A Fistful of Dynamite (Special Edition) Review

Mike Sutton takes a look at the upcoming MGM release of Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dynamite”, a fascinating and very personal film which has been grossly underrated. The DVD is very impressive, despite the usual soundtrack disappointment and six seconds of BBFC cuts.

When I started using dynamite, I believed in many things… finally, I believe only in dynamite.

If, in A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, we see a relatively inexperienced director searching for his style and gradually finding it, A Fistful of Dynamite is the work of a great director with all the style in the world who is struggling to find his film. There are wonderful things in this, Sergio Leone’s fifth Western, but it’s not all of a piece – actually, it’s often a bit of a mess. But it’s often a beautiful and inspiring mess that overflows with a love of pure cinema.

Leone didn’t intend to direct this film, written with his two long-time associates Luciano Vincenzone and Sergio Donati, as he was sick of the Western genre after doing four Westerns in a row. He felt increasingly disillusioned with the Hollywood myths of the West and the romanticised view of revolution which had been appearing in Italian Westerns – the ‘political Spaghettis’ of the late 1960s. He felt such films were “pseudo-intellectualising” and he despised them, saying that “militant cinema ought only to be shown to members of a party”. It’s not surprising then that A Fistful of Dynamite is such a disillusioned film in which the myths about revolution are well and truly exploded. Although it’s a long film, the plot is relatively simple. Rod Steiger, in a very mannered but enjoyable performance, plays Juan Miranda, a Mexican peasant who has no loyalty to country but only to his family, his friends and to God. Juan sees the ongoing revolution as an opportunity for excitement, adventure and occasional raping and pillaging. He’s confronted by John Mallory (Coburn), an Irish revolutionary who sees in Juan the perfect vessel for promoting the struggle at a time in the Mexican revolution when Victoriano Huerta had overthrown President Madero and begun a reactionary and brutal attempt to bring the country back into line. For a time, John and Juan form a successful partnership but when the government begins violent reprisals, both men are forced to reconsider their basic assumptions about life.

The most surprising and gratifying thing about A Fistful of Dynamite on a first viewing is that it’s based very firmly in character development, something which was never Leone’s strong point in earlier films. Juan and John begin as very different people but their developing friendship sees them both grow and mature in their initially rather simplistic views. John’s influence makes Juan see that individual acts of violence have a political effect and can often bring terrible consequences on the perpetrator as well as the victims. Juan, on the other hand, forces John to reassess his faith in the dogma of revolutionary philosophy. Juan also offers John a second chance at friendship, something which becomes clear through the flashbacks to John’s time in Ireland which are spread throughout the film. Initially, these seem to be simply a nostalgic memory of happy days spent among the rolling hills with his friend Nolan (Warbeck) and a beautiful girl with whom he was in love. But a story soon emerges, one of betrayal and loss which accounts for the haunted edge to John’s character and it becomes clear that the “John and Juan” double act which develops has deeper emotional resonances for the Irishman – the much discussed, little-seen final three and a half minute flashback eventually sums up this part of the plot in a way which the shorter version fails to. If we see his past as a time of sadness and betrayal as much as happiness, then John’s character begins to make sense and the climax of the film becomes all the more poignant. This poignancy seems to chime with Leone’s view of revolution as a sometimes necessary but always grubby and violent process which destroys as many people as it saves. The quotation from Chairman Mao at the start of the film is a direct statement of Leone’s own view on revolution – there’s nothing romantic or stately about it, it is a direct act of violence.

There’s also immense ambition in the way the film is made. Having finally been persuaded to direct it, once names like Peter Bogdanovich and Sam Peckinpah had been suggested and rejected, Leone seems to have aimed for an even more epic sweep than he achieved in Once Upon A Time In The West. There are scenes in A Fistful of Dynamite which are extraordinary in their visual scope – the gunning down of the innocents in the trenches being perhaps the most impressive.

While refusing to allow it to take centre stage, Leone’s portrait of the hysteria and terror of revolution is extraordinarily convincing and this provides a solid historical context on which the story of Juan and John can be based. The problem with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – that the portrayal of the Civil War seems somehow unconvincingly European – isn’t a difficulty here and the Spanish locations make for an entirely satisfying substitute for Mexico. Andrea Crisani’s superb art direction deserves credit for this. Leone’s camera moves are just as complex and daring as the ones in his previous films, with lengthy and elaborate takes alternating with fast editing in the action sequences. His use of slow motion is also impeccable, particularly in the emotionally devastating final flashback sequence; one of the finest things which Leone ever did and present in its full version on this DVD release.

