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(A Fistful of Dynamite, Duck You Sucker, Once Upon a Time... the Revolution, Italy - 1971)

by Mike Lorefice & Vanes Naldi

Cast: James Coburn, Rod Steiger, Maria Monti, Rik Battaglia, Franco Graziosi, Romolo Valli
Genre: War
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vincenzone
Cinematography: Giuseppe Ruzzolini
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 158 minutes

Mike: Although Leone wasn't going to direct this movie, it seems fitting that he wound up taking over after complaints from the two stars (who ironically weren't his choices, as he wanted Jason Robards and Malcolm McDowell). Leone's 2nd trilogy, the Once Upon a Time films, progressed through American history in chronological order. His previous film, Once Upon A Time In The West, was set in the late 1800's when the west was dying. His next film, Once Upon A Time In America covers the prohibition area through the 1960's.

Maybe I'm foolish, but I don't really consider this a true western. Not only is it first and foremost a revolutionary war movie, but the cowboys had gone out with the introduction of autos. Regardless, it's a strong movie whose settings aren't much different than Leone's previous classics even though the technology and weaponry has improved.

In typical Leone fashion, the movie is rather obtuse. The dialogue is scarce, so it relies heavily on a typically wonderful soundtrack of Ennio Morricone. The soundtrack is fairly different this time with chants (such as "Sean Sean" for the flashbacks of the Irishman) and noises replacing the operatic elements we saw in the grandiose west. The highlight of Morricone's work is the scene where old style bandito Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) opens door after door in the bank and keeps finding refuges rather than gold. He got the new world man, firecracker John Mallory (James Coburn), to team up with him so they could steal money, but the joke is on him because the former IRA explosives expert has suckered him into becoming a war hero instead of a cheap thief. Scenes like this are scored for comedy because this guy that's suddenly a hero to hundreds would have been happier having found even a dollar behind one of those doors.

Vanes: Morricone, an avant-gard musician, is so good at using noises and make them mean something in the overall soundtrack. He said many times that in a way every thing that makes noise is music. I recall the first scene in Once Upon a Time in the West where they used a metal ladder and other DIY props to simulate the noises in the ranch, and made music out of it. Just amazing

Mike: The film takes a cynical and mocking look at war in general. Although the Mexican Revolution is the specific subject, the film actually has elements and atrocities from future wars from the trench warfare of WWI to the attire and mass extermination of WWII.

Vanes: I was recently watching a documentary on Leone's career and one of his best friends said that the mass shooting scene is kind of an autobiographic look at what happened in WWII. In particular, it was based on the massacre of the "Fosse Ardeatine" in Rome where the Nazis killed hundreds of people. Even today, the memory remains and it's one of Rome's biggest tourist attractions.

Mike: War makes people do a wide variety of things they wouldn't normally do. Sometimes it can change people for the better like Steiger's character who after getting suckered by Coburn a few times embraces his role as a brave revolutionary who leads by example. Sometimes it make people do bad things though, like the doctor who is forced by a Nazi looking leader from the other side to identify revolutionaries that would then be exterminated. Ultimately, war, especially this type, is mainly a bunch of less fortunate people sacrificing their lives for a cause that may or may not be good or solve anything. The film is hardly here just to bring out the bad aspects in war though. In the end, it's about the main characters searching for what's really important in their life and changing when they come to certain realizations.

Vanes: This is one aspect I really liked because it doesn't picture anybody as the "bad guy," and war itself is the only thing that is portrayed as a tragedy. Thus, the film doesn't rely upon the  "underdog hero vs. despicable villain" formula like many western and war movies.

Mike: What makes the story work so well is that, although we care about the main characters, there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Juan was a bandit. He was one that loved his kids rather than the typical cold-hearted killer, but he was still a murderer and a rapist. John killed for Ireland, but he still killed. Most every action in war is justifiable to someone. You have to make choices, some you believe are right, but others that can't stand at the time (betrayal is a key theme) and are forced to live with for the rest of your life. Killing is still a tragedy, especially in war when you don't know who or often even why.

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The main thing that hurt the movie for me was Steiger. He looks enough like a Mexican, I suppose, but his accent is pretty weak and inconsistent. Coburn is much better because he knows how to carry himself, be cool, and makes the right facials. He doesn't always come off as being particularly Irish though.

As is always the case with Leone's films the production alone makes it worth watching. This isn't his most innovative film, but it has all the flashbacks and close-ups he's known for. What makes it different from his others are several awesome explosions. The bridge blowing up has to rank at or very near the top of all movie explosions. It's not just that explosion, but the anticipation built up before we finally get it. That said, the explosions are real explosions shown in real time with no editing and no fake effects.

Vanes: The awesome thing about one of the bridge scenes is that actually it required more than one take. As always, Leone wanted realism so he actually called an explosive expert to blow up the bridge. He told him the signal to start the detonator sequence would be "Via," which in Italian means "Let's go" or "Let's begin." Leone, talking to another crewmember, said "Via" without recalling what he said before, so the expert blew up the bridge. Franco Delli Colli (the cameraman) screamed at Sergio that he didn't film anything because obviously he wasn't supposed to yet. He was mortified asking Sergio, "What are we gonna do now?" Leone just replied, "Let's go eat."

Mike: The train collision is also amazing. The movie is "long" and can be "slow moving," but since it's more violent (you can see the allusion to The Wild Bunch), it probably would play better for the average viewer than some of Leone's better movies.  


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