“A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE: A FISTFUL OF LEONE” Part 1

Phil “The Wild Colonial Boy” Larkin is back with another spaghetti western-themed article.  This time Phil turns his attention to one of Sergio Leone’s lesser known works A Fistful of Dynamite, set in revoluton-torn Mexico in 1913.   The essay is divide into three parts.  Part 1 below sets the scene for the film and examines its historical and political context.

CW

dynamite

Introduction

“A revolution is not a dinner party, an embroidery, writing an essay, or painting a picture. It cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution … is an act of violence…”   Mao-Tse Tung.

It is with this quote from Chairman Mao (still alive and influential during the making of the film) that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite begins. As the quote suggests, the movie itself is, by any standards, very violent, sometimes casually so, although never gratuitously so.  And, of course, it is set during a revolution of the 20th Century. 

mao-zedong-3

In my view, “Dynamite” is one of the sadly underrated and almost forgotten works of Leone, possibly because it lacks the “usual suspects” of his previous westerns such as Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte and of course Clint Eastwood.  It is also set in a markedly different era and environment than The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly et al. In addition, it was marketed in different countries under various titles, something which may have led audiences to believe that it was not one single film, thereby dissipating the impact it would otherwise have had. In English speaking countries it was sometimes known as “Duck You Sucker!” (a reference to a frequent comment made by one of the main protagonists); in Italy it was called “Gia La Testa!” (literally “Duck Your Head!”).

Sergio Leone, master of the spaghetti western

Sergio Leone, master of the spaghetti western

Interestingly, in France, it was billed as “Il Etait une Fois … La Revolution”, literally, “Once Upon a Time … The Revolution”, which places it as the middle film of Leone’s “Once Upon a Time…” trilogy. I don’t know how comfortably “…Dynamite” would actually fit into this trilogy, but it would seem that French audiences accepted it as such.

Also, “…Dynamite” came out a few years after Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, a hard act to follow if ever there was one, and the former was always bound to suffer unfavourably by comparison. For many reasons, I believe that “Dynamite” is a highly interesting, very human, and deeply moving film, which, on viewing nearly four decades on, has not lost any of its relevance, and carries clear political lessons for us today, particularly those who are inclined to use the means of violence in a revolutionary cause to re-create the world as they wish it to be.

The Historical Context of “Dynamite”

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The film’s central theme is, in essence, the coming together of two disparate figures at the same time and place in history, and the consequent loss of political revolutionary fervour on the part of one man, a left-wing Irish radical, and the unwitting (and unwilling) growth of the same fervour within another man, a petty Mexican bandit.

The film is set in 1913 against the background of the Mexican Revolution, a multi-sided conflict, and a highly confusing and traumatic period in the country’s history, beginning in 1910 and involving, very broadly, a set of uprisings (some spontaneous, and some planned), against the authoritarian dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  The Revolution lasted roughly a decade, petering out in around 1920. As with the Anglo-Irish conflict of 1919 – 1921, and the Irish Civil War of 1922 – 1923, there were elements of populism, agrarianism, socialism and anarchism amongst those carrying forward the revolution.  However, there was no centrally planned bid for power as with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of March 1917, which added to the confusing nature of this era in Mexican history.

By 1913, political power in Mexico had been seized by General Victoriano Huerta by means of a coup d’etat after a short period of democratic government. Huerta was a brutal and corrupt military dictator, who, when faced with challenges to his authority, reacted with unbridled cruelty, giving his soldiers and paramilitary police free rein to torture and execute opponents without trial or redress. Indeed, mass executions, arrests, torture, and military harassment of poverty-stricken peasants and their allies are a constant backdrop to “…Dynamite”.

Phil Larkin

Watch this space for A Fistful of Dynamite: A Fistful of Leone”, part 2, “Juan, Sean and an accidental revolutionary“.

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11 comments

  1. Not my favourite Leone film, Phil, being too long and drawn out for my liking and lacking the pace and gung ho entertainment value of the “man with no name trilogy”. but nevertheless, perhaps one of the most potent of his works in terms of a moral and political message. It’s a highly political work through which Leone examines the morality or otherwise of revolutionary politics, drawing parallels with the situation in Ireland at the time.

    I can’t wait to read parts 2 & 3. 😉

  2. And PS – Charnelle Vanzuidenbrouw, if you’re reading this and you still don’t believe Phil is a real person – now’s your chance to challenge him.

  3. Thanks for this, Ciaran. I will be interested to read the comments which may be made about the central message of the film, particularly the references to revolutionary politics and violence.

    Lest anyone believe for one moment that I am in agreement with Chairman Mao’s quote, or admire Mao himself in any way, let me make it clear that I do not. In fact, I submit that Mao was nothing more than a power hungry tyrant and mass murderer, and it was the misfortune of the Chinese people to be governed by this man, who visited man-made famine and inept industrialization schemes upon the country, costing literally hundreds of millions of lives lost or irreperably broken. To crown it all off, he went through the cynical and superficial process of seeming to allow different schools of thought to contend within the Chinese Communist party, and then, after using this as a means of smoking out dissenters, he imprisoned, executed, or disgraced dissenters and their families, or threw them to the mercy of the Cultural Revolution, setting China back politically and socially by decades. He was a monster.

    While not wishing to deflect any attention from this blog, another website which I find particularly fascinating is “Threethousand versts of loneliness”, with its frequent commentary on how the Western powers should approach the Russia which is now emerging and finding its feet after decades of authoritarian Soviet dictatorship. Certainly, making a parallel with “…Dynamite” , Russia has seen the worst effects of historicist idealism played out in revolutionary form.

