The year 1968 was defined by political radicalism and civil unrest. From the May demonstrations in France to the American civil rights movement, a wave of anti-authoritarian protests and riots swept much of the world, even reaching behind the iron curtain of the USSR. In Italy, home of director Sergio Leone, almost all the country’s universities were rapidly occupied by a predominantly left-wing counter-culture movement known as “Sessantotto”. This was a period of unprecedented civil strife in the post-war world, and film-makers had never had it so good.
It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Leone, along with collaborators Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, devised another of his spaghetti westerns as a follow-up to his acclaimed “Dollars” trilogy and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in the West. This next project was to be set against the chaos of the Mexican Revolution around the year 1914. It followed a great heritage of films about the conflict, but where those had typically charted the revolutionary heroics of Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata, this was to tell the story of two luckless bandits stuck in the middle.
The result was the curiously titled Giù la testa, or “Duck your head”, which arrived in Italian cinemas in 1971. This became Duck, You Sucker for the English-language release, although later American prints carried the title A Fistful of Dynamite to capitalise on the popularity of Leone’s first western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
Despite this awkwardly enforced association, Duck, You Sucker is a much harsher and more cynical film than any of Leone’s earlier work. In many ways, it feels like a conscious reflection on the director’s career thus far. Where he had previously deconstructed the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns in his “Dollars” trilogy, here he critiques the archetypes found in his own films, and how they, in turn, had influenced contemporary Hollywood. As such, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating example of self-reflection from one of history’s great film-makers, and a cruelly underappreciated work in the western canon.
With this in mind, it may come as a surprise that Leone never intended to direct Duck, You Sucker himself. He had hoped that Once Upon a Time in the West would be his final statement on the western genre, and wanted instead to focus on an adaptation of Harry Grey’s prohibition-era crime novel The Hoods (this would eventually become 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America). A series of alternative directors were approached to helm the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s long-term assistant director Giancarlo Santi. In fact, the latter was ten days into shooting when a series of on-set problems forced Leone, reluctantly, to step behind the camera himself.
Having been coerced into another Western, Leone seems to have been determined to cast the film in a very different mould from his previous efforts. The film’s opening moments make perfectly clear that this is not the light-hearted hijinks of his “Dollars” trilogy, nor the romanticised heroism of existing films on the Mexican Revolution.
Our protagonist, Rod Steiger’s hapless bandito Juan Miranda, is introduced urinating onto an ant-hill in the film’s first shot, and within moments he has robbed a stagecoach, executed a man in cold blood, and raped a terrified woman. A ruthlessly amoral character, Juan is a far cry from Tuco, the lovable rogue played by Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and this brutality sets the tone for the rest of film’s world. Instantly, Leone is asking his audience to cast aside their romanticised preconceptions of the gunslinging Old West in which his films exist.
The film shortly introduces us to its secondary protagonist, John Mallory, an expert dynamiter and veteran of the Irish struggle for independence (in one of the film’s many anachronisms, he carries a flag marked “IRA”, an organisation formed years after the story takes place). Played with an admittedly questionable accent by James Coburn, John seems to be cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s morally ambiguous “Man With No Name” archetype, but a series of flashbacks reveal a darker truth to his past. By the film’s climax, John is discovered to have murdered his best friend while escaping from British authorities in Ireland. Now finding himself embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, he continues to seek atonement for this personal betrayal committed in another, distant war.
A tenuous friendship is formed between these two characters, but the essential contrast between them is made clear in their conflicting perspectives on the ongoing revolution. John is an idealist; in his pocket he carries a copy of The Patriotism by Russian Revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, and he appears willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Juan, on the other hand, has no such creed, nor any inclination to selflessness. His only allegiance, he insists, is to himself and his own family. Of these two perspectives, Leone seems to sympathise with the latter, who’s world view is made explicit in an impassioned speech delivered mid-way through the film:
“I know all about the revolutions and how they start! 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. And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat. But what has happened to the poor people? They are dead! That’s your revolution!”
Juan’s speech is vindicated later in the most tragic of circumstances, when his entire family are slaughtered while resisting government troops. However, this is not to suggest that the film is on the side of the oppressive authorities. Indeed, emphasis is placed on the brutality dealt by government forces, with a number of lengthy sequences depicting massacres and summary executions.
Throughout all these events, the specifics of the Mexican Revolution and the various factions fighting it are only alluded to in vague terms. Rather, the conflict appears to stand for the concept of revolution in a generic sense. An opening quotation from Mao Zedong (which was removed from the American release) states that “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”
The sentiment of this quote is echoed in the brutality of the film’s violence, in stark contrast to the stylised, larger-than-life gunplay of Leone’s earlier westerns. In depicting the bloody massacre of civilians and combatants alike, the film makes clear that revolutions are never clean, nor is the violence inherent to them in any way honourable. In short, revolution is a dirty business, and anyone proposing such a thing from the comfort of an Italian university should understand the consequences.
If Duck, You Sucker has a philosophy, it might be best described as something approaching nihilism, or at least individualism. When caught in a revolution, Leone seems to argue, the best option is to look out for number one – in other words; duck, you sucker! Indeed, Leone himself called the film a “reverse Pygmalion” story; the intellectual revolutionary (John) meets an uneducated petty criminal (Juan), and it is the simplistic, selfish world view of the latter which appears to win out.
Such a cynical interpretation of the Mexican Revolution caused controversy in Mexico itself, where the film was banned until 1979. This was hardly a proportionate response, as Leone is evidently more concerned with elaborate action set-pieces than he is with politics. A lengthy bank-robbery-turned-prison-break in the second act is one of the finest sequences of his career, accompanied by an unusually jazzy yet typically masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.
With Duck, You Sucker, then, Leone continues the cinematic finesse of his previous westerns while exploring more thematically interesting territory, with occasionally refreshing results. The stylised, almost balletic violence which characterised his earlier work is exchanged for a grittier and less glamorous atmosphere. Likewise, his characters are no longer appealing archetypes but flawed and thuggish killers.
In the years between the first conception of Duck, You Sucker in 1968 and its release in 1971, much had changed. At the same time as the world was in turmoil, Hollywood had experienced a revolution of its own. Taking influences from European cinema, a new wave of young American auteurs were pioneering a fresh style of film-making which cast aside the taboos and stuffiness of the old Hollywood. In this vein, westerns like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969) had drawn upon Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to popularise a new form of so-called “revisionist” western. These films thrived on moral ambiguity, anti-authoritarianism, and stylised violence, and they appealed to cinema audiences living in a world of rapid social and political change.
Much as John Mallory is atoning for his past in Duck, You Sucker, Sergio Leone is likewise reflecting upon his own influence on world cinema. The irreverence with which he had portrayed violence and cruelty in his “Dollars” films had helped to transform not just the western genre, but the very way in which Hollywood operated. Having pioneered this new western for the counterculture age, Leone seems to ask, “Is this what you really want?”