The picture was taken in the Cabo de Gatos National Park in Almeria, Southern Spain, where many “spaghetti westerns”, notably those directed by Sergio Leone were made in the 1960s. How appropriate – it’s certainly bad and ugly, but I can’t see much good there.
And so to the third and final instalment of Phil’s epic work on A Fistful of Dynamite:
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.
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.
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 “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“.
The Dreaming Arm’s occasional contributor Philip “We like birds we’re ornithologists/Postman Plod he’s a miserable sod, the tattoo on Biffa Bacon’s Mum’s arm, it’ll be ye ootside and ye’ll hoof us in the knackaz” Larkin is back to pay homage to arguably the world’s greatest living composer (and without a shadow of doubt the world’s greatest ever composer of soundtracks to 1960s spaghetti westerns and films about 18th century Jesuit missionaries in South America) Ennio Morricone.
I am sitting down to write this small tribute to one of the greatest modern composers for the blog before it is too late, and he has passed on. CW and myself have prevaricated and “hummed and hawed” about this piece, but happily the legend that is Morricone still remains with us today. Morricone will never read what I have written, but I feel it only fair that the blog should acknowledge him: CW and I are both big fans. I very much regret not going to a concert of his in London a number of years ago, but if such an event ever happens again (and I hope that it will), you may bet that I will be in the audience, whatever my circumstances may be. I am writing this piece to the haunting strains of the “Ecstasy of Gold” which accompanied the frenzied searches of Tuco for buried gold in the vast cemetery during the final scenes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Some people in this world have an instinctive genius for being able to stir deep emotions within us, accessing these by a profound knowledge of what fires our most primitive senses. Winston Churchill was able to do this through the medium of words: his speeches remain possibly his greatest legacy to the United Kingdom and its people. Laurie Lee, in his Cider with Rosie had a similar talent for choosing exactly the right combination of words to evoke pictures in our mind’s eye of a young boy growing up in the Cotswolds in the 1920s. I would say that Ennio Morricone, the Italian composer of whom I write, similarly possesses this wonderful talent, except that he expresses it through the medium of music. It is as if he visualises human emotion like the cords of a violin, and knows instinctively which ones to play in order to produce a wonderful reaction in each of us.
I do not know much about his background, except that he is obviously Italian and has been classically educated in music. For those who are unfamiliar with the name of Ennio Morricone, he wrote the music for many of Sergio Leone’s Western Films, for example, A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America, to name but a few. Practically everyone knows at least some of these tunes. In addition to the work he did for Leone, Morricone also composed the highly memorable soundtrack for the film The Mission, and so many other pieces that it would be tedious to try and catalogue them here. I feel personally that his music works in particularly perfect harmony with Leone’s films, their look and feel, their mood, and their environment. This partnership may have worked so well because both were Italians and Latins, and had an instinctive understanding of what the other was looking for.
Morricone’s background music never fails to capture the right mood in a film scene, and almost draws the viewer deeper into the ambience of the picture. Who can fail to be moved by the strains of “Death of a Soldier”, when Clint Eastwood’s ministers to a mortally wounded young confederate, dying alone, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? In that same film, (and with a similar music score), during the scene when Tuco and the man with no name enter the monastery for help, we are filled with empathy and compassion at the sight of the monks in simple brown habits binding and washing the wounds of the helpless, starving, confederate refugees. Sticking with The Good…etc, remember that part when our two anti-heroes, Eastwood and Wallach, are marched into a dust caked, fly-blown prisoner of war camp by their Union captors? By the use of the whistling and ever-so-slightly wistful marching tune, we almost can believe that we are being shepherded to the same camp.
Changing the film and the mood entirely, remember the wonderful score in Once Upon a Time in the West which accompanies Claudia Cardinale’s character as she alights from the train and we see the birth of a bustling new western town, and the music conveys both hope for future progress, but also wistful regret at the demise of the old “Wild West” and its (often warped) code of honour? In our deepest core we know, without realising it, that civilization as represented by the new town spells death to the Old West, yet the mere footage in this film of the stage town alone could not convey this knowledge to the viewer: Morricone’s musical score darkly hints at the notion in our sub-conscious. Sometimes the melancholy invoked by Ennio’s pieces can be almost overpowering: I would not recommend anyone in a dark mood to listen to “Deborah’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in America.
Part of the reason for Morricone’s success is that he is prepared to be highly innovative in his approach to musical scores. For instance, during one duel scene in For a Few Dollars More, the feverish, oven-like tension is accentuated by the sepulchral strains of organ music punctuating the classic Western stand-off. Similarly, no other composer could have made work as well as Ennio the frog croaking “wop, wop, wop” “March of the Peasants” in A Fistful of Dynamite. Neither, as with the “Ecstasy of Gold”, was he scared to use female soprano singing in the score. Somehow, the music seems entirely appropriate to the scene of the film.
Some people take a very snobbish view towards composers such as Ennio Morricone, accusing them of being “populist”, and selling their work for pure profit. I do not agree. Ennio’s work has touched the lives of millions of people, even without us being aware of it, and brought fine music within the remit of those of us who do not ordinarily know our Rachmaninov from our Tchaikovsky.
Good on you Ennio!