Considering that he didn’t particularly want to make the film, Leone seems to have still managed to put every effort into the final product. His work is still developing, even when his stylistic devices are all in place. Along with the long takes, the tricksy editing, the earthy peasant humour and the sweeping landscapes accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s music, we have something which may not be new but which was rarely allowed to dominate the previous films. This is the overwhelming tone of regret and sadness. A Fistful of Dynamite may seem to be a loud and obnoxious film in parts, at least on a first viewing, but it strikes me as a mature elegy for the dreams of youth which are harshly woken by experience. This tone makes it a sad film to watch, with some scenes – notably the one in which Juan discovers that his family have been massacred – almost unbearable in their emotional directness. The strong performances of Steiger and Coburn play a strong part in this, particularly the latter who is tremendously likeable and very subtle, despite an Irish accent that you could cut with a machete. I think that part of this comes from Leone’s own disillusionment with filmmaking. Wherever it comes from, the tone of regret and loss is one which also dominates his last film, Once Upon A Time In America, a story in which youthful ideals are shown to decline into failure and almost inexpressible sorrow.

The film was a success when it was released in mainland Europe but flopped spectacularly in America. Part of the problem was the title. The original Italian title of the film was Giu la testa which translates as “Keep Your Head Down”. In America, it was initially entitled “Duck You Sucker”, a phrase which Leone thought was a common American expression. Thus, as the film sounded like some kind of madcap comedy – accompanied by a poster with laughing caricatures of Coburn and Steiger – it failed to find an audience and by the time it was pulled and re-released as A Fistful of Dynamite, the title used in England, no-one cared anymore. In France, it gained the much more appropriate title, “Once Upon A Time… The Revolution – although this was not Leone’s idea and he refused to see the three “Once Upon A Time” films as being any kind of trilogy. It’s oddly appropriate though. Just as Once Upon A Time In The West questions and challenges the generic assumptions of the Western and Once Upon A Time In America deconstructs the gangster movie, A Fistful of Dynamite takes apart the assumptions of the revolutionary political film and reveals the naive ideals of revolution as a romantic sham. It’s a messy and overlong film, full of ideas which are not always fully realised. But it’s also a grown up and emotionally complex film which, in its emphasis on the power of memory and the forces of history, acts as a clear stepping stone towards the final visionary artistic statement of Leone’s last movie. For this, along with much else, it deserves to be much more widely seen.

The Disc

Once again, my comments on this, the third of MGM’s upcoming Leone Special Editions, are very similar to the ones on my reviews of the other two titles. I direct the reader to my review of A Fistful Of Dollars for detailed comments on the picture and sound quality.

A few specific observations: The DVD of A Fistful of Dynamite looks quite marvellous and the restoration work, based on an Italian negative of the full version, is immensely impressive. The DVD presents the film beautifully and there’s a particularly nice contrast between the Mexican scenes and the lush, soft-focus flashbacks to the Irish countryside,

The soundtrack is this time confined to a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix based on the original Mono track. Once again, my comments on the remixes for the other discs stand for this one. The fiddling about with sound elements strikes me as a complete waste of time but surround fans will enjoy the track and the explosions admittedly sound very impressive in 5.1. This time, however, I thought Morricone’s music slightly suffered from being too high in the mix and the dialogue is not always as prominent as it should be. Still, I doubt we’re ever going to see a full English version of the film in Mono so we have to take what we are given. I honestly don’t object to remixes if we also get a restored version of the original track but to dump the original Mono track strikes me as an act of vandalism akin to colourisation.

The extra features are, once again, comprehensive and satisfying. Sir Christopher Frayling’s audio commentary is packed with fascinating observations and various bits of Leone trivia which fans will lap up. A few things were new to me even after devouring Frayling’s biography of Leone, so I thoroughly enjoyed what he had to say. Frayling also appears in the documentary about the film, “The Myth of Revolution”, often repeating himself but never becoming boring. His enthusiasm as a vocal supporter of Leone’s reputation as a great director is an inspiration to all of us and the fact that he’s British is a source of particular pride – I like to think he got his knighthood on the basis of his work about Spaghetti Westerns rather than for all that artsy stuff, although I suspect I might be mistaken. There’s also an interview with Sergio Donati which alludes in some detail to the difficulties and pleasures of working for someone as volatile and creative as Leone.

As before, we also get a Restoration featurette, in which MGM’s John Kirk seems to think that all films need to have surround sound if they’re to be any good in the modern age, and a location comparison. There’s also a theatrical trailer, some radio spots and a photo gallery. Particularly valuable is a feature about the different versions of the film – although some of the analysis is open to question – and there’s a nice bit about a large exhibition of Leone’s work in America.

The film is, once again, broken into 32 chapter stops and subtitles are provided both for the feature and for the special features.

A Fistful of Dynamite is a film which many feel suffers from comparisons to Leone’s best work. Personally, I feel its less coherent and achieved than Once Upon A Time In The West, for example, but it’s perhaps emotionally richer and more revealing of its director’s personality. It is certainly ready for rediscovery by a large audience and MGM’s DVD, despite my reservations about the soundtrack, offers a fine way for viewers to discover it. However, I should point out that the BBFC have decided to cut the film by six seconds in order to delete “two shots of a dangerous horse fall”. Presumably, any European or American release of this special edition will be uncut.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Apr 11, 2005

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