Bang for Your Buck: Sergio Leone's 'A Fistful of Dynamite'
A Fistful of Dynamite finds Sergio Leone working on a massive canvas of intricately choreographed scenes that telegraph the chaos and the brutality of the Mexican Revolution.
A Fistful of Dynamite
9 December 2019Other
In terms of box office returns, the Italian director Sergio Leone enjoyed a career of spectacular highs and disappointing lows when his small body of films were originally released into cinemas in America. His Dollars trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns -- A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) -- were, quite simply, perfect exercises in filmmaking. Leone's stylish camera set-ups, Ennio Morricone's superb musical contributions, and Carlo Simi's brilliant art direction resulted in films that straddled the realms of both popular and art house cinema, possessing the power to appeal to a very wide audience. All three films were instant box office smashes when they were released stateside in quick succession during 1967.
The first Western in the trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964), is an action-packed, stylish and revisionist endeavour that made a star of Clint Eastwood and changed the Western genre forever. Eastwood had been cast as the gun-slinging, poncho-clad Man With No Name late in the day, but it's hard to imagine any other actor playing the wandering gun-for-hire who cleverly plays two gangs of villains against each other to devastating effect.
The film's sequel, For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in piu, 1965), is even more stylish and its intricate narrative concerning bounty hunters and flashback-fuelled vengeance demands a noticeably longer running time of 132 minutes. Eastwood's Man With No Name is back, this time accompanied by Lee Van Cleef's vengeful Douglas Mortimer. The two gunslingers clash before uniting in order to tackle the dreaded Mexican bandit Indio (Gian Maria Volonte) and his gang.
For the final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966), Leone turns the Man With No Name loose during the American Civil War. Here Eastwood is partnered with Eli Wallach's Mexican bandit Tuco in an epic search for $200k in stolen gold. The gold is also being sought by Lee Van Cleef's villainous gun-for-hire, Angel Eyes. The Italian version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly clocks in at three hours but it remains a perfectly paced show that features engaging characters, stylish action and a compelling narrative.
The story goes that Leone suffered some kind of crisis of confidence while editing his original four-hour cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly down to three hours, sweating blood and testing the creative limits of both himself and his production team in order to keep the film's story and its crucial sense of pace intact in spite of the significant cuts that they were making. He pulled it off but Leone was now fully immersed in an epic style of filmmaking that inevitably demanded that his films got longer and bigger in scale.
Unfortunately, United Artists insisted that a further 20-minutes of footage be cut from the American version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, resulting in a running time of 161-minutes. In what appears to have been a case of "once bitten, twice shy", Leone endeavoured to produce final cuts of his next two films, Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West, 1968) and A Fistful of Dynamite (Giu la testa, 1971), that run to similar lengths (165-minutes and 157-minutes respectively).
However, his efforts to edit films that had been clearly conceived, written, and shot as epic features with running times in the region of four hours down to distributor-friendly lengths were not successful. Both films suffer from what some viewers would regard as pacing problems while also featuring apparent ellipses that require the viewer to fill in parts of their narratives themselves.
Leone sought to move away from Westerns after completing the Dollars trilogy. Indeed, he began formulating a gangster movie, Once Upon a Time in America, but his American financiers were only interested in backing more Westerns. To this end, Leone made Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Although the film was a critical and financial success in Europe, Once Upon a Time in the West was critically mauled in America.
Furthermore, 20 minutes were cut from the film for its US theatrical release and it subsequently flopped at the American box office. Now recognised as an idiosyncratic masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West is a complete departure from the fast-paced, frenetic and crowd-pleasing action narratives that had made the Dollars trilogy such a compelling and invigorating breath of fresh air.
Leone's visual flare is still present as are Ennio Morricone's superb musical contributions and Carlo Simi's brilliant set and costume design work. However, Leone has a new agenda here. The film is essentially an exercise in taking hackneyed stock scenarios and set pieces (land-grabbing, the coming of the railroad and so on) from American Westerns and lovingly reworking and referencing them in a knowingly meta-textual way.
