Leone: A Fistful of Dynamite, Part 3: Commentary

And so to the third and final instalment of Phil’s epic work on A Fistful of Dynamite:

Commentary

Despite the fact that Coburn’s accent in the film frequently borders on the “oirish” side, and Steiger’s acting sometimes lapses into hamminess, somehow these blemishes seem oddly appropriate within the wider context of “…Dynamite.” And it certainly does not ruin things for me in the least.

Coburn - Oirish accent fails to convince...Steiger - too fat for a Mexican peasant?

Coburn - Oirish accent fails to convince...Steiger - too fat for a Mexican peasant?

Although I am now in my thirties, and many of my political views have moved to the right as I have become older, “Dynamite” still has particular resonance for me. As a schoolboy studying events in 20th century European history I came to see the leaders of the Russian Revolution as almost robotic figures, or dim automatons from the past. Perhaps this impression was not disabused by the attitudes of people like Lenin, who famously berated himself for enjoying the works of great European composers, because their music caused him to feel warmth towards the men who composed the music (thereby making them more difficult to put up against a wall and shoot if necessary). What a cold-blooded monster, as too was Stalin, and Trotsky also, in his way. Such people found it easier to deal with humanity in the abstract than in reality.  Perhaps ordinary reality was too much for them to cope with.

“…Dynamite”, in spite of what Leone claimed, was a very political film – but not in terms of left-right politics, which are only peripheral. The politics are mostly on a human level. It takes humans to put a revolution in motion, and our revolutionaries in “…Dynamite” are as human as it is possible to get.  Sean’s revolutionary fervour dims by the end of the film, and reminds us in one memorable line that no matter how noble or idealistic the cause is, the means necessary to bring it about can have a crippling effect on the human spirit, and frequently violence can become an end in itself:

“When I first began to use dynamite I believed in lots of things…all of it!

Finally I believed only in dynamite.”

Strangely enough, it is the unschooled and unlettered Juan who, after the Mesa Verde Bank raid, casts a bitter (and very perceptive) judgment on revolutionary idealism, which causes Sean to begin reappraising his views. Sean has just told Juan that “It’s a nice little revolution we’re having here.”  Juan replies angrily:

“Don’t talk to me about revolutions – I know all about revolutions and how they start. The people who read the books go to the people who don’t read the books, the poor people, and say oh ho the time has come to make a change!  The poor people make the change.  Then the people who read the books sit around a big polished table and talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat and what has happened to the poor people…THEY’RE DEAD!

So please, don’t talk to me about revolution….

THEN THE SAME FUCKING THING HAPPENS ALL OVER AGAIN.”

How very true, Juan. He could also have plausibly added that frequently the revolutionary cadre who seize the reins of power through force become just as oppressive, cruel, and authoritarian (if not more so) as the regime which they have overthrown.  After all, it stands to reason that what has been gained by violence must be maintained by violence, and violence, whatever political language an idealist chooses to dress it up in, is not pretty.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara - a victim of his own revolutionary fervour?

Ernesto "Che" Guevara - a victim of his own revolutionary fervour?

Nonetheless, I find myself drawn to the revolutionary peasants in “…Dynamite.” These are people with real grievances, dirt poor, who only wish to lead their lives with a modicum of dignity and have enough land to feed themselves and their families, and be free from oppression. Having suffered enough, they are taking the only course open to them, namely, opposing military brutality with force of their own. They are definitely not the indulged middle-class anti-globalization protestors or woolly-minded idealists who prance around Westminster on May Day waving banners and shouting about what they IMAGINE poor people in the third world to be suffering, and patronizing the poor of our world with what they believe is a solution to their situation.  [And neither are they comprarable to the likes of Bono, Madonna et al who in their rank hypocrisy pretend to be concerned about the suffering of the third world, yet live in extravagant luxury.  CW]

Luckily for us today, it seems that the world has lost its enthusiasm for the type of political idealism represented by the Bolsheviks in 20th century Russia, but during the late 1960s and early 1970s when “…Dynamite” was made, revolutionary idealism was still popular. So, by advertising the pitfalls to revolutionary violence, Leone was a man ahead of his time.

