A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: SERGIO LEONE / STARRING: ROD STEIGER, JAMES COBURN, ROMOLO VALLI / RELEASE DATE: 6TH DECEMBER
Sergio Leone’s 1971 epic A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker! or Once Upon a Time…the Revolution) is the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of Spaghetti westerns: it has lead actors you don’t expect, it’s invested with a disarming humanity, it has richly-realised characters and it looks and sounds extraordinary. Most crucially, no one gave two figs about it when it came out and its critical renaissance is well-deserved.
With no Clint Eastwood in sight, the film is grounded in two extraordinary performances from Rod Steiger and James Coburn (despite the latter’s dodgy ‘oirish’ accent). Set in revolution-torn 1913 Mexico (but shot, as usual in the Andalucía region of Spain), it opens in typical rug-pulling Leone style; Steiger, blacked-up (very effectively, it has to be said) as barbaric bandit Juan Miranda, boards a stagecoach full of wealthy Americans and allows them to spit intellectual disdain at him. We see his sad eyes enduring their peasant-baiting insults for the few tortuous minutes it takes for his men to intercept the coach, rob the sniping weasels blind and leave them stark naked in a ditch (but not before Juan has had his way with the sole lady insulter and stolen her hat).
Riding his motorbike into this idyll of barbarism looking like Jeffrey Epstein in a flasher mac, James Coburn’s ex-IRA terrorist John Mallory engages in a game of (literally) explosive one-upmanship with Miranda before the two men bond, Butch and Sundance style, in the shared goal of bringing down the massed Federales. It’s love at first blast.
By turns brutal and humane, A Fistful of Dynamite has one foot in the world of Leone’s Dollars trilogy and the other in the politically-charged Once Upon A Time in the West (1968). Where it arguably trumps both is in its crackling, wry script and those magnetic lead turns from Steiger (who apparently clashed with Leone and nearly walked off the film) and a career-best Coburn as the morally undone comrades in arms.
This UK Blu-ray debut serves Leone’s trademark sweeping vistas and brilliantly-staged giant war scenes using hundreds of extras very well indeed. There’s a Mexican platter of extra features full of taking heads lending historical context and critical approval including, of course, Kim Newman (who could probably wax lyrical about Danish Dentist on the Job - volume 15). Alex Cox’s appreciation shines brightest in a warmly inclusive commentary and it comes in a sturdy red box that could probably withstand detonation. But really, just watch the film because it’s a secret masterpiece.