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.
“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.
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!”).
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”
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”.
Watch this space for A Fistful of Dynamite: A Fistful of Leone”, part 2, “Juan, Sean and an accidental revolutionary“.