I should add also, that Mexico, despite violent upheaval in the early 20th century, did not return to dictatorship, and has remained a democracy since, however imperfect and however many problems of poverty and other social ills it faces. I feel that this is something for which the Mexican people have never received enough international praise and credit.

As if all the food for thought above weren’t enough, “…Dynamite” is absolutely action-packed, has many funny moments to leaven the gloom, a great star cast, a brilliant train crash sequence, monumental explosions, a spectacular finale and a fantastic score from Ennio Morricone. What more could a viewer ask for!

Phil Larkin

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7 comments

  1. The quote from Juan describing the gulf between the educated middle classes with revolutionary ideals and the uneducated peasants who are used as mere cannon fodder by the former is a poigant summary of Leone’s message.

    Think of all those idealistic middle class students today who have that iconic poster of Che Guevara on their bedroom walls. Guevara (who incidentally came from a well-off middle class background) may have thought he was fighting for a noble cause – and he had a point when you think of the feudal society of Batista’s Cuba which was similar to the Mexico of “Dynamite”.
    But given the choice how many of these student idealists would opt to live in the Cuba of today under the successive leaderships of Fidel and Raul? In effect, one brutal, oppressive regime was simply replaced by another.

    We see similar things happening in South Africa with the poor black majority becoming increasingly disillusioned with the corrupt and inefficient policies of the ANC – men and women who only a decade ago were feted as heroes in the noble struggle against oppression.

    What goes around comes around.

  2. I really couldn’t put it better myself, Ciaran. Your use of the term “cannon fodder” is perfect, because that is exactly how people like Stalin and Mao Tse Tung viewed their fellow citizens – statistics on a page. Amazingly, if that Jonathan Dimbelby programme on Russia is anything to go by, there is a growing Stalin cult in Russia at present, and his reputation is on the rise again. This baffles me. I really fail to understand how anyone would wish to live under a regime comparable to Soviet Russia under Stalin.

    “…Dynamite” reminds us starkly that leftist intellectual idealists can be just as self-centred, self-regarding, callous, and unconcerned about human suffering as any hardened capitalist, except that the Trotskys of this world can always hide behind a cloak of righteousness, and will always have useful idiots in the media and “intelligensia” to protect them.

    Phil

  3. While I don’t generally lift comments from other blogs, I feel justified in doing so here as I sparked the discussion over on Slugger on a very tenuously linked thread about the controversial erection (stop that sniggering at the back) of the statue in Dublin of the republican activist and alleged Nazi sympathiser Sean Russell. Over on that post, Rory makes the following points in response to Phil’s piece:

    http://sluggerotoole.com/index.php/weblog/comments/its-going-to-run-and-run/P225/

    While Juan’s observation on revolution (“Don’t tell me about revolution, I know all about revolution…”) may be “a bitter…. judgment on revolutionary idealism” I am not convinced that it is “very perceptive” insofar as it misjudges completely the motives of the poor for making revolution in the first place.

    Certainly in the areas where the revolution was most supported and largely waged by “the people who don’t read the books”, in the North, largely in Chihuahua and adjoining Durango, by Pancho Villa’s División del Norte and in the South by Emiliano Zapata’s Revolutionary Army of the South, largely in Morelos, the people were motivated by the expropriation of their land by the oligarchs and hacendados or their exploitation as workers in the mines or their enslavement to debt peonage (this mostly in the south) and were inspired by the sheer charisma, courage and organisational and fighting ability of their leaders particularly Zapata and Villa neither of whom could exactly be characterised as being among “the men who read the books”, indeed Villa was practically illiterate before he used his imprisonment by Huerta during the Madero revolution to improve upon his reading and writing and although the improvement of education for the masses came second only to the care of his troops (and before land division) in his programme he nevertheless was never in thrall to the intellectuals who tagged on to his movement.

    This oft-repeated song that the poor become discontented and rebel only because of the conspiratorial machinations of left intellectual malcontents stirring them up by whispering in their ear is both the lying excuse by which the right justify their periodic clampdowns on liberty and at the same time a conceit of the left intellectuals themselves who love to vastly overrate their own worth.

