All revolutions attract a mixture of different personalities, ranging from political idealists to criminal opportunists seeking to capitalise on the confusion that the social upheaval brings. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) belongs very definitely in the second category, and the film begins with his scruffy form hitching a lift in a carriage full of upper-middle class snobs (Miranda claimed that his father had died and needed a lift to the next town). This first scene is important as it paints a backcloth (although partisan) to both the socio-political nature of the era, and Leone’s own leftist views. The passengers, including upper-middle class Mexicans, an American businessman, and an Archbishop, all of European origin, unlike Juan, who is of Indian origin, roundly abuse him for amusement, and the impoverished peasant class to which he belongs, calling them “animals” who breed like “rats in a sewer”, without morals or “decency.” Even the Archbishop identifies strongly with these sentiments, and refers to peasants as “unfortunate brutes”, indicating how far removed he is personally from the teachings of Jesus on love, mammon, and many other issues. It becomes clear, while these foul creatures proceed in close-up footage to stuff their faces with all types of food, that they support the dictator Huerta for “keeping the peasants in their place.”
However, when the carriage passes through a ruined village it is ambushed by a gang of bandits – Juan’s seven sons and other associates: Juan, the gang leader, had set the whole thing up in advance. They kill one of the most obnoxious passengers, rob and strip the rest, while Juan introduces the only female passenger to his seven sons, each, he informs her, from a different mother (we don’t know whether this is true or not!). He then violates the snobbish woman, and dumps her and the others into a pigsty. From this introduction we learn that Juan has no interest in political idealism and is far more concerned with keeping one step ahead of starvation, and keeping his pockets lined through petty thievery.
At this point that Juan comes across Sean (John) Mallory (James Coburn), a lone Irishman, who is testing explosives in the mountains near where the carriage has just been robbed. Sean, after an altercation with Juan and his bandits, claims he is merely using his impressive array of explosives to mine silver. However, we eventually realise through a series of flashbacks that he is really an intellectual left-wing revolutionary, who, after involvement in the Republican movement in Ireland, had had to flee the country after shooting a number of British soldiers who had tracked him down after torturing his best friend and revolutionary colleague. Sean, we later find out, shot his friend as a traitor for revealing his whereabouts (Leone gets the chronology of modern Irish history somewhat wrong, but this does not really affect the film’s central message). We also discover later that British intelligence services were in hot pursuit of Sean as he sought to evade his past. His primary reason for being in Mexico is to further the revolution against Huerta by means of both intellect and force.
An accidental revolutionary
Juan (in a very amusing fantasy sequence) sees Sean’s head surrounded by the halo-like visage of the National Bank at Mesa Verde, a bank which Juan has dreamed of raiding since he was taken to Mesa Verde as a child. He sees Sean’s skills with explosives as a godsend, and Sean himself as his key to the bank. Sean, however, has his own ideas, recognising how useful Juan’s skills as a fearless guerrilla fighter could be in the struggle which he knew was brewing. He entices Juan and his gang to the town of Mesa Verde, and introduces him to a revolutionary colleague, Dr Villega, who offers Juan the opportunity to attack the bank, an offer eagerly accepted. Unbeknownst to Juan (but known to Sean all along), the bank at Mesa Verde has been converted to use as a political prison, and these are all released after Juan’s daring attack. This marks the beginning of Juan’s unwitting involvement with the revolutionary movement.