A Fistful of Dynamite [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (7th April 2018).
The Film

“[The] revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an act of violence.” - Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Here we are, once again in the wild wild west of Sergio Leone, he of the spaghetti western with their long empty streets and intense screen filling close ups, with another of his versions of the truth about the west and how it was won. This would be Leone’s fifth epic Western coming on the heels of the “Dollars Trilogy” (1964-1966) and his masterpiece, "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) in a seven year period, and he is starting to feel the effects of burnout on the series that became his signature films. Written with Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, Leone had planned to produce this film and co-direct with someone else, but in the long run, that did not happen, so Leone basically threw everything but the kitchen sink in, metaphorically speaking, and the result is this somber meditation on the devastating effects of war and revolution.

The film starts with a Sam Peckinpah-ish shot of an unshod Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) urinating on an anthill in the desert and gazing upon the vast expanse of the Mexican plains. Set during the Mexican Revolution of 1913, Juan espies a grand carriage pulled by a number of horses; he stands by the side of the road and attempts to hitch a ride into town because his father has died. At first the driver is unsympathetic to the man’s pleas, but after accepting a gratuity, Juan is allowed access to the cab which is occupied by various members of the bourgeoisie including some members of the clergy, and they all lambast Miranda repeatedly calling him an animal and tell him that he is not decent enough to share their transportation with him. Leone’s camerawork borders on the absurd here as the screen is filled with close up shots of various mouths leering and speaking with mouthfuls of food; this essentially is setting the tone of the film to come.

Miranda sits there and absorbs the abuse by playing dumb, all the while knowing what is yet to come. The stage is coming up a steep incline and the driver calls to some men that are relaxing by the side of the road asking them to assist the coach by helping to push it up the hill. Before the driver is aware of it, the men and several children, have sprung into action, blocking the wheels of the carriage with large rocks, rendering it useless. Suddenly various firearms are thrust in through the windows on the passengers and then Miranda comes to life, shouting orders to the passengers to produce their money and jewels. It is revealed that the gang is in reality Miranda’s seven children and his elderly father; after they have stolen the passenger’s clothes, they are herded to a wagon and pushed down the hill, where they are propelled into a mud puddle occupied by pigs. So much for a bold statement about the revolution and its proponents. This is indeed a Leone film, but with a clear cut message regarding the politics of the day. Released in 1968, the film was originally under the title, "Duck, You Sucker", and was cut by some thirty seven minutes for American consumption upon its release. Now Kino Lorber has reinstalled the cut scenes and released Leone’s strange film in a restored Blu-ray version complete with a full packet of additional accessories and featurettes.

This film has two distinctive halves: the first half of the film features a lighter more comic tone than the latter half which is of a darker, more political tone. In the first half we are introduced to the character of John Mallory (James Coburn) an Irish terrorist whose expertise in the use of dynamite inspires Miranda to rob the Banco Nacional De Mesa Verde, a huge bank vault that Miranda had seen when he was a child and has held him enthralled all these years. Often in Film Noir, when the plot involves a heist of some kind, this robbery is regarded as the big one that will allow the anti-hero a chance to quit his law breaking ways and retire on the wealth of his one last score. Leone, of course, holds with cinematic tradition, and the ending is appropriately doom ridden.

The film’s central theme is the collusion of two incongruent figures at the same time in the same place in history; for some reason, this reminded me of how the mythos of various comic books play with time and history to produce fascinating scenarios that are more of the “what if” school of thought than rendered in die hard facts. Here we have the rather simple bandito character of Mirada that does not have any political stirrings and is in fact rather anti-political coming into contact with Mallory, an former left-wing radical who no longer hears the call to arms that he once did when he was a younger man. This odd partnership of the two men takes the film onward towards its climatic conclusion. Both men have clear cut morale’s and objectives but it is through their enterprise together that there is a subtle exchange of values as Leone once again presents a complex hero with a past and a crafty villain who must rely upon each other to achieve their goals in the end.

