Thursday 29 August 2019

Movie Review: Duck, You Sucker! (1971)

A sprawling spaghetti (or more specifically, Zapata) western about reluctant revolutionaries, Duck, You Sucker! is Sergio Leone's most complex commentary on the futility of chasing a cause.

In Mexico circa 1913, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a peasant bandit leading a gang made up of his family members in robbing and raping society's elite. Juan meets John (Se├ín) Mallory (James Coburn), an ex-Irish revolutionary wanted for murder back in England. John is an explosives expert, a skillset that appeals to Juan, who dreams of robbing the Mesa Verde bank. The two men initially clash, Juan driven by personal greed and John haunted by memories of his failed exploits in Ireland.

Although neither man is interested in the rumbling Mexican revolution, they team up with Pancho Villa supporters led by Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli). John cajoles Juan into freeing a large number of political prisoners, and Juan becomes a hero of the revolution. With their friendship growing, the two men ambush a convoy of government troops commanded by the stone-faced Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John). Retribution is swift and Juan pays a high price as the countryside is soaked in the blood of massacres and reprisals, which only leads to more violence.

An awe-inspiring yet flawed and sometimes awkward 157 minutes about friendship, regret, cynicism, and small personal agendas caught up in bigger events, Duck, You Sucker! (also known as A Fistful Of Dynamite and Once Upon A Time...The Revolution) marks Leone's first departure from the warmth of western mythology. This time war is a useless and bloody hell, and no individuals can escape the horror. A friendship can be forged under fire, but ultimately countless poor people will be slaughtered, and not much will change.

After having directed four films in the five years between 1964 and 1968, Leone took three years off and returned with a new and ambitious agenda to juxtapose the ideological winds of change sweeping through the streets of 1960s Europe with the brutalist Fascist imagery of the 1930s through the story of a simple friendship. Choosing a more modern western setting of early 20th century Mexico also brought Duck, You Sucker! closer to modern themes of struggle against corrupt regimes, and Leone set out to de-romanticize the concept of revolution.

Opening with a quote from Mao Tse-tung through to an impassioned speech by Juan asserting that the poor die and nothing really changes in revolutionary upheaval, Duck, You Sucker! is a jaundiced view of political change. The enemies of Juan and John in the form of Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John) and Governor Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi ) are poorly drawn and barely defined, either as a narrative weakness or intentionally because the real enemy is the resilient system of corruption where the faces and names at the top can be replaced but the suffering of the masses continues.

Again either as harsh cinematic shorthand or as an intentional intellectual challenge, Leone counteracts the film's length with several jarring scene transitions, jumping from the epic bridge ambush to the aftermath of a devastating cave massacre and then an act of gross betrayal overworking a firing squad under the rain. Each one of the three scenes is a tense emotional steamroller delivered with lyrical barbarism, and they mercilessly follow each other, demanding that viewers actively and quickly fill the gaps between the euphoria of victory and ravages of reprisals.

And just when it seems there is no more emotional toxicity to unleash, Leone conjures up a scene straight out of Fascist hell. Impossibly fluid overhead camera work witnesses soldiers slaughtering hundreds of peasants in a series of parallel concrete death channels. By all means have your revolution, but please witness the large scale butchery unleashed against the innocent.

But at its heart Duck, You Sucker! is also a story about an unlikely friendship between two men brought to life by fine if chequered performances. One or both of the two lead actors are in every scene, and they create two enduring characters. Rod Steiger channels his inner Tuco and over emotes his way through the film as the talkative and frequently sputtering Juan, struggling as much against excessive sweat as he does against poverty. James Coburn provides balance with a laid back performance as John, but both men struggle with inconsistent accent application.

The turmoil of Duck, You Sucker! is set to one of Ennio Morricone's most innovative music scores, the main "Sean, Sean, Sean" (John's Irish name) theme melding into a soulful and regretful melody carrying the echo of lost idealism. Throughout his Mexico adventure John has soft-focus flashbacks to his time in Ireland, where a convoluted romance and friendship turned sour, with outcomes that forever changed his attitudes about honour and sacrifice.

Fed up with the high personal cost of chasing causes, now he just wants to simplify his life's work to blowing up whatever obstacles come in his way. As John is inexorably drawn into his next revolution, this time he is under no illusions. He will dispassionately help others make progress towards upheaval and agony using the biggest explosions he can wire up, his soul already blissfully exhausted.

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  1. For me in its original and intended 157-minute version, it is a film that I feel gets overlooked when it comes to Sergio Leone's work as it had been re-cut and such over the years until its intended version was found. I do think it's one of his finest work as I consider it a transitional film from Leone but also a film that has him saying something about the fallacies of revolutions as it relates to some of the political turmoil in Italy at the time.

    1. A lot is going on in this movie, and yet it's a bit choppy, somewhat incohesive and some scenes are just too long. Definitely a transitional film and deserving of more attention than it gets.


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