Mexico

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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A Fistful of Leone: A Fistful of Dymanite, Part 2

Juan
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.

Sean

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.

“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“.