time and again without serious consequences, the characters in Duck, You Sucker! find their actions coming back to bite them - including the deaths of their family, friends and colleagues.
  • Dead Hat Shot: A bandito mocks an I.R.A bomber that he knows just as much explosives. After an explosion, the next — and last — we see of him is his hat floating down.
  • Death Glare: Juan gives one to GOD after finding his family dead. Reza has a pretty solid one as well. As does John when Don Jaime gets on the train.
  • Death of a Child: Played Straight with the death of Juan's children.
  • Deconstruction: Leone largely made this film as a response to the so-called "Zapata Westerns" like A Bullet for the General and Compañeros that glorified revolutionary politics. Duck, You Sucker! shows revolution as extremely wasteful and neither side innocent in its atrocities.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: A remarkable example. Ennio Morricone composed a musical theme for both John and Juan, which is played in the background when we see them, but never diegetically. Then, all of a sudden, John begins to whistle "his" musical theme; but what really takes the cake is the fact that Juan, not even seeing his buddy, instantly recognizes him by what's being whistled. A strange case of either Magical Realism or Medium Awareness.
  • Dope Slap: Juan frequently gives them to his boys whenever one of them speaks or acts out of turn.
  • Downer Ending: John is definitely dead, and Juan, having lost his whole family and his newly-made best friend, seems to be a completely broken man. At least before death John seems to have finally made peace with himself.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: John Mallory issues one of these before blowing away his former friend-turned-informant Nolan with a shotgun.
  • The Exit Is That Way: When Juan infiltrates the rich people's carriage, he's told by one rude gentleman that he shouldn't sit on one of the chairs, but towards a door where the man is pointing. Juan ends up accidentally opening the lavatory door, when he should have opened a fold-out chair at the back of the carriage. This was likely enforced so the rich people could have a reason laugh at and ridicule him.
  • Expy: Juan is clearly modelled on Tuco, Eli Wallach 's character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This isn't particularly surprising, given that Wallach was originally slated to play the role. One could make the case that Colonel Reza is an expy of Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes (The Bad) of the same film, being an emotionally dead Mysterious Mercenary Pursuer who doesn't bat an eye at the carnage around him, and is bad enough to force the two heroes to work together against him.
  • Evil Old Folks: Juan's father may in the running for "world's oldest bandito," though he's far less evil than even his son is.
  • The Family That Slays Together: Juan's gang includes his elderly father and all of his children.
  • Fan Disservice: A group of rich men are stripped naked by Juan's group.
  • Flashback: John occasionally recalls his younger days back in Ireland with his best friend Nolan and an unnamed love interest.
  • Flashback Echo: Played straight. John witnesses Dr. Villega betraying the resistance and pointing out members for the firing squad. He instantly recalls a similar event involving his friend Nolan betraying him in Dublin.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Juan's view of revolution is that the poor die to replace those in power with other selfish rich people. Then the cycle simply repeats itself. Leone himself seems to concur.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The governor, who is directly or indirectly responsible for most of the horrific things that happen in the film. However, he is completely harmless in person and is easily disposed of.
    • Victoriano Huerta, whose regime the Mexicans live under at the time, and who is never shown in the film.
  • The Heavy: Colonel Günther Reza is the only named villain besides the governor, and his actions move the plot of the second half of the film. He's also by far the more dangerous of the two.
  • The Hero Dies: John is fatally wounded during the film's final battle before deciding to go out on his own terms.
  • Heroic BSoD: Juan's reaction to his children's and John's deaths.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Dr. Villega gives one, in order to make up for his betrayal.
  • Irish Explosives Expert: John Mallory. His backstory had him use explosives against the British and he displays great skill and knowledge on a wide range of explosives.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Juan Miranda, though it's buried very deep.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: John Mallory acts as this to Nolan, deciding his fate on the spot when he attempts to have him arrested by British forces. It's heavily implied John feels a great deal of guilt over judging his old friend so harshly, which becomes a plot point later in the movie.
    John: I don't judge you, Villega. I did that... only once in my life.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Col. Reza, whose attack at the bridge and subsequent murder of Juan's children turns the film from a Black Comedy to a serious drama.
  • Lovable Rogue: John.
  • Love Triangle: Implied. In Mallory's flashbacks of Ireland it's hinted he and his best friend Nolan loved the same woman, which might have affected their judgement since Nolan ended up ratting John to the British and John shot his friend.
  • Manly Tears: Juan, discovering his six children executed among the rebels.
  • The Mole: Nolan. John's best friend and fellow Irish nationalist is revealed through flashbacks to be the reason he is on the run from the British for murder. See also Love Triangle and Torture Always Works.
  • Mood Whiplash: While hiding out in a cargo carriage on a train, Juan quietly cries over his dead family. Then a bird defecates on his head. Even John finds it funny, especially when Juan remarks, "But for the rich, you sing."