    The simple truth is that the poor revolt not simply because they are poor but because their poverty has become intolerable and are sparked into quite unprepared spontaneous action by an extraneous event such as resentment at police or army brutality during one clampdown too many.

    If there is any group in society that can claim to be the motivators for revolution by the poor it is not the left intellectuals who may momentarily side with the poor but rather the rightist agents of the ruling classes who deliver that final lash upon the back of the poor, the one that is just one too many to bear any longer.
    Posted by Rory Carr on Aug 08, 2009 @ 05:29 PM

    p.s. There was a terrific film profile of Sergio Leone on Sky Arts last night with insightful contributions from composer, Ennio Morricone and his scriptwriters and camerman as well as contributions from his leading actors (at least his leading American actors – alas no Gian Maria Volonte or Aldo Samprell or Benito Stefanelli or Antonio Molino Rojo, stalwarts in most of his movies).

    There is also contribution from Leone’s biographer, Christopher Frayling and the tantalising news that, just prior to his death, Leone was about to embark upon a film based upon the siege of Leningrad and had in mind to make a movie of The Adventures of Don Quixote… with Clint Eastwood as the Don and Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza. Interesting…
    If you have access to Sky Arts you will be able to catch it as they repeat these things endlessly which, while a trait I usually detest, I find quite useful here as I can pick up on some excellent programmes I missed first time round. ”
    Posted by Rory Carr on Aug 08, 2009 @ 05:55 PM

  4. And in response to Rory, Greeflag makes the following observations:

    ‘If there is any group in society that can claim to be the motivators for revolution by the poor it is not the left intellectuals who may momentarily side with the poor but rather the rightist agents of the ruling classes who deliver that final lash upon the back of the poor, the one that is just one too many to bear any longer.’

    “Indeed . People need to be mindful that if left to their own devices these neo con nutters would have the entire world working for minimum wage at the same time as demanding that the so called middle and working classes would pay for their full health care and education out of their savings ?

    Unbelievable shite of course but then if Trevelyan & D’Israeli & Co as well as Friedman & the shadow bankers could get away with it why would we not expect their present day political descendants to try their luck. After all they’ve nothing to lose except their ‘ermines ’ “
    Posted by Greenflag on Aug 08, 2009 @ 08:19 PM

  5. You’re right about the ANC, CW. We warned de Klerk about handing over power to that bunch of corrupt commie thugs. Now their own lot don’t even trust them. Things were so much better under the old system of white rule. Native Africans can’t be trusted to run their own country.

  6. Stoffels, while I agree that the ANC have their faults, I strongly disagree that SA was better under apartheid. If the South African people (regardless of their colour) don’t like the way their country is being run, they can always vote the ANC out of power. At least now you have a functioning democracy which you didn’t have under the old regime when the National Part effectively had the monopoly on government and 80% of the population had no say in the running of the country.

  7. Above should have read “National Party” not Part. But I’m sure Stoffels already knew that as he’s put an X next to it enough times!

    Incidentally, there’s an interesting article by Shannon O’Neill, a specialist in Latin American affairs in the latest edition of “Foreign Affairs” magazine about the current situation in Mexico, a country ravaged by brutal drug wars:

    “Washington is just waking up to the violence next door. Last December, the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment, 2008 paired Mexico with Pakistan in its discussion of “worst-case scenarios” — states susceptible to “a rapid and sudden collapse.” In January, Michael Hayden, the departing CIA chief, claimed that Mexico could become “more problematic than Iraq,” and Michael Chertoff, the departing secretary of homeland security, announced that the Department of Homeland Security has a “contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge — if I may use that word — capability.” The U.S. media breathlessly proclaims that Mexico is “on the brink.”

    This rising hysteria clouds the real issues for Mexico and for the United States. The question is not whether the Mexican state will fail. It will not. The Mexican state does, and will continue to, collect taxes, run schools, repair roads, pay salaries, and manage large social programs throughout the country. The civilian-controlled military has already extinguished any real guerrilla threats. The government regularly holds free and fair elections, and its legitimacy, in the eyes of its citizens and of the world, is not questioned.”

    http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65155/shannon-oneil/the-real-war-in-mexico

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