(Originally posted on 22 June 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
In the context of Sergio Leone's career, Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) has almost been lost in the shuffle. It may lack the badass cachet of his Clint Eastwood trilogy, or the epic sweep of the Once Upon a Time movies, but Duck is a classic in its own right. Perhaps its recent DVD release will get it the attention it deserves.
Duck, You Sucker is about the bond forged between two very different men during the Mexican Revolution. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a bandit, and John Mallory (James Coburn) an Irish demolition expert. Despite his devil-may-care grin, John hides a terrible secret: he's a member of the IRA, fleeing the law. But Juan doesn’t know this, and when he sees John working his "magic" with dynamite and nitroglycerine, he hits upon the idea of robbing the big bank in Mesa Verde.
John agrees to provide the explosives, and Juan and his men raid the bank. But inside the vault he finds only political prisoners. Juan is something of a vulgarian (he’s introduced with a shot of him pissing on some ants), concerned primarily with robbing and looting and the incidental pleasures they provide. So he isn't too happy about this development. But in the world of Duck, You Sucker, even men like him are capable of bravery, even if it's inadvertent. John, amused to no end, tells Juan, "You’re a great grand hero of the Revolution." But Leone's view of revolution is more complicated than mere acts of uprising and heroism. Not long after freeing the prisoner, Juan discovers John reading a book, and goes off on a tangent:
"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 sit around their 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! That’s your revolution."
Steiger's presence is troubling since he's a white actor in "brownface," affecting a Mexican peasant accent. But his performance is so rich — funny yet fierce — that the role, especially that classic monologue, is unimaginable without him.
For all the help Juan gives to the revolution, his heroism will be forgotten. It's the revolutionary leaders, "the people who read the books," who'll be remembered. Consider Dr. Villega, who organizes the revolutionaries but doesn't fight. After hundreds of revolutionaries are slaughtered, John spies Villega with a military officer, a guilty look on his face. Later, John volunteers Villega to blow up a government train. So deep is Villega's shame at betraying his compatriots that despite opportunities to escape the explosion, he decides to let the bomb kill him. Some time later, when Juan asks John what happened to Villega, John can only tell him, "He died a great grand hero of the Revolution."