A Fistful Of Dynamite, or Duck, You Sucker! or Once Upon A Time…The Revolution! is potentially Sergio Leone’s most under-appreciated film. A more lighthearted affair than the rest of his filmography, this is still impressive, and a much neglected western that showed that Leone wasn’t all about quick draws and stylised gunfights.
Rather than a Spaghetti Western, this is more a variation of the Zapata Western subgenre. These films tend to focus on a mismatched pair of characters, a scruffy resistance fighter and a gentile American, getting drawn into a revolution (Films like The Big Gundown, A Bullet For The General and Face To Face). Sergio Leone’s final western, A Fistful Of Dynamite subverts this subgenre by instead focusing on an unscrupulous bandit (Rod Steiger) and a quickwitted IRA explosives expert, (James Coburn) both of whom are unwilling to get involved in the revolution for different reasons (one has a history, the other isn’t interested) but find themselves drawn in despite their best efforts.
Neither Steiger and Coburn were Leone’s first choice, (originally he wanted Eli Wallach and Jason Robards respectively) but you wouldn’t know it from the performances and the instant chemistry between the two. The bandit character is perfect for Steiger’s over the top yet introspective performance style, even if he lays it on a bit thick. He may lack the instant likability that Wallach would have brought to the role, but instead draws out the real person in the character, and lends him a sense of poignancy in a couple of nicely observed moments – mixed with some very broad comedy which sometimes works, but more often falls flat. The tit for tat combative nature of the pair’s relationship was done better in For A Few Dollars More, and quickly wears thin here, but his accidental firing of the machine gun is genuinely funny.
Meanwhile Coburn obviously revels in playing an initially mischievous character with a dark past. He is great in his quieter non verbal moments, and makes for a very different kind of western hero. The constant flashbacks to his past do grate after a while, but they inform the character and make what could be a one note performance really interesting; he’s always so cool, it hardly matters that he’s doing the broadest Irish accent you could possibly imagine.
The virtually unknown Romolo Valli is also great, giving a very quiet, subtle performance in an otherwise very loud film. He really makes an impression in only a handful of scenes as the seemingly mild mannered revolutionary unlikely hero, and more than holds his own with the other two actors.
Over time A Fistful Of Dynamite has gained a reputation for being a lighter, lesser work from Leone, but this seems unfair. It’s true that the performances are broad, and Leone’s signature playful direction and lightness of touch behind the camera are ever present. (There is an especially impressive single tracking shot that takes in the scope of a town before resting on a poster of the tyrannical Mexican Governor, only for the eyes to be torn out revealing Steiger behind it) However there is a weight, and a seriousness of tone in the film’s second half that belies the frivolous tone of the opening scenes.
Indeed, it’s the more sombre scenes that stick longest in the memory. One long shot, showing soldiers firing into rows and rows of unarmed civilians, is chilling, and Steiger’s discovery of his dead compadres in a cave is an incredibly moving scene, thanks mainly to his well judged performance (“I never counted them before”) and Coburn’s stunned reactions and the stunning shadowy cinematography.
This almost operatic scene contrasts with what is potentially the most effective sequence in the film, which doesn’t use any music at all. Coburn’s character visits a local village and sees rebels – people he knows – being lined up against a wall and shot, and discovers the identity of the traitor. The whole composition of the scene – the pounding rainfall, Coburn’s helplessness and grim understanding – is so powerful, and it’s telling that this is accomplished without the help of music.
Ennio Morricone’s score is fun and playful, though it does tend to get a bit repetitive. The constant refrain of “Sean Sean” is especially grating after over two hours, and the music that does work well, especially in the more poignant scenes, is very similar to work he had previously done with Leone.
Of all Leone’s films, this is the only one that really shows it’s characters growing and evolving over the course of the film. You can’t say the same for any of his other westerns, as cinematic and cool as they are, Clint Eastwood is always Clint Eastwood. Steiger especially is fundamentally different at the film’s end than at the start, and in this way you could quite convincingly make the argument that this is potentially Leone’s most mature film.
While not as iconic as his famous trilogy, or as epic as Once Upon A Time In The West, A Fistful Of Dynamite fits in nicely as the playful younger sibling of these films. Leone was incapable of making a film that wasn’t entertaining, and even if this ranks at the bottom of his filmography, there’s still a lot to appreciate here, and it’s long over due a reappraisal.
This Eureka entertainment doesn’t skimp on the special features, and includes all three versions of the film, with a useful feature explaining the numerous different cuts.
The commentaries are a treat with cinephiles and Spaghetti Western enthusiasts Alex Cox and Christopher Frayling each giving incisive, fun takes on the film. Cox especially is a huge fan of the genre and it shows, making what is often a dull exercise one of the main selling points of the blu ray!
There are also indepth interviews with Kim Newman and Austin Fisher, featurettes with contributions from Christopher Frayling and Sergio Donati, trailers and TV spots.