Cinema

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 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. 

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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“.

In Bad Taste

As I’ve mentioned before, Belgium has always had image problems associated with not being one of the more exciting countries in Europe.  Presumably Martin McDonagh, the plastic paddy writer-director had this idea in mind when he chose to set his eponymous film in Bruges.  With its network of canals and fine buildings Bruges is often described as “the Venice of the north”, but Amsterdam and Stockholm also lay claim to this title.  There is certainly no shortage of references to this, in particular the concept of Bruges, a fairytale city of perfectly preserved medieval design with its canals and narrow cobbled streets, being in such an unglamorous country.  Having read the rave reviews and seen two of McDonagh’s highly acclaimed plays, two impressive amateur dramatics productions (in two quite different places) of The Cripple of Inishman (in Dromore, Co. Tyrone) and The Beauty Queen of Leenane (in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire), I was quite looking forward to this film.  Although I wouldn’t call it a bad film as such, I found large chunks of it unpleasant to watch and left the cinema feeling it should never have been made.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are Ken and Ray, two gangsters sent to Bruges to lie low by their boss following a botched robbery which has resulted in the accidental killing of a young boy.  The comic double act, with its surreal incongruous conversations resembles that of Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.  Also the contrast between Gleeson’s older, wiser and more cultured father figure and Farrell’s naïve, young fool is not unlike the interplay between Ted and Dougal in Father Ted.  However the juxtaposition of Tarantinoesque black humour and moralistic pathos just doesn’t work.  Farrell is constantly haunted by the guilt of being a child-killer, a theme which runs through the film, interspersed with comic moments, two contrasting styles which make uncomfortable bedfellows.  It’s as if McDonagh couldn’t decide whether he was writing a straight gangster film or a screwball comedy.  In fact the mixing of comedy with bloody violence and serious themes of death, guilt and morality is in very bad taste.  By the end of film I was disgusted by the way in which life and death decisions were being used as a vehicle for humour.  Scorsese gangster flicks are not lacking in humour of course, but this is usually a diversion from the killing and violence rather than inextricably linked to it.  Similarly, Tarantino films employ very black humour linked to violence, but  unlike In Bruges, they, make no attempt at didactic moralising.  There were in fact times during the film, when I was the only viewer in the cinema not laughing, as I just couldn’t bring myself to see the funny side of what was a very unfunny situation.

It could have worked perfectly well as an out-and-out comedy – if the comic scenes had occurred in the appropriate context.  Unfortunately the overplaying of the moralistic bullshit, the underlying themes of religion, guilt and suicide, not to mention the unpleasant scenes which accompany the humour tend to get in the way of laughs.  On the other hand, it wouldn’t have worked as a straight gangster film.  The cartoonish nature of the characters, totally implausible situations and string of unlikely coincidences would have made this impossible.  The film ends up as a confused mish-mash of Get Carter/Lock Stock and two smoking barrels and various other British gangster movies, Tarantino, and Father Ted with a sprinkling of David Lynch thrown in for good measure, a combination which simply doesn’t work.

What’s also intensely irritating is Farrell’s character, who borders on the stereotypical Irish charm-filled natural born bullshitter- loveable rogue-with-the-gift-of-the-gab-type who indulges in some rather elaborate eyebrow acrobatics, although is far from loveable.  Ralph Fiennes is the cockney godfather who sends his “employees”, Ken and Ray to Bruges, while they await his instructions.  His character is something of a Michael Caine wannabe who succeeds in sounding like Caine, but physically bears a passing resemblance to a tall, thin Graeme Souness.

There is a strong supporting cast of colourful characters, who form a microscosm of life’s rich paegant within the unlikely setting of Bruges – Jimmy, an American dwarf film actor, addicted to horse tranquilisers, Chloe, a young Belgian woman who has a romantic fling with Ray, her psychotic skinhead ex-boyfriend, Yuri, an eccentric arms dealer and Marie, a pregnant hotel owner who ends up acting as a symbolic link with Ray’s guilty conscience.
 
On the plus side there are some interesting plot twists and some good camerawork.  Shots of a solitary swan on the canal at night, silhouetted ducks flying overhead amidst the ornate bridges and gothic spires capture the spirit of Bruges in winter.  There is also a memorable comic scene early on involving Farrell and some overweight American tourists.  It’s actually not a bad advert for the Bruges tourist industry.  There is one scene in which Farrell and Gleeson are in a  cosy bar sipping fine Belgian beers with mellow jazz playing in the background, safe from the winter chill and leaden skies outside which almost makes you want to go there for a pre-Christmas weekend break.

Overall though, it’s just not my glass of Hoegaarden.  “In fucking Bruges!” Farrell’s character, unimpressed by his employer’s choice of hideout blurts out at one point. 

In fucking bad taste more like.

There will be Bewilderment

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I finally went to see There will be Blood after much deliberating and a great deal of skepticism about the rave reviews it had received. I came out of the cinema not really knowing what to make of it.

It’s certainly an interesting film with enough plot twists to sustain your attention, but there seems to be too much unfinished business by the end and lack of clarity in the narrative that leaves the viewer somewhat frustated and bewildered.

On the acting side however, Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent as the eccentric oil prospector Daniel Plainview who puts profits before people. An incredibly versatile actor, one thing you can’t accuse him of is being typecast. The film is perhaps a little too long at around two hours and twenty minutes and the ending is rather strange and unexpected. Set in early 20th century California amidst the US oil boom, the harshness of the dry inhospitable landscape is emaphasised throughout. The interplay and build-up tension between Day-Lewis as businessman and Paul Dano’s young firebrand preacher is also played off to great effect, a theme which is present throughout the film. There’s almost certainly an element of social comment on the American dream and the rags to riches ideal so typical of the US pioneering spirit. Perhaps also a subconscious allusion to the war in Iraq in terms of the economic value of oil and the bitter human cost.

So on the whole, just like No Country for Old Men I would recommend There will be Blood as worth going to see, but would point out that it’s not quite as amazingly good as the critics have made it out to be.