“When I was young I believed in three things: Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema and dynamite. Now I just believe in dynamite.” – Sergio Leone
The great Italian director Sergio Leone was and remains one of the titans of international cinema. Despite such a meager output of only seven films (eight if one were to include his uncredited work on The Last Days of Pompeii), it’s fair to say five of them have reached the status of immortal classics in cinema. The Dollars Trilogy or The Man With No Name Trilogy turned the eyes of the English-speaking world onto Italy’s homegrown westerns and a household name out of Clint Eastwood. Once Upon a Time in the West quickly rose from the ashes of its perceived failure in the American markets to become a cult favorite, influencing everyone from George Lucas to Vince Gilligan. His final film, Once Upon a Time in America, was famously butchered by producers for the US release but is now remembered as perhaps the finest gangster film ever made, rivaling only The Godfather and Goodfellas in that regard. And since America happens to be my favorite film of all time, I’m inclined to agree it is better than the latter films. But one film from Leone’s catalog that is often forgotten about, apart from his first film The Colossus of Rhodes, is sandwiched right between West and America: Duck, You Sucker! from 1971. Whilst not necessarily as good as either of those and more clearly flawed, it’s still an important film in Leone’s work and shouldn’t be ignored by critics or audiences.
The late 1960s boom of Italy’s spaghetti westerns coinciding with the era’s surgence of leftist student riots around the world and Europe gave birth to a new subgenre for the Mediterranean film industries, the so-called Zapata Western. Films like Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros, Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown used the Mexican Revolution as a setting to explore their typically leftist political ideas about contemporary violence, injustice and exploitation at the hand of greedy American capitalists. Leone however, by no means a political or intellectual filmmaker, didn’t share his contemporaries somewhat hopeful ideas about change. Leone started to feel increasingly cynical about the state of the world and his films reflected said cynicism. Once Upon a Time in the West and to a lesser extent even the Dollars Trilogy deconstruct his romantic notions of the American western films he had grown up with and revealed them for the sham they were, and he was going to do the same with the myth of revolution in his next film, which became Duck, You Sucker! (Giù la testa in Italy).
Like the other listed examples of the Zapata westerns, Leone’s film concerns itself with the events of the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920. In Duck, You Sucker! we follow the Mexican bandit Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and Irish expatriate Sean Mallory (James Coburn) who get themselves involved unwillingly in the revolution. These two come to form a relationship resembling those in buddy cop movies, and in some ways come to reflect Leone’s own broad and anti authoritarian personality. Juan is portrayed as an amoral and loudmouthed brute whose major saving grace is his affection for his family. Sean on the other hand is played as an idealist-turned-cynic with a possible death wish whose reasons for said turn is revealed to us via flashbacks sparkled throughout the film. These two, the prince and the pauper if you will, come to change the attitudes of each other and they grow into complex human beings, something Leone rarely attempted before this film.
The film is filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, but in my opinion it is of little significance in this case, as Leone isn’t setting out making a realistic or believable depiction of the real Mexican Revolution but rather uses it to explore revolution as a concept and an idea. He throws in numerous references to contemporary political events. The bank robbery in Mesa Verde resembles the acts of political terrorism occurring on the streets of Rome. There is a soldier getting executed whose physical appearance is similar to a young Benito Mussolini. A pivotal moment in the film directly references the Ardeatine Massacre, in which 335 Italian civilians were killed by SS soldiers during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Rome in World War II. These images, alongside references to works of art such as Goya’s The Disasters of War, make the final film become almost a postmodern collage of familiar and historical images to make a single argument stated in the film by the opening quote from Mao Zedong: the revolution is no intellectual event nor adventure, and is only a cause of incredible amounts of violence and bloodshed. And as stated by Juan in the film, functioning effectively as Leone’s mouthpiece: what does revolution bring to the people in the end? Primarily death and misery.
When Leone worked on the script with his usual collaborators Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati it was with the intention of Leone merely producing the film and him to hand over directorial duties to either Peter Bogdanovich or Sam Peckinpah. When neither director worked out, Leone’s assistant director Giancarlo Santi was given the job of directing. But it quickly became clear that only Leone could direct it, even several days into principal photography. Knowing this fact makes the final product, with its massive sets, huge number of extras and intricately choreographed cinematography, all of which must’ve required great deals of planning, even more impressive. Even when Leone was directing a film half-heartedly he couldn’t help abide his perfectionist tendencies. And as usual, the great Ennio Morricone brings another terrific score to the table. The main theme in particular has become a great favorite of mine ever since seeing the film for the first time, with its recurring chanting of “Sean, Sean, Sean” and Edda Dell’Orso’s heavenly vocals it becomes a magnificent theme that captures the darkly comic, dramatic and tragic nature of the film all in one piece. Truly terrific stuff, but I wouldn’t have expected less from the maestro himself.
Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker! and Once Upon a Time in America form into a loose and thematic trilogy of Leone’s. A trilogy constructed with the intention of exploring America through cinema, and in each film Leone seemingly deconstructs three essentially American and very romantic icons: the western outlaw, the heroic revolution and the free-thinking American gangster. With each film, Leone’s seemin intention is to expose the lies he himself had been fed and believed about America in his youth. These ideals of heroism and masculinity are all facades, they’re simply fantasy and bereft of reality. And what better way to deconstruct said notions than through the very medium those lies had been transported through: the cinema?