Similarly, the film takes generic characters from American Westerns (Charles Bronson's vengeance seeker, Henry Fonda's villainous hired gun, Claudia Cardinale's imperilled widow, Jason Robard's sympathetic bandit, Gabriele Ferzetti's corrupt railroad magnate) and operatically magnifies their significance and their actions to those of Titans. Once Upon a Time in the West is also an early exercise in what has become known as "slow cinema", and it took decades for the film to become recognised as a worthy artistic endeavour.
Leone's next film, A Fistful of Dynamite, is perhaps his least known and most under-appreciated release. Much like Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite (AKA Duck, You Sucker AKA Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) fared well enough at European box offices in spite of critics lamenting the film's rejection of the revolutionary ideals of 1968. Another exercise in "slow cinema", the film made little impression at the box office in America where it played mainly in an edited cut that was only 120-minutes long.
Two flops in a row resulted in American studios losing interest in financing more Leone projects, a situation that was further exasperated by Leone's apparently waning interest in directing. Thankfully, he would bounce back for one belated final hurrah with the truly epic and sublime gangster movie, Once Upon a Time in America (C'era una volta in America, 1984).
While Leone had actually shot a film that was in excess of six hours long, he presented a final cut of Once Upon a Time in America that ran to 229 minutes, which the American distributor then re-edited into an incomprehensible 139-minutes long version that received a critical mauling and flopped at the American box office.
Here Robert De Niro plays an elderly gangster who ruminates on his past (via extended flashbacks to two key time periods) while trying to solve a pressing problem in his present. The film, which features valued contributions from Ennio Morricone and Carlo Simi, has since been released in a couple of its longer cuts (229 minutes and 250 minutes respectively), which has led to it being critically re-evaluated.
James Coburn as John H. Mallory (IMDB)
In A Fistful of Dynamite, a former IRA explosives expert, John Mallory (James Coburn), is hiding out in Mexico circa 1913 and working as a dynamiter for local silver miners. He meets a feckless small-time bandit, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), and his extended family of vagabonds. Juan excitedly figures that John's knowledge of explosives could finally allow him to achieve his life-long dream of robbing the bank at Mesa Verde. John is troubled by flashbacks which show him executing a fellow dissident, Nolan (David Warbeck), who had betrayed their cause back in Ireland years earlier. He isn't interested in Juan's proposition, but the Mexican finds a way to force his hand.
However, the subsequent trip to Mesa Verde results in John becoming reacquainted with a local revolutionary leader, Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli), which reignites his passion for insurrection. Much to Juan's disappointment, the bank job is transformed into a political act that greatly aids the struggling Revolution. Now feted as a revolutionary hero, a reluctant Juan soon finds himself being drawn into insurgent activities by John. This puts the pair on a collision course with a Federale officer, Colonel Gunther Reza (Antoine Saint-John).
As a longstanding Sergio Leone fan, my view is that every frame of footage that the man ever shot is of interest and of value to film buffs, scholars, and historians. But that doesn't mean that his post-Dollars trilogy films are perfect exercises in filmmaking in a conventional sense. Indeed, my appreciation of A Fistful of Dynamite has fluctuated over the years.
I first saw the shortened 137-minutes long British version of the film many years ago. That viewing left me somewhat nonplussed: while I thought it looked great and featured some good action set pieces, it didn't deliver the Dollars trilogy style thrills and spills that the pointed inclusion of the word Fistful in its title appeared to promise. Also, its characters were less-engaging than those found in the Dollars films.
Further viewings over the years allowed me to better appreciate Leone's more mature approach here, but A Fistful of Dynamite remained a "lesser Leone" for me. My interest in the film was piqued again when I caught American and German TV cuts of the film in quick succession during the mid-'90s. These two variant cuts are still shorter than the full length Italian version of the film and they're missing some of the scenes found in the British version.