  • More Dakka: The scene where John and Juan kill most of Reza's squad with machine guns, almost firing continuously. Then there is the last scene where Juan empties the entire belt of his heavy machine gun into Reza.
  • Motor Mouth: Juan talks a mile a minute.
  • Multiple Gunshot Death: How Colonel Raza dies.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Reza has two scenes—one where he sucks an egg and one where he brushes his teeth—with far more aggression and menace than are even remotely required.
  • Mysterious Mercenary Pursuer: He may be a part of the Mexican army, but Reza hits all the other qualifications.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Reza and his men, look and act like the fascist stormtroopers (both German and Italian) that Leone saw when he was growing up in Italy. In particular, he modeled the death of Juan's family on the Fosse Ardeatine massacre in 1944, which Leone's father witnessed.
  • Never Trust a Title: A Fistful of Dynamite - a title imposed on the film in the US - alludes to the earlier film by Leone, which led many viewers to expect something akin to the Dollars Trilogy. In fact this one is completely different.
    • And the original title Duck, You Sucker! makes some other viewers to think of it as a low-brow film, which is true (deliberately so) only for certain scenes. Probably the least misleading title is Once Upon A Time... The Revolution (or the Revolution), making it a second part in a thematic "Once Upon a Time" trilogy - but then it deprives the film of a meaningful Close on Title.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Apparently originally advertised as more of a comedy, which in turn likely helped undermine its commercial success. The first half of the movie is a Black Comedy, for argument's sake. Still, a movie that opens with a bunch of racists being mugged and raped likely isn't going to have too much sunshine and rainbows.
  • No One Could Survive That!: Said a few times in response to Reza. It never takes.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Juan. At least in the beginning before he's dragged into the revolution anyway. He's only after money initially. And it's implied he's got literally nothing to fight for after the ending.
  • One-Steve Limit: Technically averted with John, Juan and Seán (which are English, Spanish and Irish variations of the same name). "Johnny&Johnny", the name of partnership between John and Juan proposed by the latter, lampshades it.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Averted. Despite both James Coburn and Rod Steiger being American, their Irish and Mexican accents hold up well throughout the entire film (the quality of those accents is debatable).
  • Plunger Detonator: Used at least twice by John (when they attack the bank, then to blow up the bridge).
  • Psychotic Smirk: Reza sports one during the interrogation scene. It grows larger and more self-satisfied with every person he has shot.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Mexican government troops are treated as Nazi stormtroopers.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "You mean, who were those people?"- Juan before blowing up several people who were after John, including John's German boss who was apparently working with a captain.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: When he finds his family murdered Juan tears the cross from his neck and obviously sees God as having failed them.
  • Rape as Comedy: The way in which Juan's punishment of the rich white woman at the beginning of the film is presented.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Invoked by Dr. Villega.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: The film acts as a deconstruction of this.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Subverted. Juan attempts this alone when he finds his family dead. He ends up failing and being arrested.
  • Silent Antagonist: Reza speaks two lines of dialogue in his first appearance (both of them orders to his men) and then never speaks again.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Col. Reza and his men, who seem intent on killing or imprisoning every single person in Mexico. That they're modelled on German and Italian stormtroopers doesn't help their image. Reza in particular is a terrifying Type II.
  • Spaghetti Western: Of "Zapata" subgenre. It transcends any genre boundaries though.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Just duck, you sucker.
  • Taking You with Me: During their heated first encounter, an enraged Miranda threatens to shoot Mallory, who responds by opening his coat to reveal enough explosive materials to send them all into the afterlife with him.
    Mallory: When I go, I'm taking half this country with me.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Juan not just shooting, but machine-gunning the guy who shot John for like half a minute. Though it's justified given it's the seemingly deathproof Colonel Reza.
  • Title Drop: The phrase "Duck, you sucker(s)", an original title of the film, is used multiple times, typically before John blows something to hell and back. And the very last Title Drop, shaped as the Close on Title directly answering the protagonist's final Aside Comment, alludes to one of the central messages of the film.
  • Torture Always Works: Nolan & Dr. Villega are both tortured into becoming informants on their respective allies. In the second case at least, John seems to recognize it.
  • Throw Down the Bomblet: John, aw yeah. It was called "A Fistful of Dynamite" in the US for a reason.
  • Tranquil Fury: John Mallory. He's almost serene at San Hoglay and barely flinches as he kills two British officers and his friend in a bar.
  • Treachery Cover Up: John wouldn't tell anyone about Dr. Villega's treachery, due to the latter's breaking only under torture and deliberate self-sacrifice to atone his deed.
  • Vehicle Vanish: John uses a train to get a head start to Mesa Verde; as a train comes down the tracks he and Juan are riding along, the two of them move to either sides of the tracks, and John catches the train without Juan's knowledge.
  • Verbal Tic: Juan talks this way, ah?

Alternative Title(s): Duck You Sucker