Sergio Leone’s meditation on the consequences of revolution takes shape as the black sheep of his filmography in 1971’s A Fistful of Dynamite aka: Duck You Sucker. Leone’s grim yet ambitious film has noble aspirations even for one mostly about explosions. Dubbed his “political” western Leone jams enough tragic imagery and social critique for 3 films into this grand epic which caused quite a stir in the early 70s. Thankfully we’re given two actors that can navigate this challenging film with James Coburn and Rod Steiger chewing through scenes like stale bubble gum. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is stuffed to the rafters with special features but carries over a previous HD transfer rather than a new scan. Recommended for fans.
“The dead remain dead.”
You might recognize the title A Fistful of Dynamite or you may have heard the title Duck You Sucker when looking through those “movies you haven’t seen” lists. However you’ve heard about this movie, Sergio Leone’s forgotten political western goes by many names. Offering a sort of bumper between his Dollars Trilogy and his Once Upon a Time films, this ambitious western gave the legendary filmmaker a chance to inject some heavy themes into his work while operating on a much grander scale. Chopped up and recut, the film never got its due thanks to studios reworking his ambitious endeavor into a familiar rehash of his previous work. The film itself, when seen in a (nearly) complete cut, is a powerful, yet clunky affair that replaces most of the cool charisma you expect with biting social and political commentary.
Wiley Mexican bandit Juan (Rod Steiger) and Irish explosives expert John (James Coburn) develop an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship during the course of the Mexican revolution in 1913. After an explosive introduction, Juan realizes he can use John’s expertise to help him rob a bank in the town of Mesa Verde. A job Juan has been dreaming about his whole life. Unknowingly, John is two steps ahead hoping to use the bandit’s fiery determination for the benefit of the revolution. “Hey God, you sure this is Mesa Verde?” Juan prays while witnessing the firing squad execution of three men in the town. As the two fast friends navigate the landscape of gunfights, executions, betrayals, and political upheaval, the men are taken on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately a resolution for at least one of them. Not something you’d normally hear about a movie where grand explosions are the film’s anchor, right?
This is a scrappy and tenacious film that is jam-packed with subtext, metaphors, and critiques of fascist regimes. Not to worry as Leone devotees will find themselves in familiar territory with grand wide shots and gritty characters populating a world full of intense gunfights and informers all to the lyrical scoring from Ennio Morricone. James Coburn lights up the screen with his nitroglycerin trenchcoat (and epic mustache) while maintaining an air of melancholy that soon unravels and ultimately decides his fate in the revolution. Ron Steiger’s Juan Miranda is a goofy yet opportunistic bandit with a heart of gold bent on keeping himself out of any political fighting. It isn’t until Juan is faced with his worst fears that we’re given an insight into the violent acts of revolution.
Leone’s aim here is far grander than anything he has done before. With the Dollars Trilogy he took a beloved American genre minted by John Ford and flipped it on its head. Then with A Fistful of Dynamite Leone provided an answer to the trend of graphic violence in new westerns but also of radical political movements in Europe of the late 60’s. Numerous flashback sequences, sustained emotional breaks, and a lingering camera over grim scenes of mass executions show the real consequences of revolution. Here Leone has an introspective lens not seen in his other western works. We aren’t interested in who is going to ride into the sunset loaded with stolen gold. Even when John is fighting back Mexican soldiers with sticks of dynamite he is still fighting the haunting pit of betrayal gleamed in the flashback memories. Juan’s guilt of leading his family into the revolution are met with unforeseen consequences. Unfortunately, heavy themes don’t necessarily make for a solid film.
Not everything works in A Fistful of Dynamite as well as it should. Steiger and Coburn trot out bizarre accents for their characters that never seem confident. The Irish dialect is not Coburn’s strong suit and Steiger tries to keep himself from slipping into a comic portrayal of a Mexican bandit but fails more often than he should. Though voices are dubbed in various releases, the real shortcomings of the film can be seen in what was consistently edited out of the film or even confusing to audiences. John Mallory’s soft-focus flashback scenes are an excellent example. These extended dreamy memories of Ireland are key to revealing John’s motivations and moral dilemmas. The 3-minute one at the tail of the film is crucial to everything we’ve seen in the last two-and-a-half hours! It explains everything. I’ll leave it at that. Cutting it sounds absurd, but these sequences slow the film to a screeching halt. I can see why audiences were confused or didn’t want to watch a giggly James Coburn dancing around a tree for 3 minutes. Would a different edit have helped?
Since its 1971 release, A Fistful of Dynamite has been edited to death. Like some of my other favorite movies such as Blade Runner and Caligula, there is a breadth of work surrounding the controversial edits, cuts, and releases. The original title Giù La Testa translates to “put your head down, balls," which is a better title (except for the balls part) to indicate what you have to do to survive the revolution. Put your head down. Duck You Sucker as the American title was insisted upon by Leone because he felt it was a common phrase in American slang. (It wasn’t.) It then received 22 minutes of cuts by United Artists and given the “Fistful” title after audiences didn’t recognize this as a mainstream western. With references to WW2 concentration camps, Nazi occupation, trench warfare, and fascist regimes, Duck You Sucker worked well to stir Europeans at the time but proved to be too much for American studios to translate successfully to audiences. Deleting its revolutionary messages and grim violence while creating a lean and confusing action film to satisfy US audiences makes sense but ultimately denies them a truly deep experience in A Fistful of Dynamite. The French title Once Upon a Time in...Revolution is clearly the best iteration of the title due to the similarity of this movie’s violent tone and message as compared to his other works.