However, they each feature a seemingly arbitrary mix of new scenes and significant scene extensions that had been cut from the British version of A Fistful of Dynamite. This new footage, when viewed cumulatively, serves to give an indication of the epic nature of Leone's original vision for the film. The true scale of that epic vision was fully appreciated when I finally saw the complete Italian version of the film (the version that is now presented on this new Blu-ray release) a couple of years later.
Leone was clearly working with a big budget here and the film's epic nature and expensive look remains impressive to this day. Carlo Simi was busy elsewhere but his replacement, Andrea Crisanti, did an outstanding job as the film's art director. Indeed, A Fistful of Dynamite's lavish set and costume designs are superb.
There's much in the way of historical and pseudo-historical detail to admire here. For an example of this, look out for the scene in which all of the horses in Gunther Reza's regiment are wearing specially fitted dust goggles. Similarly, Leone was able to use some spectacular countryside and grand period-looking town and city locations found in southern Spain.
The film's technical specifications are, for the most part, top notch. Leone's direction and the framing and the composition of his shots are expertly and pleasingly executed. As are cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini's camera movements and lighting strategies. It goes without saying that Ennio Morricone's music assists in setting the tone and the emotional ambience for many of the film's key scenes.
It's not Morricone's best film score, but it is one of his most eclectic and wide-ranging stylistically. There's everything from grand operatic pieces featuring the ace soprano Edda Dell'Orso, orchestral heavy metal-like thrashing, melancholic whistling, comedic guttural sounds, and dreamy Euro film muzak-like interludes to be enjoyed here.
Actor David Warbeck once offered the opinion that Leone was trying to "out-Lean" David Lean when he made A Fistful of Dynamite and he was spot on. Leone is painting on a massive canvas here. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West both feature big and intricately choreographed scenes, but Leone and his crew take things to another level in A Fistful of Dynamite. The epic scenes just keep on coming.
In his commentary track on this release, Christopher Frayling opines that Leone made "art films for a popular audience." I wholeheartedly agree with that and venture that A Fistful of Dynamite is the closest that Leone came to making an art house film. The film's impressive mise-en-scene is that of a period Euro-Italian-produced art house film that could and should have been filed next to those directed by the likes of Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci.
But A Fistful of Dynamite's period Euro-Italian-produced art house film credentials are not only found in its mise-en-scene, epic scale, and big set pieces. They're also reflected in the characters of Juan and John. These are characters (initially, at least) that really belong in the kind of art house film that doesn't require the viewer to become emotionally invested in its protagonists.
When we first meet them they're not altogether likeable characters and when they both stubbornly enter into a macho game of tit-for-tat one-upmanship it has deadly consequences for a lot of innocent people. Indeed, it's worth reflecting on the fact that if the Man With No Name and Douglas Mortimer had still been around, Juan and John are precisely the kind of callous fugitives that the pair would be after for the bounties on their heads.
Juan is a feckless parent who lacks a conscience. For example, in the first portion of the film he's unmoved when innocent people and members of his extended clan and kin are killed while enacting the criminal activities that he has masterminded; he cold-bloodedly kills several more innocents in order to manipulate John; he views the sexual assault of a woman as a backhanded favour to her; and he readily abandons his kids because he erroneously believes that John wants just the two of them to escape to the US in order to rob banks together.
John, too, lacks a conscience. Without getting into existential arguments along the lines of "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist", John is a reckless and self-destructive political extremist who relishes any opportunity he has to rid "the world of a few uniforms", regardless of who they serve. To this end he quite happily dynamites a large stone bridge that hundreds of Federale foot soldiers are taking refuge beneath. We also learn that John has been immovably judgemental of traitors to the revolutionary cause in the past.
