Tue
Mar 11 2014 9:00am

Duck, You Sucker, Or You Will Blow Up

In the opening to Sergio Leone’s 1971 film, Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite),there’s what one might consider a nod to Sam Peckinpah. All you see is Rod Steiger’s bare feet spread apart as he urinates on a tree trunk that’s crawling with ants. The camera pans down as the tiny insects are washed away in a flood. Two years prior, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch opened with a famous scene where a group of youngsters are poking sticks at a couple of scorpions being attacked by fire ants. The kids end up setting the insects and eight-legged creatures on fire.

When Leone had originally conceived Duck, You Sucker, he wrote it for an American director because he had grown tired of the Western genre, and The Last Picture Show’s Peter Bogdanovich was an early candidate. But after Bogdanovich’s departure, Peckinpah agreed to direct only to be purportedly turned down by United Artists for financial reasons (arguably, the sole competition Leone had at the time, or since, was Peckinpah – what a union of filmmaking that would have been!). Still, in what would become one of his last Westerns, Leone directs a mini-masterpiece, albeit not as well-known as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, in a genre that forty years later is continuing to feel his influential impact and emulate his style.

In 1913 Mexico at the time of the revolution, Rod Steiger plays Juan Miranda who is chief bandit of a ragtag group that includes several of his sons. Having just pilfered a wealthy carriage, the motley crew strips the inhabitants of their clothes, and rapes the only female patron who insulted Juan. As they enjoy their spoils, John (Sean) Mallory (played by James Coburn), a former IRA explosives expert, passes idly by on his motorcycle. Juan shoots out the back tire of the motorcycle. John responds in kind by blowing the top out of Juan’s recently acquired carriage. Right before the explosion, in the first of several times in the film, John declares, “Duck, you sucker.” Now aware of John’s skill with dynamite and nitroglycerin, Juan has his sons fix the flat while he asks John to join a raid on the Mesa Verde bank. John declines and this begins a continuing, humorous, one-upmanship as Juan not only shoots out John’s motorcycle tire again but also puts a hole in the gas tank. John proceeds to blow up the entire carriage. They’re only getting started.

Leone had stated that the film was less about revolution and more about friendship. By the time the two men are done challenging each other, a solid bond is established that sees John helping Juan after the slaughter of all his sons. Both men try and fool themselves about the ongoing conflict when John attempts to educate him on revolutions, Juan snaps:

“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, 'We have to have a change.' So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They're dead!”

The speech has an immediate impact as the educated John tosses away the copy of Mikhail Bakunin’s The Patriotism he had been reading. Later he confesses, “When I started using dynamite, I believed in many things. All of it! Finally I believe only in dynamite.”

Still, it’s apparent both men haven’t given up their ideals and this leads to, literally, an explosive climax as John rides a locomotive rigged with dynamite toward a 1,000-man-strong enemy. Later, when Juan witnesses John being shot, he uses a machine gun to riddle the shooter’s body, sweeping him with lead across the ground like dirty trash into a nearby ditch. A revolutionary heart has been reborn.

The action scenes in Duck, You Sucker rival Leone’s finest with the final assault being particularly well handled. Coburn is at his height as an actor with charismatic star power to spare and Steiger is always the reliable character thespian. A few missteps in the film include poor accents (not talking the expected Italian spaghetti dubbed accents but our American antiheroes) and the film is a bit overlong especially in slow motion scenes revealing John’s Irish past. At times you feel like hitting the fast forward on the slo-mo technique that was all the rage of the era. But once into the film, you tend not to notice these minor asides.

An overlooked movie but I hope for not too much longer. Oh, and the fuse has been lit…Duck, You Sucker.


Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, is the author of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series and recently edited BEAT to a PULP: Trails of the Wild.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.

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24 comments
1. Tony Lane
Cool review. I'm going to have to dig this one out somehow.
2. Garnett Elliott
Sergio Leone movies are a personal favorite, but I don't remember this one too well. Thanks for the review.
3. Heath Lowrance
Great review. It's nice to see Duck, You Sucker! get some attention.
Edward A. Grainger
4. EdwardAGrainger
And you might have to dig, Tony. I don't see it played that much on television. I recently viewed it on Amazon Prime.
Garn, you bet, amigo. Thanks for stopping by.
Heath, I figured it was time to shed a little light on this forgotten classic.