I had a wonderful time watching this film and dissecting its themes, motivations, and controversial elements. As a lifelong fan of The Dollars Trilogy, A Fistful of Dynamite provides a refreshing and edgy cap on Leone’s limited yet influential foray into the West. Those looking for a spaghetti western with some substance that goes beyond shallow genre conventions will enjoy Duck You Sucker! Er, I mean A Fistful of Dynamite.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
A Fistful of Dynamite explodes onto Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. The film is pressed onto a BD-50 disc housed in a standard keep case with reversible artwork. The disc loads the KL Studio Classics logo before landing on the static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options.
This full-length Italian cut of A Fistful of Dynamite is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Kino did not conduct a new scan of the film, but merely ported over the MGM transfer from the 2014 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray which, itself, was culled from the Italian master prints to assemble a true full-length cut. Those with that previous MGM Blu-ray don’t need to double dip on this release unless they’re looking for the Kino produced special features on this release.
Grain structure is intact throughout, providing an attractive film-like experience. Colors appear muted but present a dynamic range from the green landscaping to the jet black hair on Juan’s head. Detail levels are strong in close up but relax in medium shots and disappear in those pesky Irish flashback sequences. Fine detail in skin and costuming is consistent while black levels hold through most of the feature especially interior shots. Dirt and specks are evident with occasional banding of the image. Intercut segments from different source material is hazy, shaky, and lacks focus/color depth. It’s a really good transfer, but with some cleaning, it could be a great one.
It’s unfortunate that Kino didn’t do a new scan of this film! WIth more Sergio Leone films in their pipeline you’d think they’d give this the same treatment as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray released last summer.
Supplied with DTS-HD MA 2.0 and 5.1 English audio mixes, ardent fans will decry the missing mono track from this release of A Fistful of Dynamite. Surround elements are sparse but when used are mixed out of the original 2.0. I wouldn’t recommend the 5.1, as it doesn’t add enough to the experience to make it worth it. Dialogue is clear and clean even with Coburn’s attempt at a subtle Irish accent. Front and center channels aren’t overworked but can be tested at higher levels with intense battle scenes. Keep the volume at a medium level to keep the tinny audio mix from becoming overbearing. Some sync issues appear more often than I’d like to see. The dreamy yet strangely comic score from Ennio Morricone is an essential part of this film yet it doesn’t quite have the staying power of his other Leone scores.
A good portion of the special features for this release are ported over from the 2014 MGM DVD and Blu-ray. I’m assuming without seeing the 2014 Blu-ray features that the A/V presentation for those are identical to the ones on this disc.
Filmmaker Alex Cox: Produced by Kino Lorber this commentary track from cult director, and western superfan, Alex Cox provides a refreshing take on the film and well worth the price of the disc.
Film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling: This commentary track ported over from the MGM release has Sir Frayling analyzing the film in a much dryer and academic approach compared to the Alex Cox track.
Featurette: The Myth of the Revolution (HD 22:10) Sir Christopher Frayling details Leone’s deconstruction and rejection of the western mythology while providing information on the film’s production.
Featurette: Sergio Donati Remembers (HD 7:20) Telling anecdotes from the production and feeling nostalgic, screenwriter Sergio Donati happily recalls his experiences writing the film and working with longtime collaborator Sergio Leone.
Featurette: Once Upon a Time in Italy (The Autry Exhibition) (HD 6:01) In 2005 the Autrey National Center’s Museum of the American West with the help of Christopher Frayling curated an exhibit of Leone film props and costumes. The featurette examines the process of creating such an installation of Leone’s work.
Featurette: Restoration Italian Style (HD 6:07) John Kirk from MGM’s technical operations department details the process by which he took various elements and cuts of the film to create what is the 2003 DVD cut seen on this Blu-ray.
Featurette: Sorting out the Versions (HD 11:36) An explanation of the various cuts, titles, and deleted scenes of the film while exploring the motivations behind these changes at length. Those wanting to delve deeper into the film will certainly enjoy this featurette.
Featurette: Location Comparisons (HD 9:31) Video slideshow of locations used in the film from Italy, Spain, and Ireland compared to what they look like today.
“Trailers from Hell” with Brian Trenchard-Smith (HD 4:46) Taken from the website trailersfromhell.com this video commentary with Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith is a fun review of the film.
Animated B&W Image Gallery (HD 2:47) Morricone’s score plays behind a slideshow of archival photos from the film.
Animated Color Image Gallery (HD 2:39) Morricone’s score plays behind a slideshow of archival photos from the film.
6 Radio Spots (4:03)
A Fistful of Dollars (HD 2:26)
For a Few Dollars More (HD 2:29)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (HD 3:22)
Once Upon a Time in the West (HD 2:52)
A Fistful of Dynamite (HD 3:35)
Coming off his Dollars Trilogy it’s easy to see why Leone’s political western wasn’t given the same adoration as his other works. This scrappy film swings for the fences but leaves out the charisma and cool we’ve come to associate with his other outings. It’s not a perfect film by any means -- it’s muddy and at times confusing -- but the scope and message alone are reasons enough to see it.
Kino Lorber brings A Fistful of Dynamite to Blu-ray with a respectable A/V presentation. The included bonus features pack this disc to the rafters making it a must-have for collectors. Even though this isn’t the Blu-ray we wanted Leone’s controversial film is still a thrill to watch and even more fun to dissect. Recommended for fans.