Russia

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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Mother Russia’s Forgotten Children

On the recommendation of Chekov from Three Thousand Versts I’ve just borrowed Lost Cosmonaut by David Kalder from my local library. Kalder, a young Russian-based Scot styles himself as an “anti-tourist” and goes off in search of obscure Russian republics very much off the beaten backpacker track. So little is known in the west about the now independent former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan (apart from the false impression given by Borat, the odd Olympic medal-winning Graeco-Roman wrestler and a few cyclists like Alexandre Vinokourov who occasionally do well in the Tour de France), Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and others. But even less is known about the semi-autonomous republics within the Russian Federation such as Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Kalmykia. Kalder deserves credit for visiting places no-one else wants to go to, which partially explains his fascination for them. I share this urge, myself, but to a much lesser degree. When I told friends a couple of years ago that I would be summer holidaying in Latvia and Lithuania, I was greeted with bemusement or “what do you want to go there for?” The simple answer is “because they’re there”.

Despite being rich in history and culture, Kalder’s destinations are distinctly unglamorous locations with little to do or see. Kalder makes no secret of this. The cultures of these regions have been heavily diluted following an intensive Russification policy at the behest of Stalin. Ethnic Russians were encouraged to move here and heavy industries were set up so the regions, rather than Moscow and its environs would bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation. However it’s the hidden heart of these regions which particularly fascinates him.

One frustrating thing about this book is the lack of a map to show where these places are. The reader is unable to get a clear idea of their location within the context of Russia or their proximity to neighbouring countries, mountains or coasts.

Nevertheless Kalder’s style is entertaining. The book does have a collection of photographs, mostly of dreary buildings and local curiosities which add to the book’s post-modern ironic tone. Kalder has also done his homework on the history of the places he visits. It’s certainly an innovative style of travel writing and one that looks set to be copied by others.