The Revolution Will Be Westernized: Leone’s Nutty, Lefty Epic


The most abstract and eccentric of Sergio Leone epics, Duck, You Sucker (a/k/a A Fistful of Dynamite, a/k/a Once Upon a Time . . . the Revolution, a/k/a What the Fuck Was He Thinking???) belongs with the crazy left-wing westerns that mark the post-’60s wreck of revolutionary dreams: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s near unwatchable Wind From the East.

Originally released here during the summer of 1972, Duck, You Sucker reappears perhaps still incomplete, given the incidental ellipses and mysteries. But the new print is good, and the 20 restored minutes are choice. For the first time, American audiences can enjoy the introductory quotation from Chairman Mao (“The revolution is not a dinner party…”) and the opening close-up of a barefoot peon, later revealed to be Rod Steiger’s Juan, urinating on an anthill. Take that, Sam Peckinpah!

Duck, You Sucker begins as a relentless exercise in class vengeance. Juan is insulted by the haughty bourgeois scum of a luxury stagecoach—stuffing their mouths in mega-close-up—before dispensing some extremely raw justice. The movie switches from third-worldist macho to post-revolutionary disillusionment with the introduction of Juan’s reefer-smoking Irish alter ego, Sean (James Coburn), an IRA terrorist on the lam. Sean, whose political credo might be described as anarcho-dynamitism, is totally wired to explode, but it’s Juan whose mind is blown. The two engage in a lengthy contest of wills, team up to rob a bank, and find themselves embroiled in Mexico’s revolutionary chaos.

The part of Juan was written for Eli Wallach and, technician that he is, Steiger lacks the warmth that his more volatile Actor’s Studio comrade might have brought to what would have been his fourth turn as a Mexican bandito. Steiger’s performance is concentrated to the point of eye-bulging strain, particularly opposite the ineffably cool Coburn (Leone’s first choice for the lead in A Fistful of Dollars). Mannered even by Leone standards, Duck, You Sucker features a self-mocking Ennio Morricone soundtrack that begins crooning “Sean-Sean-SEAN” every time the maestro flashes back to the Irishman’s gauzy past.

The cynicism meter oscillates between outrageously callous and merely irresponsible. Every “up against the wall” is countered with a “duck, you sucker!” (According to Peter Bogdanovich, who was briefly attached to the project, Leone insisted that this lame phrase was common American slang.) Long before the apocalyptic closer, lumpen metaphors are crashing down like boulders—a bank turns out to be a political prison, Juan finds himself an inadvertent hero of the revolution, Sean tosses away his Bakunin to take an individualist stand against the Mexican army. History is swept away by the avalanche of allegory. The genocidal federales are modeled on Nazi storm troopers and the revolutionaries on Italian partisans.

As ambitious as it is anachronistic, Duck, You Sucker demands to be read through the prism of World War II as well as 1968. Could this be the last movie in the great Italian tradition that began in 1945? In its lunatic way, Duck, You Sucker engages Open City and Senso, Il Grido and The Battle of Algiers, Before the Revolution and Fellini Satyricon. It only remained for Pasolini to make Salo to postscript the most sustained national run in the history of movies.

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“Scenes restored to Duck, You Sucker” by J. Hoberman