Social Mobility

“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

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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“.

Likely Lads stage unlikely Return



 
I was thrilled to hear that the classic situation comedy series of the 1960s and early ’70s The Likely Lads is being relaunched as a stage show. Following the mixed fortunes of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier, two young working class men, played brilliantly by Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in an unspecified location in the north-east of England the show captured the spirit of the times and although it does seem dated, its humour has a timeless appeal.
Co-writers Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais (also known for Auf Wiederschen Pet and the other classic ’70s sitcom Porridge) appeared on the radio to promote their new venture which will feature fresh young actors rather than ageing members of the origianl cast.
 
The superior sequel Whatever happened to the Likely Lads?, made a few years after the original series ended is described by Stuart Maconie in Pies and Prejudice, his masterpiece of social and cultural history on the north of England as “the best British comedy series ever”.  I wouldn’t quite go that far, as for me the inimitable Fawlty Towers holds its own at the top of the comedy premiere league. However, Whatever Happened would certainly feature in my all time top 10 greatest sitcoms alongside Porridge, Dad’s Army, Blackadder, The Young Ones, Father Ted, Red Dwarf, The Office and Peep Show – though not necessarily in that order.
 
In Whatever Happened the two characters’ paths diverge. Bob becomes the social climber who marries Thelma the sensible librarian and joins the ranks of the white collar professional, settling down to a life of middle class suburban domestic bliss. Terry by contrast has returned to the banks of the Tyne/Wear/Tees(?) after a spell as a squaddie in Germany with a failed marriage behind him and remains the salt of the earth working class boy, irresponsible and badly behaved – and this is where much of the comedy derives from.
However, the running joke throughout is that fact that Bob now thinks he’s superior to Terry, because of his new-found social status as expressed by his membership of the badminton club and skiing holidays, but in reality is no better and often just as badly-behaved. Deep down Bob still wants to chase women and get pissed down at the Fat Ox.
 
I’m too young to have seen the show during its original airing, but was inducted via the occasional repeat run which many other popular comedies of the era have enjoyed – and later on via DVD.
 
The show emerged out of the kitchen dramas of the ’60s, the new wave of British cinema known as social realism which broke the mould by depicting the everyday lives of ordinary working class people. The genre was concentrated particularly (but not exclusively) in the north of England, and thus became popularly known as the “it’s grim up north” film. Classic examples include Kes, A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar.
 
Part of the show’s appeal, along with that of many other programmes of the time is the cosy sense of false nostalgia it evokes, aided in part by its catchy, almost melancholic theme song (“Oh what happened to you, whatever happened to me…). We like deluding ourselves into thinking that life was better back then, things were simpler, people more down-to-earth, the world was a safer place, etc – total bollocks of course, but a nice thought all the same.
 
It would be interesting to see how Bob and Terry would fare as old men, 35 years after their last outing. Unfortunately a reunion is unlikely due to the bad blood between Bewes and Bolam – a disappointment for fans, but a common occurrence in comic double acts. Steptoe and Son, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore spring to mind. So whatever happens to those likely lads (if you’ll pardon the cliché) the memories of classic comedy will linger on.