Monday, November 5, 2018

A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)




Shon, Shon... Shon, Shon

Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) didn't set out to become the hero of the Mexican Revolution. He just wanted to rob a bank. After a successful heist in which Juan and his extended family take over a coach transporting members of the wealthy elite, Juan sets his sights on something bigger: the Mesa Verde National Bank. He gets the idea when he meets John Mallory (James Coburn), a dynamite expert, I.R.A terrorist and fugitive on the run. Juan meets John, John meets Juan... it's destiny. Juan wants John on his team but John likes being a lone outlaw just fine. John finds a way to work Juan's bank heist idea into this own plans only to have Juan discover that the bank has no money. Instead it was a makeshift political prison. Juan just freed hundreds of prisoners and has been declared a national hero. But Juan's troubles are just beginning. The Mexican army wants to rid the country of the revolutionaries. When a major tragedy befalls Juan and when one of John's allies turns traitor, this reluctant duo must come face-to-face with the oppressive regime. It's a battle that culminates into one explosive finale.

I only learned one thing from you. - Juan
Oh what's that? - John
How to get fucked. - Juan

Director Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) is a Zapata Western, a sub-genre of the Spaghetti Western in which the stories are set in Mexico, often during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. This sub-sub-genre sets out to take a look at the revolution that is vastly different from the Hollywood stories that came before. Leone's film has a long and complicated history. The story is based on an original idea by Sergio Donati. Leone and Donati fleshed out the story and worked with writer Luciano Vincenzoni on the screenplay. Leone didn't intend to direct the film. Both Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich were considered but neither worked out for different reasons. For the two leads Clint Eastwood, Jason Robards, Eli Wallach, Malcolm McDowell and George Lazenby were all considered. In fact Wallach, who was initially reluctant to take the part, dropped his current project upon Leone's encouragement. However, United Artists had already hired Steiger for the role of Juan Miranda and wouldn't budge. As a result, Wallach sued.

There are so many versions of this film that it's hard to keep track. First off there's the title. In Italy it was released as Giu la Testa which translates to Keep Your Head Down. Leone historian Sir Christopher Frayling has said that Keep Your Head Down would have been an excellent title for the movie and I agree. Instead the English-language title was Duck, You Sucker, a line often repeated by James Coburn's character John Mallory. However that title wasn't going to jive with American audiences so it was changed to A Fistful of Dynamite, a reference Leone's landmark Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964). And in Europe the film was also referred to as C'era una volta la rivoluzione or Once Upon a Time.. a Revolution. The different releases worldwide came with different cuts. Several scenes were deleted or shortened depending on the market. For example, in one version the extended slow-motion flashback scene at the very end when John is remembering a menage trois with his girlfriend Coleen (Vivienne Chandler) and his best friend Nolan (David Warbeck) is shortened to 30 seconds essentially removing a bit of storyline essential to understanding John's relationship with Nolan.

A Fistful of Dynamite was shot in Spain and Ireland. While its set during the Mexican Revolution, the film serves as a general commentary of war, imperialism and is even influenced by the Italian political climate of the time. Several scenes were inspired by works of art depicting important moments in history. Leone's film has great depth that really can't be fully explored in just one viewing. I'm not well-versed in Leone's Spaghetti Westerns and I came to this mostly to watch Rod Steiger and James Coburn, two of my favorite actors. I was particularly fascinated with Coburn's John Mallory and the film's slow-motion flashbacks to his life back in Ireland. And the possible suggestion that John and Nolan had a romantic relationship. The movie meanders, takes its time with its characters and even with that explosive finale. There was no rush to tell the story and it allows viewers to settle into this world.  The true hero of the film though is Ennio Morricone's music. The various themes and the chants (Shon, Shon... Shon, Shon) are entrancing.




A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) is dark, gritty Leone classic ready to be rediscovered. It's available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!'

The Blu-Ray contains two separate audio commentaries by filmmaker Alex Cox and film history Sir Christopher Frayling, 6 featurettes ranging from 7-22 minutes each, 2 animated galleries, 6 radio spots and several Sergio Leone movie trailers. The case comes with a reversible jacket.



Thank you to  Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) on Blu-Ray to review.

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