Juan sees John as a godsend, a gift of chance from the guardians of fate that will enable him to enlist his skills with explosives in robbing the National Bank at Mesa Verde. John, likewise has his own ideas regarding the other man, seeing Juan as a possible guerrilla fighter in helping him to overthrow the dictator leadership of General Victoriano Huerta that is currently in power. It is obvious by the passenger’s words and cruelty that they are aligned with the dictator Huerta for keeping the peasants in their place however we witness the tables turn with Miranda sending the upper class passengers to their proper landing place with the swine. The duo make their way to the town of Mesa Verde but find it transformed from the idyllic place that Miranda spoke of now overrun with soldiers and firing squads patiently executing people as if this were business as usual, instead of the horrifying event that it really is.

“Don’t talk to me about revolutions, I know all about revolutions and how they start. The people who read books go to people who don’t read the books, the poor people, and say oh ho the time has come to make a change! The poor people make the change. Then the people who read the books sit around a big polished table and talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat and what has happened to the poor people…THEY’RE DEAD! So please, don’t talk to me about revolution... THEN THE SAME F**KING THING HAPPENS ALL OVER AGAIN.” - Juan Miranda.

Throughout the film are flashbacks that are of John’s earlier life in Ireland; they hint at a romance with a young woman and a close friendship to another man, possibly named Sean Noland (David Warbeck). Leone films these scenes so that they look as if they were imported from an entirely different film, with the scenes mostly happening outdoors with the countryside in a verdant green, contrasting these scenes with the Mexican footage that is mostly composed of tans, flat yellows and browns. We see John’s past as being alive and with a hint of nostalgia which colors John’s personality with feelings of guilt and longing; he is often shown daydreaming of these earlier scenes and enclosed with them is a wistful feeling of wanting to return to these happier, easier days. But then there is also the scene of betrayal in a pub when the authorities accompanied by John’s friend come and Noland supposedly fingers John for his criminal acts. It is not until the developments in the last reel that we get the complete story of who the actual betrayer was.

A historical note is needed to clarify some of the political thinking that was behind this film. Leone is not noted for being a political director focusing instead on scenes of action and he was concerned with rewriting the John Ford version of the West that film goers were accustomed to. This film was released in 1971, by that time there had been much political unrest in France with the student riots and the idea of revolution had been embraced by the Intelligentsia and right wing thinkers. Screenwriter Sergio Donati decided that now would be the perfect time to shatter the romantic illusions regarding the revolution and to spotlight the political instability of contemporary Italy. Just like Donati did in previous Leone films, the director and his screenwriters decided to focus on the time period of the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and to ultimately expose the cruelty and savageness that was more than readily apparent to the peasants that ultimately suffered the dictator’s brutality. This violence is readily on display in the film with the many scenes of people being killed by firing squads that were under the dictator’s orders. Leone’s ultimate goal was to illustrate that politics takes place on a human level and that a revolution is a tragic, messy, bloody event regardless of who comes out the victor or why, hence why he began the film with the quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

“When I started using dynamite, I believed in many things…finally, I believe only in dynamite.” – John Mallory.

Ultimately the film concludes with a large scale war with the revolutionaries on one speeding train and the forces led by Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John) on the other, both headed for a standoff. A telegram informs the freedom fighters that Pancho Villa and his troops had been delayed by a day and will not arrive in time to help with the cause and so a decision is made by Mallory that all he needs is one man, some dynamite and a locomotive. Miranda is eager to volunteer his services and to sacrifice his life for the cause, but Mallory instead chooses Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli) since he has figured out that the doctor was his betrayer when he lived in Ireland, and Mallory leaps to safety before the dynamite laden train collides with the oncoming locomotive. The opposing forces pour out of the crashed train cars like ants only to be mowed down by the revolutionaries. Leone captures a great deal of destruction with his camera, much of it a distance, witnessing it all like an uncaring god, the human element ultimately meaning nothing. Mallory is fatally wounded and there is a moment between the two characters that displays true emotion. The partnership of the two Johns is dissolved by a fiery blast as Mallory blows himself up with some dynamite. The film closes with a screen filling close up of Miranda’s face as he mutters the statement, “What about me?” Indeed, the film going audience is left wondering did Leone have a sequel in mind to continue on with this character or was this just an insight into his own selfish, fearful thoughts?