This all makes for an unorthodox viewing experience. Rod Steiger and James Coburn are familiar to viewers. Our extra-textual knowledge of the pair's Hollywood movie star personas and their function as the protagonists who drive the film's narrative forward put us in an uncomfortable viewing position, as we are being prompted to identify with their questionable characters.
Leone cleverly plays this peculiarity to his advantage, upending our attitudes towards these characters as the film enters its final chapter. Juan and John both learn harsh lessons in life - lessons that grant them a conscience and prompt them to question and abandon the philosophies that had previously governed their actions. The film takes on an emotional and sentimental air at this point and Juan and John become more human figures that we can finally become invested in.
Leone's treatment and presentation of his chief "villain" in A Fistful of Dynamite is unorthodox too. In the director's previous three films a triangular dynamic of titanic proportions had been established between the films' principal characters: the Man With No Name and Douglas Mortimer versus Indio in For a Few Dollars More; the Man With No Name and Tuco versus Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) versus Frank (Henry Fonda) in Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone largely abandons this plot device in A Fistful of Dynamite.
We're not introduced to the film's antagonist, the Federale Colonel Gunther Reza, until we're 78-minutes into the film. That would be the start of the final reel in most Westerns. Indeed, he doesn't really figure that greatly until the film's explosive finalé. Reza is played by an unfamiliar theatre actor, Antoine Saint-John, who doesn't bring a pre-established sense of villainy to the role and we never really see Reza do much that would turn him into a figure to hate.
Indeed, Reza is just another efficient but impersonal and impassive cog in the well-oiled machine of modern state-sponsored violence and warfare that Leone clearly has an interest in depicting. He's just a soldier doing his job. He doesn't even seem to have a personal interest in Juan or John. For example, when Juan is captured by Reza's men and faces a firing squad, Reza doesn't bother to stick around to watch the execution.
The characters of Juan (a simple peasant) and John (a gringo weapons' specialist), and the relationship that develops between them and their conflict with Reza (a representative of the oppressive state), all riff on stock characters that are found in a number of earlier Italian-made Zapata Spaghetti Westerns. (Zapata Spaghetti Westerns are those that are set during one of Mexico's Revolutions.) Leone references, critiques, and deconstructs numerous aspects of these earlier films throughout A Fistful of Dynamite while also presenting allegories and symbolism that relate directly to the actions of the Fascists and the Nazis – and the partisans that fought against them – in Italy towards the end of World War II.
Leone's boldest – and perhaps most controversial – act of deconstruction here was his rejection of the revolutionary ideals of 1968. Juan's take on the Revolution is even more pessimistic than the "here comes the new boss, same as the old boss" sentiment. For the definitive account of the evolution of the Zapata Spaghetti Westerns and their political significance, see Christopher Frayling's extended chapter 'Zapata-Spaghetti: Reflections on the Italian Western and the Mexican Revolution' in my book Critical Perspectives on the Western: From A Fistful of Dollars to Django Unchained (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
As it stands, there's not too much about A Fistful of Dynamite that warrants overt criticism. The film is really well acted, though it should be noted that the affected accents that Rod Steiger and James Coburn offer (Mexican for Steiger, Irish for Coburn) do grate a little at times. During the film's finalé there are a handful of effects shots involving model trains that were clearly shot in a different aspect ratio to the rest of the film and subsequently play as noticeably stretched images. A perfectionist like Leone must have winced every time that he saw those shots and it's baffling that they've never been fixed.
Beyond that, the casual viewer's appreciation of this film will mainly hinge upon their feelings about "slow cinema" and whether they can attune themselves to the way that Leone bends the traditional "three act" structure associated with film narratives out of shape. The film's "set-up" is very long, while what we are encouraged to recognise as the film's "confrontation" and its subsequent "resolution" take up relatively little time by comparison.
