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.