Politics

“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“.

Intellectual Public Property

The latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine has compiled a list of the top 100 public intellectuals. The criteria are defined simply as influential thinkers who feature prominently in public life beyond the borders of their native countries. Although such lists are generally to be taken with a pinch of salt and usually heavily biased, they do nevertheless make interesting reading. The usual suspects from a wide variety of fields are there – Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Joe Ratzinger (aka Pope Benny XVI), Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk and Steven Pinker among others.  I’m not sure if Salman Rushdie deserves a place in the top 100 though. He’s highly overrated as a novelist, let alone a great intellectual.

The compilers have deliberately tried to be as balanced as possible – the list contians both the atheist and the beliver (Dawkins and the Pope), the Israeli and the Palestinian (Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh), the neo-con and the leftist (Francis Fukuyama and Chomksy) – and for the sake of political correctness the token black African is Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.
There is of course an emphasis on the word “public” here, suggesting that there is an infinite number of private intellectuals out there who are brilliant thinkers, but choose to stay out of the public eye.  Or maybe they just blog.  Top 100 private intellectuals anyone? Top 20 intellectuals within the Irish blogosphere? Any suggestions?
 
One major criticism I have about Foreign Policy’s list is that it leaves some of the world’s finest orators and people of letters –  intellectual heavyweights like Wayne Rooney, Katie Price and George W. Bush all fail to make the top 100.  Scandalous.

YOU COULDN’T MAKE IT UP

Gerry Moriarty in today’s Irish Times reports on Ian Paisley’s retirement from politics:

“Peter [the Punt/Hands (and feet) across the border] Robinson delivered the introduction, which was followed by a video of the Big Man’s life and time, climaxing with the fanfare of Dr Paisley walking slowly into the hall for a rapturous reception to the tune of the spring section of Four Seasons by Vivaldi (a Catholic priest).”

 

AND FINALLY…

          

Sontaran                                 Avram Grant

Is it just me, or does recently deposed former Chelsea boss Avram Grant bear an uncanny resemblance to one of Dr Who’s old adversaries the Sontarans, a cloned warrior caste race from the planet Sontara, perpetually engaged in a millenia-old war of attrition with their sworn enemies the Rutans?

OK, maybe it is just me then.

 

Quite literally on a wing and a prayer

I watched a TV program last week about a man called Duddy from Derry who acted as an intermediary between the British government and the IRA with the help of a mysterious spook from the intelligence service known only as Robert, negotiations which eventually led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Like most of Peter Taylor’s investigations it was all very interesting, but I won’t comment so much on the content of the documentary. There are other institutions which could do a better job – like Bugger O’Foole with Rick Kielty or whatever he calls himself, where contributors can discuss what a shower of sectarian bigots the GAA/Northern Ireland soccer team (delete as appropriate) are. But what caught my imagination was the final scene. The man called Duddy who in the previous scene had broken down with emotion was now seen on a remote hilltop looking out over a breathtaking landscape – probably somewhere in Donegal – with the wind in his hair and the dark silhouette of a large bird soaring overhead. The camera didn’t pan in close enough for me to indentify the bird, but it looked like a golden eagle, a bird which became extinct in Ireland after relentless persecution many moons ago, but is now making a comeback after a successful breeding programme in the Glenveagh National Park. I could get all pretentious now and say how the return of this majestic bird was a symbol of peace and stability on the island – but I won’t, as it would sound rather tacky. What I will say is that the return of the eagle, the red kite, the buzzard, the peregrine falcon and other such formerly rare raptors to the skies of these Hiberno-Britannic isles is a welcome sight. Just last weekend, while out rambling in the Chilterns I observed a spectacular aerial tussle between a kite (the bird, not the wind-assisted stringed contraption) and a buzzard, something which will linger in the memory for times to come.