Brian Greene
5. BrianGreene
Nicely done, David. Been years since I watched this but I love all things Leone and Rod Steiger's acting generally works for me - all this, and your well-written piece is giving me a hankering to revisit this one. I'm ready to duck.
Edward A. Grainger
7. EdwardAGrainger

Brian, Sometimes Steiger is a little too involved (over the top) in his roles but I like his take on the revolutionary here. And he plays off Coburn quite well. It leaves me wondering if they worked together again?
Brian Greene
8. BrianGreene
I'm with you David but for some reason I take pleasure in Steiger's overacting. Just sit back and watch him emote and it kinda cracks me up.
Edward A. Grainger
9. EdwardAGrainger
Agreed. Same here. And, in fairness, his turns in The Pawnbroker and On The Waterfront wouldn't be the same without his contributions.
10. Dan Luft
This was actually my first Leone film back when I was in middle school around 1980, years before I knew who he was. My favorite scene is the quiet montage of Steiger accidentally freeing the political prisoners while he's looking for treasure. Fun movie.
11. nigel
And what a title to boot!
Edward A. Grainger
12. EdwardAGrainger
Dan, That's a scene that does stand out. The reluctant hero. I'm fairly certain my first Leone film was A Fistful of Dollars followed by The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
And, Nigel, Duck, You Sucker! is also known as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution. Yep. Quite a mouthful.
13. Mel Healy
Yep, I seem to recall it being released in Ireland as "A Fistful of Dynamite", and while the flashbacks might be slow, Irish audiences still dig the scenes featuring Toners pub on Baggot Street and Howth Castle. Never could make out what the women were singing on Morricone's unforgettable soundtrack - it sounded like "Sean Sean".
Jon Abrams
14. JonAbrams
This is probably the hardest Leone movie to love, but you give such convincing reasons to reconsider. I'm a fan of this one (gotta appreciate that title) but it's the one I revisit the least, mainly because the aforementioned Morricone score is so incongruous and repetitive -- the rare Morricone score I don't completely adore.
Edward A. Grainger
15. EdwardAGrainger
Mel, I do like the backstory being told in those slow motion scenes and the rich Dublin locales. I can never figure that music vocal out either but that's a pretty darn good guess she is saying "Sean."
Jon, I'm opposite with you on the score but I do agree it is a repetive soundtrack but for whatever reason... it doesn't annoy me. Once Upon a Time in America is my least viewed Leone film. Though I recognize its another classic.
16. Chris Leek
Nice review of a movie that is too often overlooked. I always got the feeling that Leone enjoyed testing his audience’s patience with his trademark overlong scenes, but as with the opening of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” the pay off was always well worth the wait.
Edward A. Grainger
17. EdwardAGrainger
Interesting take, Chris. I never looked at it like that but you may have a point. And Quentin Tarantino is another director with the same "testing his audience’s patience" mindset. Remember the scene with the Nazi at the start of Inglourious Basterds? Yeah, Leone is up there smiling at the tension build up in that one.
18. Prashant C. Trikannad
Well reviewed, David. I have seen Sergio Leone's other movies including the famous ones you mentioned, but not this particular film. It'd be interesting and entertaining to watch this and The Wild Bunch back to back.
Edward A. Grainger
19. EdwardAGrainger
Prashant, Almost nothing, for me, touches Peckinpaw's THE WILD BUNCH. That story, acting, and unforgettable finale is tops. So I would watch DUCK, YOU SUCKER first on a double bill. But great idea! I'll bring the popcorn.
20. Mates
Great Review David, once again you have my interest peaked.
Edward A. Grainger
21. EdwardAGrainger
You are welcomed, Mates. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Gef Fox
22. wagthefox
I've never heard of this movie, and seeing the poster alone lets me know that it's a damned shame for going so long without having it in my life. Thanks, Ed. Gotta track this little gem down.
Edward A. Grainger
23. EdwardAGrainger
wagthefox, It was a film that unfortunately faded away and was regulated to Saturday afternoon viewings where it was only occasionally glimpsed. I'm glad that I was able to bring some attention to this film and thanks for taking the time to read my article.
24. Alec Cizak
Excellent review. I've never been a fan of this one, but the background information makes the film more interesting and I will have to perhaps take another look.
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