    However, and this is where I have to part company with Chekov somewhat, I feel that Russia will never reach its full potential as a world power until it allows its talented and inventive people free rein to express themselves fully in the form of REAL democracy and free speech.

    Western leaders, while recognising that Russia by its sheer size, resources and massive strategic importance is a power to be reckoned with, should always make it clear that they are fully aware of the lack of true democracy in Russia, and lean on that country’s leaders accordingly.
    National sovereignty should not be used an excuse for the toleration of gross human rights violations and tyranny.

    If Obama is really to emulate his hero John F. Kennedy, then he must be prepared to show that, like Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, he will use force to back up threats, and call the bluff of people like Ahmadinejad in Iran

    Phil

  4. Responding to my suggestion Rory has made the following comments on an unrelated thread over at Slugger O’Toole:

    “CW,
    I have an abiding interest in the Mexican Revolution(s) of 1910-20 and am indeed a big fan of A Fistful of Dynamite although it contains a central difficulty of plausibility insofar as historical timing goes. Reality demands that the IRA character (played by James Coburn) whose background of miltant republican involvement we are shown in flashback cannot really have participated in the Irish revolution and then turned up in Mexico much before 1922 by which time the revolution in Mexico was two years past.
    But don’t anyone let that spoil their enjoyment of what is Leone’s most provocovative philosophical film on the nature of love and revolution which at times is deeply moving.

    The high point of the film where a train commandeered by revolutionaries and packed with explosives is sent hurtling into another train carrying Federal forces and armaments is certainly based on an actual incident.
    I love it! Viva Villa!”

    (Posted by Rory Carr on Aug 01, 2009 @ 08:15 PM)
    (http://sluggerotoole.com/index.php/weblog/comments/cast-out-the-beam-of-thine-own-eye-before-the-mote-of-thy-brothers-eye/P25/ )

  5. Rory and Ciaran,

    I love it too!!!! No matter how old I become, and no matter how I graviate towards the social-democratic centre, the siren voices of just uprising against tyranny and opression call out to me across the years.

    Phil

  6. And we have this comment from “RepublicanStones”:
    “I thought ‘Fistful..’ was worth it just to see Rod Steiger’s manic performance. ”
    (Posted by RepublicanStones on Aug 02, 2009 @ 11:55 AM)

    A manic performance indeed, but isn’t he a bit on the chubby side for a supposedly poor, malnourished Mexican peasant?
    CW

  7. Yes, Rod was a little on the well-fed and healthy side to fit the description of a malnourished peasant. However, his physique did lend itself to the clownish, “manic” type of character which he played.

    Phil

  8. It sounds like on of these films which would have been banned in South Africa back in the days before that traitor de Klerk sold us down the river to a bunch of commie thugs. I think it was Vorster in charge back then. He didn’t like anything that promoted revolutionary ideas. Probably a good thing as the kaffirs would have liked it too much.

  9. Stoffels, while I welcome your views here, even though I don’t generally agree with them, I’d prefer if you didn’t use that kind of racist language on my blog. It’s not conducive to rational, civilised debate.

    Phil, Mickey Harte’s lads Tyrone must have had a fistful of dynamite on them earlier today to come back from the dead and blast through the Kildare defence! Sam could still be coming back among the bushes in September!

  10. Posted by Rory on that Slugger thread:

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Rod Steiger’s chubbiness as being incongrous to playing the role of a Mexican revolutionary, CW, if we can credit this entry from Friedrich Katz’s monumental tome The Life and Times of Pancho Villa on the disparate motivations of men who joined the revolutionary forces:
    ‘Federico Gonzalez Jiménez , a landless peasant…from a poor family…joined…“because of the terrible conditions in the countryside.” ‘
    However:
    ‘Pablo Baray, who join the División del Norte from the old military colony of Bachinva, which had a long history of conflict with the Porfirian authorities, may have had additional reasons. In his eyes, fighting for the revolution was the good life, and he proudly stated that during his army service his weight had increased from 64 to 75 kilos.’
    I must say, however that I really liked this reply by a Villaista soldado to the U.S. socialist and journalist, John Reed:

    ‘When Reed asked him, “What are you fighting for?” Juan Sanchez, a plain soldier in the army, answered: “Why, it is good fighting. You don’t have to work in the mines.”… At this point Juan Sanchez asked Reed, “Is there war in the United States now?” “‘No’ I said untruthfully.“‘No war at all.’” He meditated for a moment. “How do you pass the time then…?”’

    I suppose if Juan Sanchez could ask the same question to any of us today all we could sheepishly manage to reply would be, “Well there’s television and then there’s always Slugger O’Toole.”

    And there’s always the Dreaming Arm!

  11. There certainly is the Dreaming Arm, Ciaran!!

    I wasn’t aware that John Reed was in Mexico at the time of the Revolution, but I am not surprised in the least that he should be – he was the original journalist cum political activist cum man of action.

    On reading Rory’s comment, the more I realise just how complex and interesting the Mexican Revolution was, and how neglected it has been by political historians of the twentieth century.

    That book on the life and times of Pancho Villa sounds very interesting – all I know about him is that he was a flamboyant, and in a number of ways, unsavoury character – in many respects Steiger’s character in the film, Juan Miranda, could be based on Villa himself.

    Villa gets a number of passing references in “…Dynamite”, in relation to his own past as a bandit and as a political revolutionary, but the deeper and more intellectual revolutionary Emlio Zapata gets no mention at all, which is a shame.

    Phil

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