I was thoroughly impressed when I finally got to see the full length Italian version of A Fistful of Dynamite in the late '90s. I subsequently played a small part in the efforts that led to MGM restoring an English language version of the Italian cut and I contributed to a number of the featurettes about the film that were produced by MGM in 2005.
However, in recent years my enthusiasm for A Fistful of Dynamite had waned a little since watching the film became something of a bittersweet experience. Research that I had carried out regarding scenes that Leone filmed but deleted in order to deliver his 157-minutes long final cut of the film revealed just how much more epic, involving, better-paced, and coherent A Fistful of Dynamite might have been if Leone had been able to sell a four-hour version to his distributors.
Indeed, in some instances the "new" footage found in the 157-minutes long version of the film prompts as many narrative questions as it answers. For example, the scene where Juan forces John's hand with regards to him travelling to Mesa Verde reveals just how callous Juan is and gives John some justification for treating him so badly. However, the scene starts with John dehydrated, sunburnt, and deliriously fearing for his life. This plot point only makes sense if we're privy to the fact that Leone shot but deleted a scene in which Juan marched John around the Mexican desert until he collapsed.
Similarly, Leone shot but deleted a scene that shows Gunther Reza overseeing the brutal torture of Dr Villega. The inclusion of this scene in the film would have greatly affected how we view both characters and their subsequent actions. It's such a shame that we will never experience Leone's full vision of the film. Still, re-watching A Fistful of Dynamite a few times over the course of writing this article has thoroughly reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the film.
Eureka Entertainment's new Blu-ray release of A Fistful of Dynamite is a two-disc affair that features two different restorations of the film. The first disc features a restoration of the 157-minutes version of the film that was produced by MGM and first released in 2005. Picture and sound quality is very good. However, the best picture and sound quality is to be found on the second disc, which features a similar length restoration carried out by Cineteca di Bologna in 2009. As well as an English language track, this version also offers an Italian language track supported by English subtitles.
If you're new to A Fistful of Dynamite, this set boasts some really good extra features that provide much background on the film, though it must be said that long-term fans will be disappointed to discover that there's very little in the way of new material or new insights here. That's because the majority of the extra features on offer have appeared on previous releases.
The featurettes The Myth of Revolution, Sergio Donati Remembers 'Duck, You Sucker!', Sorting Out the Versions: An Analysis of 'Duck, You Sucker!', Once Upon a Time… in Italy, Restoration Italian Style and Location Comparisons and Christopher Frayling's commentary track were all produced for MGM's Special Edition DVD of the film in 2005. Similarly, Alex Cox's commentary track was produced for an American Blu-ray that was released in 2018.
The new extra features consist chiefly of two talking head pieces. Kim Newman discusses the film's release history and its general standing within Leone's body of work. There's nothing new here for long-term fans of the film, but Newman imparts the information in an infectiously enthusiastic manner. Austin Fisher compares the film's political stance and its action set pieces to those of other Zapata Spaghetti Westerns and teases out pertinent correlations and differences.
The best extras are The Myth of Revolution, which features an extended interview with Christopher Frayling in which he points out the socio-political significance of the film's content in relation to Italy's own recent and contemporaneous history before assessing the increased sense of maturity that is evident in Leone's filmmaking endeavours at this point in his career; Sergio Donati Remembers, in which one of the film's writers recalls the film's process of production (this is a good featurette but it has a frustratingly short running time); and Sorting Out the Versions in which long-time champion of the film and former MGM employee Glenn Erickson offers insight into the various shorter cuts of the film that have existed as well as supplying a critical reading of the film's flashbacks.Christopher Frayling and Alex Cox's equally engaging audio commentaries are also of a good quality in terms of providing salient facts and critical observations. The extra features are rounded out by four impressive image galleries, radio spots, a trailer, and a beautifully illustrated 60-page booklet that features an interview with Robert McGinnis (who designed the film's American poster) and essays by Howard Hughes and Simon Ward. Initial copies of this release come in a hard card slipcase, which was not provided for review.
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