This would be Leone's last western and it is a suitable send off from the master filmmaker with this film finally getting the appropriate packaging for fans that aren't familiar with it to discover it for the first time. True, it isn't as narratively cohesive as "The Dollars Trilogy" or "Once Upon a Time in the West", but this is a film that is dedicated to a broader theme and is a bit more subtle at times that the latter films were. The film starts off on a light more comedic approach but by the second half, Leone gets down to business with his characters well established and now focuses on the broader themes of war, betrayal, man's cruelty to man, and lastly the importance of friendship. The cinematography was excellent with Giuseppe Ruzzolini behind the lens and the art direction by Andrea Crisani's is outstanding. The scenes of the mass murders via firing squad are chilling as people are mowed down emotionlessly by the soldiers and this is done in long shot by Leone, as if his camera was a mere casual observer of this mass death scene. Likewise the scene in the cave where Juan discovers his family among the other causalities of war, the camera pans slowly over the young and old alike, capturing the dead where they lie, all victims of the same tragic war. Throughout the film the magnificent score from Ennio Morricone subtly accompanies the action underscoring some scenes with its haunting use of choral harmonies and great instrumental selection.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 presented in HD 1080p 24/fps and mastered using AVC MPEG-4 compression, the image is nicely transferred and some of the scenes really jump off the screen but towards the end of the film during the last skirmish the image is soft in some scenes and a bit of a distraction showing its age and the source materials utilized.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. The 5.1 Surround Sound is great and the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is certainly bizarre sounding at times, especially the reoccurring “Sean” track. Any music by Morricone certainly adds to a film’s overall production values but this soundtrack with its never ending repetition got on my nerves a tad. Optional subtitles are included in English.

Extras

Audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox; the man himself narrates the commentary track that is loaded with facts and observations that you can play alongside with the film.

Audio commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling; if Cox doesn’t wow you then you can choose Sir Frayling to give you another approach; Frayling was the author of  "Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy" (2005).

"The Myth of the Revolution" (22:11) a featurette that explores the saga of the Mexican Revolution and its portrayal in film by Sir Christopher Frayling.

"Sergio Donati Remembers" (7:20) featurette is an interview with the screenwriter as he speaks about how this film came to be.

"Once Upon a Time in Italy (The Autry Exhibition)" (6:01) featurette contains many stills examining various scenes of the film.

"Sorting Out the Versions" (11:36) featurette contrasting and comparing the three different versions of the film.

"Restoration Italian Style" (6:07) featurette displays the various elements of restoration on the film.

"Location Comparisons" (9:31) featurette a then and now comparison of shooting sites.

"Trailers from Hell" with Brian Trenchard-Smith (4:47) a quick compilation of trailers.
 
Two animated image galleries:
- Black & White (2:47)
- Color (2:39)

Six radio spots. Play it loud like it was meant to be heard!

Theatrical trailers for all 5 Sergio Leone Westerns:

- "Fistful of Dollars"
- "For a Few Dollars More"
- "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
- "Once Upon a Time in the West"
- "Fistful of Dynamite"

Packaging

Packaged in a Blu-ray case with reversible art on the cover. Change the cover if you don’t care for the cartoonish imagery on the current edition.

Overall

"A Fistful of Dynamite" is a complicated film that is disguised as an action comedy but is in reality a heartfelt appraisal of the horrors of war and the importance of friendship.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A-

 


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