Dynamite, dust and dollars

Sergio Leones fistful of films

Simon Abrams
May 3, 2007

In Sergio Leone’sfilms, no symbol is more threatening or alluring than dynamite. It announcesthe arrival of something new and dangerous, changing people’s lives for betteror worse depending on whether they exploit others or have been exploited themselves.In Leone’s first film, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a blast of dynamite heralds the return of arevived ‘Man with No Name’ (Clint Eastwood) just before his final showdown withthe malicious Rojos gang. Declaring and obscuring his presence, the explosionmakes sure we know that he’s the town’s knight in shining armor, thanks not toaltruism but self-interest, pride and revenge.

 

The murkymotivations behind Leone’s fifth and least known film, Duck, You Sucker! (1971), sometimes called AFistful of Dynamite, make the shades ofgrey in Dollars seem almost naïve. Largely unknown in America, Duck is oftenshown in Morricone retrospectives because of his brilliant, gonzo score. It’sLeone’s most political film and his most dissatisfying in that neither of itsdual protagonists is able to find higher ideological ground or a realresolution. While it begins as a Marxist condemnation of the repulsive andignorant nature of the upper class, it ends with one protagonist’s death as theother pleads, ‘What about me’? Oddly enough, the dynamite expert is the onethat bites the dust.

 

Minutes beforecolliding into an oncoming steam engine, John Mallory (James Coburn) declaressomberly, ‘When I started using dynamite, I believed in many things. Finally, Ibelieved only in dynamite’. While the steam engine is the symbol of thecrushing forces of modernity in Leone’s preceding film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Mallory doesn’t die until after the traindelivers its explosive payload. Showing a clean break from the iconic symbolsthat populated the American West, Mallory dies in Mexico, in the midst of acivil war that he never supported. Rod Steiger plays Juan, a small-time Mexicanbandit whose dreams of robbing the Mesa Verde bank end up making him areluctant hero. While Juan’s story could have easily become a moral tale of agreedy man who unwittingly joins a just cause and sees the error of his ways,it ends up with the death of all his companions. His newfound partisan fervoris the true culprit.

 

Duck lacks a true moral center if one considers that theline separating Mallory, formerly an IRA agent and Byronic figure weary ofrevolution, from his enemies is practically non-existent. Mallory hesitantlymolds Juan into a rebel, proving by example the cowardice of ambivalence in themidst of conflict. Juan stumbles into stupendous acts of bravery whilegovernment troops carry out brutal, public executions. Juan’s nameless enemiesknow what they’re doing when they kill. They look their victims in the facejust before they mow them down, while according to Mallory, Juan is just‘ridding the world of a few uniforms’. The soldiers think about their carnageand are cold-blooded killers, while Juan’s own lack of malicious thought makeshim a patriot.

 

War leaves no roomfor the pensive dissident; it only has room for the man of action who leapsblindly in harm’s way and suffers the consequences. In Leone’s other westerns,self-interest and careful planning almost always lie at the heart of hisantihero’s movements. Harmonica in OnceUpon a Time, for example, seeks revengewhile ‘The Man with No Name’ catches bounties primarily to fill his pockets andthen to rid the West of bad men. Juan, on the other hand, sets his sights onAmerica, putting his fantasies of wealth into a distant future that will nevercome. Juan didn’t have a future as the film begins, and it ends with a close-upof his sweaty, tear-stained, unshaven mug, unsure of what comes next.

 

‘When I go, I’m taking half of this country with me’,Mallory threatens, foreshadowing the upheaval that his death will cause inJuan’s everyman character. ‘Leone’s doubts about the morality of socialupheavals’, as film historian Peter Bondanella put mildly, ‘make it seem as ifhe’s turned his back on the world of men who did the right thing for their ownreasons and moved onto the perils of a modern world of chaotic and convenientbeliefs’. Leone would go on to eulogize the romance of old world justice in hisfinal film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), transporting us to a foreign terrainpopulated by immigrants and dominated by a new kind of dynamite: the Americandream. Duck hasnever been revered like his other films. It brings something foreign andrelatively unwelcome to the West—an ending after the sunset, where questionsburn more brightly than accomplishments.

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