Everybody’s familiar with Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, also known as The Man With No Name trilogy. Once Upon a Time in the West is another fan favorite, and besides film fanatics, even Once Upon a Time in America receives accolades. However, there’s one Leone film that seems hidden in the dust. Known as Duck, You Sucker! in the states, A Fistful of Dynamite in England and Giù la Testa in Italy, it’s Leone’s forgotten masterpiece. The film stars James Coburn as an ex-Irish Republican Army soldier on the lam in Mexico and Rod Steiger as a cunning Mexican bandit who becomes a reluctant war hero.
Leone originally intended the film to be the second in his Once Upon a Time series. The working title was Once Upon a Time, The Revolution. However, upon completion of the epic Once Upon a Time in the West, the last thing Leone wanted to do was film men on horseback firing six-guns in the air and at each other. He still wanted the second film made, but this time around Leone choose to sit in the producer’s chair. Directing duties were first handed over to Peter Bogdanovich, fresh off his debut film, the Roger Corman project Targets. Bogdanovich balked at the lack of artistic control and abandoned the project. Firebrand director Sam Peckinpah was enlisted afterwards, but according to who you ask, he was never really asked or he wasn’t going to be directing any movie with Leone producing.
Giancarlo Santi, Leone’s long-time assistant director, finally got the job. When it came to casting, it was as difficult as it was finding a suitable director. Clint Eastwood and Jason Robards were both approached to play the Irishman, but both wanted to get away from the Italian film industry. Malcolm McDowell was finally cast. For the bandito role that eventually went to Steiger, Leone wrote the character for Eli Wallach. Both Wallach and McDowell were set to roll, but the American producers weren’t satisfied and wanted bankable stars. Finally, the roles went to Coburn and Steiger. However, both men said they wouldn’t do the film unless Leone was calling the shots. Santi stepped aside, and Leone, imaginably tired of the bullshit, went back to directing duties.
The film opens with a quote from Chairman Mao. The opening shot is an extreme close-up of Steiger taking a piss on a swarm of flies on a tree. Leone is not fucking around. After a sly stick-up of a stagecoach carrying various tropes of The Establishment - a priest, a doctor, a society woman, an American comparing Mexican peasants to “our damn niggers” - Juan Miranda (Steiger) forces the men to give up their money and goods and then rapes the woman. Miranda is surrounded by his family, and they move from one heist to the other. After a series of dramatic explosions, the family of bandits meet John Mallory (Coburn), an ex-IRA explosives expert making his way through Mexico. Miranda sees a kindred spirit in Mallory, and he also spots opportunity; he wants Mallory’s skills with dynamite to help him blow up a bank vault.
Mallory has been in cahoots with various peasants, soldiers-for-hire and other architects behind the revolution being led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. His luck and skill with TNT have become an invaluable asset. Mallory slyly agrees to help Miranda with the bank heist. Once Miranda and his family enter the bank, they’re shocked after each vault door they open there’s no money, only men. Miranda, who never intended to help with any revolution and only wanted to line his pockets with gold, has become a grand hero and liberator. Mallory knew the bank was recently converted to a political prison. John and Juan are now unlikely partners in a revolution that has it’s share of setbacks.
The chemistry between Coburn and Steiger was only hinted at during Eastwood and Wallach’s scenes in Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship between the two Johns, and they both struggle with heartbreak and betrayal. Mallory’s backstory is somewhat explained through a series of flashbacks throughout the film. He was apparently betrayed by a friend and fellow IRA soldier back in Ireland, and it also appears a woman came between the two men. These scenes, and hell let’s just say the entire film, are peppered with Leone’s main-main, the composer Ennio Morricone. It’s not exactly the twangy themes that are associated with Leone’s westerns, but it’s still spiced with whistles, whispered and hushed vocal refrains (I suspect at one point the Coburn’s character was named Sean, because that’s exactly what the vocals are repeating) and enough dread and unease to cement it as a classic Leone/Morricone collaboration.
Duck, You Sucker! is an ambitious film that takes a swipe at all sides of a revolution. The political aspect of the film can be summed up by one of my favorite scenes with Steiger, pissed off at the position he’s found himself in. Take it away, Steiger!
“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, "We have to have a change." So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They're dead! That's your revolution. Shhh... So, please, don't tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”
Robert, Nott. "The Restoration Of Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker!." Santa Fe New Mexican (2004): 46-1. Newspaper Source Plus.
Combs, Richard. "James Coburn: The Hired Hand." Sight & Sound 16.5 (2006): 24-30. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson).