Some evenings, you’re just in a certain mood. There are those evenings when science-fiction is just what’s needed, others, perhaps a ‘70s flick. Then there are the Lord of the Rings-fevers, the Star Wars crazes and, lest we forget, the evenings when French criminals are just so charismatic. Finally, there are those evenings when a spaghetti western just can’t be topped. When what you really need is some bad dubbing, exaggerated sound-effects and the angelic sounds of Ennio Morricone.
But there comes a time (at least if you are susceptible to such moods) when you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy a few too many times and Once Upon a Time in the West no longer tickles your fancy. Where do you turn next? There is a whole range of Spaghetti Westerns from the ‘60s and ‘70s, from the cheap thrills of Sergio Corbucci (Django, The Mercenary) to the more Leone-esque works of Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown, The Great Silence), but they won’t do it. After all, what you want is more… epic in scale. You could turn to Tarantino’s more recent Django Unchained, but that feels like it’s trying too hard to recapture the magic of times long gone. What you want is the real thing. What you want is a forgotten Leone Spaghetti Western.
Luckily for you, there is such a film. Duck, You Sucker! (aka A Fistful of Dynamite, aka Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) was Sergio Leone’s penultimate film, made a few years after the much-celebrated Once Upon a Time in the West and thirteen years before Once Upon a Time in America. It has therefore long been overshadowed by its older and younger siblings.
Duck, You Sucker! begins with a man urinating on a tree-stump covered with ants. And this pretty much sets the gritty tone for the first section of the film. Harkening back to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, it follows a Mexican bandit (Juan, played by Rod Steiger) at the time of the Mexican Revolution who engages in some morally ambiguous acts and eventually enters into a reluctant partnership with an Irish Nationalist explosives expert (John, played by James Coburn). This first section is messy. Whilst there are some entertaining and over-the-top scenes, it is plagued by slow pacing, confusing jumps and bizarre scenes. It generally leaves you thinking how much better The Good The Bad and The Ugly set up the reluctant partnership between its leads.
It is only after this partnership is awkwardly established that the film finds its groove. In typically cynical Leone-style, the object of Juan’s ambition is money, but through various circumstances, he becomes the reluctant hero of the Mexican Revolution (“I don’t wanna be a hero! All I want is the money, the money!”). This mid-section is where the film is the most entertaining, with the grizzled Irish revolutionary-veteran/explosives expert antagonising and toying with the greedy bandit as they work their way across Mexico. It is not without its faults and features a few sudden pivots and continuity issues, but is solid overall and very fun.
One of the things that sets this film apart from other Spaghetti Westerns is its political element. Sergio Leone would always maintain the film was apolitical, but a film made in the early ‘70s that begins with a quote by Mao Tse Tung can hardly be that. This really kicks in in the final part of the film, which also aspires to the larger-scale grandeur of Once Upon a Time in America. It is here that Duck, You Sucker! becomes more than just a Spaghetti Western, it becomes a complex and beautiful piece of cinema. More sombre in tone than the prior sections, revolutions are touched upon, as is camaraderie and loyalty. Underscored by the tragic beauty of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack, this third of the film ties it all together. The disjointedness and lack of continuity that hampered the film early on is forgotten as we are swept up into Revolution as Leone envisioned it. Violent, complex and tragic, but undeniably human.
Image: Emilio Del Prado via Wikimedia Commons