I can truthfully say that Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) is a film that changed my life. I saw it when I was eleven years old, and it was the first time I realised that movies were not simply stories with characters, but created objects full of colour, music, close-ups and highly stylised acting.
A famous scene early on has pretty much the same effect on me today as when I first saw it. Juan (Rod Steiger) is a Mexican peasant who, with his small army of male children, makes his way as a thief. His jolly days of raping and pillaging the bourgeoisie come to an abrupt halt when he encounters an Irish activist, Sean (James Coburn) – a seeming magician with his endless array of lethal explosives.
The scene – excruciatingly protracted, like every major Leone scene – builds to the tense stand-off between these men. But when Sean reveals the armoury underneath his coat ("If you kill me, I fall, and they'll have to alter all the maps"), Juan's attitude suddenly changes. In his over-active imagination, he imagines Sean as a kind of angel, with a scroll heralding the Bank of Mesa Verde above his head. It is a sublime and hilarious moment, precisely choreographed to Ennio Morricone's wild music.
Part of the greatness of Leone as an artist is the way he places such intimate, internal visions within the vast scope of historical change. A Fistful of Dynamite is ostensibly about the Mexican Revolution, but it also manages to weave in allusions backward and forward in time, to the troubles in Ireland, the Holocaust and both World Wars. And yet, at every moment, it is first and foremost the story of a difficult, exasperating friendship – a male friendship, since Leone never had terribly much time for women in his films (look quickly, though, and you'll glimpse a few stunning revolutionary women in the background of one scene).
A Fistful of Dynamite exists in at least three different versions that I have encountered. The superb reconstitution now circulating on DVD and in film prints has put all the diverse parts together. The film now has more sexual and violent content, more slow-motion glimpses of Sean's past, and a more complex view of the alliances, betrayals and massacres that comprise a revolutionary situation. It is not among Leone's very greatest films – at times the material seems rather thinly stretched – but it contains many magnificent sequences.
Leone referred to this film as one that sat "between the twilight of the frontier and the dark night of the city". Accordingly, it starts like one of his classic Westerns, but then evolves into a war adventure, with intimations of the American gangster epic that he would finally make with Once Upon a Time in America (1984). In this complete version, we can grasp A Fistful of Dynamite's bold, over-arching structure: from the bright, vulgar comedy of the first half, gradually shading into the dark melancholy of the second half.
Leone got himself into trouble for daring to make a political film when his attitude towards politics was essentially cynical and fatalistic. As Steiger – in the greatest performance of his career – constantly asserts: poor people, in whose name the revolution is fought, only end up dead, while those in charge reap the rewards and then, in turn, become the new tyrants. Whatever one makes of that analysis, there is no doubt that Leone turned this savage irony into indelible dramatic and cinematic art.
MORE Leone: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
© Adrian Martin June 2005