Social Class

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

“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. 

mao-zedong-3

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“.

Separating the wheat from the chav

After Irish President Mary McAleese made a somewhat undiplomatic remark about comparing Protestants to Nazis a few years ago, the protests which accompanied her visit to a school in a loyalist area of Coleraine were not totally unexpected.

There was the inevitable lively debate on Slugger O’Toole which inevitably turned into another “them ‘uns is worse than us ‘uns” style sectarian bun fight, but what struck me were the semi-humorous comments directed at the socio-economic background of the protesting parents – a selection of which I’ve reproduced below:

“I can picture the scene, buggies with weans in them (for the cameras) waving flags. Assorted hoop earings XL XXL XXXL for the “ladies” and “discreet” for the “gentlemen” Rings on all fingers and cheap fags hanging from the lips. Fake designer trakkies for both genders thought “muffin Tops” a must for the ladies and the obligitory peroxide multi-toned hair colour.”
“Beer-Bellied, hairy-arsed layabouts-and that was just the women. All that was missing was a pair of duelling banjos.”

Another urged them to “get their fat arses off their sofas and away from the eejits lantern and they’ll get a chance to breathe in some fresh air instead of the usual diet of tobacco smoke and stale pub air.”

Other commenters (most of whom I think it’s fair to assume are well-educated and from middle class backgrounds) referred to the protestors as “gutter runners”, “chavs” and “ugly trampy women” While such comments were made half-seriously and half in jest and I did find myself amused by some, they do make an important statement on how a certain section of society is perceived. The social sub-class to which the protestors apparently belong, is not of course confined to the Protestant/loyalist community. Simply swap the Rangers shirts and the union flags which were on display for Celtic shirts and tricolours (but retain the fake tans, fake designer sportswear, cigarettes, prominent tattoos and the inexpensive jewellery known as “Argos bling”) and you have the mirror image from the other side.   One only has to think of the Republican Sinn Féin idiot protesting outside Croke Park holding up a placard saying “No to foreign games” totally oblivious to the irony that he’s wearing a Celtic shirt. 

 One could argue however that the problem is more acute on the loyalist side which harbours a disenfranchised working class in a post-industrial society no longer able to get jobs in traditional industries such as shipbuilding and linen who feel deprived of a coherent voice – but that’s another debate altogether which I won’t go into at this point (but if anyone reading this would like to discuss the topic further I’d be happy to continue – in fact a more discerning commentator on Slugger articulates this view, referring to a social grouping who are “not aided by a lumpen-middle class (well represented I suspect on this board) who cling to the notion that their own outdated politics and prejudices are somehow more respectable that that of their working class co-religionists.”) 
Instead my thesis will explore within the wider context the phenomenon of one of the most demonised groups in contemporary western society, the white underclass.

It’s easy to indulge in snobbery and elitism where chavery is concerned – something which I, myself in all my smug middle class complacency, am guilty of to an extent. It’s also difficult to write about the subject without coming across as patronising, but there’s no point in pretending we have a classless society, when we quite blantly do.

Chavs, spides, skangers, trailer trash – ubiquitous throughout the English-speaking western world. Stereotypes mix with reality in a confusing mish-mash amidst the council estates of South London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin, Limerick and many other large cities, dreary provincial towns and downmarket seaside resorts across these isles. It’s not hard to conjure up the negative images – rows of rundown houses, each one sprouting a satellite dish, the almost compulsory burnt mattress in the garden, heavily tattooed muscular midle-aged men in the mould of Johnny Adair sporting chunky gold jewellery and sportswear walking pit bull terriers or rottweilers on leads, overweight young mothers, Sporty Spice lookalikes, wearing low-necklined top revealing huge rose or butterfly tattoo on the upper breast area, wheeling pushchairs, the child inside often of mixed race (cf Kathy Burke’s Waynetta Slob character “I want a braaaahhhnnn bybie!”), large gangs of hooded youths drinking cheap cider, abandoned pubs boarded up with wooden planks, or in certain parts of Dublin, scrawny tracksuited boys astride half-starved, malnourished horses.

Such characters enjoy their fair share of representation in popular culture, partcularly as objects of comic derison.  On television think Little Britain’s Vicky “Yeah, but no but” Pollard, Catherine Tate’s Lauren “I ain’t bovvered” character, Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke as “the Slobs”, the dysfunctional Battersby family in Coronation Street, Cletus, the trailer park-dwelling redneck in The Simpsons and the exploited guests who appear on the human zoos disguised as trashy daytime shows like Oprah Winfrey or the odious Jeremy Kyle.  In the pages of Viz comic we have the Bacon family, the fat slags and Tasha Slapper and in contemporary literature the novels of Irvine Welsh and Roddy Doyle pull no punches when it comes to the depiction of disaffected working class communities.

 

This section of our society is all too easy to mock and ridicule – like the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel. Chav-baiting has almost become fashionable.  Ironically the members of this sub-group within so-called “working class” allegedly don’t work and are branded by the reactionery right wing press such as the Daily Mail in the UK and the Sunday Independent in Ireland as dole-ite welfare scroungers and chain-smoking, beer-guzzling couch potato layabouts who have no intention of earning an honest day’s crust.  Ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the disabled are all protected by political correctness, but the indigenous underclass is supposedly fair game for satire and ridicule.  Racism, sexism, ageism are all banned by a militantly PC society, but classism is still very much alive.

Is it all about income and financial status though?  Not neccessarily.  The emergence of the “celebrity chav” as popularised by Wayne Rooney and Colleen Mc Loughlin, Katie Price and Peter Andre and former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody indicates that money doesn’t automatically convey respectability or acceptance. 

Michael Collins in his excellent book The Likes of us, a history of the white British working class with a healthy sprinkling of humour provides a succinct summary of the situation:

“Traditionally, the white working class would take to the street only for the end of a war or the beginning of a sale, with the exception of the death of a princess. Naturally there were other exceptional occasions: Jarrow marchers, the dockers responding to the Powell furore, and in the 1980s, in Southwark, there was rumour of revolt when the call went out for the muzzling of Staffordshire bull terriers. But more recently within the working class, there were those women taking to the streets against paedophiles. There were the taxi-drivers protesting during the petrol price debacle, and the Billingsgate porters’ bid to reclaim the streets when they marched to oppose London’s congestion charge. Those who champion democracy, direct action and single-issue pressure groups were suddenly referring to many of these protesters as “mobs”, and even suggesting that the police be sent in to form a thin blue line. Then there was the more pressing concern of a growing support for the British National Party. In Slade Green a BNP member beat the Tory candidate to second place in a by-election. Behind this “protest” vote – as it has been described in the press – are working-class whites in poor areas who believe they have been neglected and ghettoised, their views ignored.”
The meaning of the term “working class” however has become somewhat ambiguous. Skilled trades such as plumbing, carpentry and plastering, all traditional working class blue collar occupations are now in similar (if not higher)  income brackets to white collar professions such as teaching and the civil service – and have thus effectively become “middle class”.  With a university education no longer a guarantee of a good job, it seems that more and more middle class parents are now encouraging their children to become plumbers and electricians rather than get themselves into thousands of pounds in debt and end up as low-paid office clerks or call centre workers.
The real underclass among the native white population of these isles are the welfare state generation – what we call the “working class” don’t actually work – much like the upper classes of the traditonal aristocracy who tended to inherit money rather than earn it, and thus had no need to work.
Society has come full circle.