Duck, You Sucker! or a Fistful of Dynamite (1971)
Written by Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Roberto de Leonardis, and Carlo Tritto
Directed by Sergio Leone
Leone’s time with the western came to an end with this picture. He couldn’t know, but it would be his penultimate film, causing his career to be framed through the lens of the genre forever. That’s not bad because Leone completely transformed western cinema beyond the borders of Italy. American filmmakers could no longer make westerns that sanitized the past in the ways they once did; that had to reflect the harsh survival that went on as America spread itself out across the continent. Duck, You Sucker! is not his greatest western, but it’s still not completely terrible. When watching the work of a director like Leone, it’s hard to critique the quality of any of his career. It’s at a level few people ever reach. What informed this movie was not Leone’s love of westerns but the rising up of left-wing revolutionary activism in Italy and a desire to highlight that the country as it stood was not going to survive unless things changed.
Juan Miranda (Rod Stieger) is a bandit ambushing wealthy travelers in 1913 Mexico with a cadre of his criminal children. During a robbery, a motorcycle passes by, and Juan threatens the man. He quickly learns this motorcyclist is Sean Mallory (James Coburn), an early Irish Republican and explosives expert. He’s come to Mexico to work as a silver prospector, using his explosive knowledge to move mountains. Juan sees this as a boon for his plans to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank and frames Sean for murder after he refuses to help him. Now a wanted criminal, Sean angrily relents but instead pulls Juan into fighting alongside the Mexican revolutionaries during the Zapatista rebellion. The result is that Juan is quickly awakened to a bigger fight he should be participating in instead of robbing people of jewels and some cash.
Leone insisted afterward that for all the political symbology of the picture, Duck You Sucker was never intended to be a “political film.” Instead, he wanted to explore the dynamics between an intellectual person (Sean) and a naive layperson (Juan). Through their interactions, the director showcased how Sean can still learn from someone who operates from a perceived “simpler” place. Juan also learns a lot about how he is part of a more extensive system and can influence that machine if he desires. Leone would state that his generation had been promised so much by the Italian elite in the wake of World War II and that they had failed to deliver. So, he concluded that revolution is a time of great confusion; it’s opening the gates to chaos, living in that space, and trying to make sense of its many contradictions.
Leone is right. Revolutions are violent moments in human existence; there is no other way for them to be. So, when a liberal tries to intellectualize “revolution” or “rebellion” into purely philosophical terms, they show a complete lack of understanding. The foundations of society do not shift by asking nicely or attending to our institutions. You have to tear them down and be willing to destroy the leadership that is killing your people to uphold their reign of horrors. Leone opens the film with a quote from Mao to this same effect: “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. A revolution is an act of violence.”
Duck, You Sucker! is a mess of a film, though, and has some really awful moments. In the movie, there is one female character, and she gets raped by Juan in the first 15 minutes. It’s very disgusting. This is a point on which I have immense problems with the work of Leone. Women exist merely as objects to be used by men. Jill from Once Upon a Time in America is the rare exception, but even then, she is handed around by the men with the implication that one of them will “have her” eventually. The argument can be made that Leone’s work reflected the world where his stories took place. Women in the American West did serve as sexual currency. Some women turned the tables and empowered themselves to an extent, but mostly they were victims of brutal male cruelty.
In modern media, there is a subgenre of historical films that eschews “accuracy” for sensitivity and representation. I don’t see anything wrong with that, to create light fantasies where everyone can feel empowered within genre entertainment. My problem comes with something like Hamilton, where white supremacy is put in Black and brownface to obfuscate the reality. The men who founded America were nasty, vicious, slave-owning, greedy rapists. It’s simply the truth. So, is it better to hide that fact and present a fantasia of history, or should we let the breadth of the atrocities be played out as accurately as possible?
I am of the mind that I want the cold hard truth put in front of the camera. However, I do not believe humanity will be able to move into the next moment of our development if we do not openly and in detail acknowledge what we have done to each other. As I said, a regency drama that includes BIPOC is fine with me, but it cannot be the only representation of history, or we risk further twisting our understanding of the past even further than it already is. And showing people only bleak, horrific historical fiction can’t be the only media; we have to present marginalized people with stories of their communities surviving & thriving despite the horrors.
Leone’s work is very unpleasant to watch at times (it’s going to get worse with our final review next week), but I can’t argue that he isn’t attempting to show an accurate picture of how life went for people on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder. If you are poor or working class, historically, you have been subject to mistreatment and torture that people in the higher economic echelons are responsible for, whether passively or actively. With Duck, You Sucker!, I found Leone to be struggling. He had been told his westerns made money but wanted to do something else. However, we need money to survive in this world, sadly. Leone makes the picture but tries to get some bigger ideas in the story, however, muddled they turn out to be.
The result is a grossly uneven picture. Leone indulges himself by going well over two hours in runtime, but the first 75 minutes are so light & silly that I wouldn’t blame anyone for checking out mentally. Leone’s ultimate emphasis here is mimicking his previous successes in westerns, so there’s an air of desperation around the picture. But even the western elements fans would have clamored to see again were absent. This movie has no stylized standoffs, camera jumping between the squinting eyes of the gunslingers. It’s not a bad movie, but an easily skippable one because it fails to deliver on anything it promises it will.