I suffer to find someone who can rightfully criticize the main body of films created by Sergio Leone. To the fanatics, his two trilogies stand as eternal monuments of the last great era of true Vision in Cinema. I am a fanatic. But if you love something, you better know how to criticize it.
Leone wasn’t undefeated, but one of his ‘lesser’ films is worth 20 of someone else’s. Such is the case with “Duck, You Sucker.” Also known as “Fistful of Dynamite” and “Once Upon a Time … In the Revolution,” the 1971 film goes nearly unrecognized in his catalog, sandwiched between the grand fairy tales of “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America.”
It is an odd case of a film being dwarfed in reputation, yet as a standalone it holds its own pound for pound. “Duck, You Sucker” is truly a heavyweight film. It is also Leone’s most playful film in its technique, even toying with the line of self-irony.
It is Leone’s bastard child, a bewildering experience as he messes with your expectations for all two and a half hours. This is a case of a filmmaker screaming for vengeance against his own success, flogging himself in order for his real child – the long gestating “Once Upon a Time in America” – to be delivered.
But at the same time it is a necessary film, as it represents a creative purge. Leone throws in the pantry, the shower curtain and the fixtures of the sink drain. You can tell he didn’t want to make this picture, but after firing Peter Bogdanovich (and, supposedly, Sam Peckinpah), Leone took the reins and drove the film as well as the entire Western genre straight into hell–where it remains, begging for an American renaissance.
In between, we are treated to the scraps of Leone’s West in the characters of Juan Miranda and John Mallory, whose actions envelop them into the throes of the Mexican Revolution. Miranda (Rod Steiger, brilliant as ever) is a brute from a brutish world, seeping in lust and greed. He’s a simpleton of the lost era, one of “the people who can’t read the books.”
The Revolution is meaningless to him as he has only seen the repetition of senseless murder under the guise of civilization. All that matters is surviving long enough to lead his sons, his father and his gang of bandits to the gold stored in the bank at Mesa Verde.
After looting a stagecoach full of elitists and raping the only woman on-board, Miranda and his gang are met by a stranger on a chugging motorcycle – the first vehicle Leone uses besides horse, carriage, or train. The stranger is Mallory, played with a gruff longing by James Coburn. Mallory is one of the “people who read the books.” He’s an educated man with a pension for being a huckster, as is first shown when Miranda and his gang threaten to shoot him.
“If you shoot me down, they will have to change all the maps.” He opens his jacket, revealing a chest strapped with nitroglycerin canister. Mallory, we find out, is an ex-IRA explosives expert, on the run from his past. Nothing of this frightens Miranda. In fact, he sees Mallory as a blessing in disguise.
After some begging and pleading, Mallory agrees to help Miranda seize the bank. Along the way to Mesa Verde, we are presented with the simultaneous evolution of both characters amidst the wreckage of the Revolution. Miranda becomes distraught over the feeling of being enveloped in a fight he wants no part of, whereas Mallory lets on that the Revolution may be an arena worth stepping into.
As the two men bicker at each other on the trail to Mesa Verde, they find they’re of the same breed. Yes, Mallory is an intellectual and Miranda the wild beast, but they are men of violence. It’s in their blood and it never ends. It’s the only kind of world they know.
Through this, the two men form a very odd bond. But the film subverts any notion of becoming a buddy/road movie when, via a wicked twist deserving of a standing ovation, Miranda becomes “a great, grand, glorious hero of the Revolution.”
Now he’s forced to fight and protect his herd, a matter he hangs over Mallory’s head even after the former admits to hucksterism and is forced to watch as Miranda exterminates a handful of double crossers with his own explosives rig.
It is here where Leone shows a heavy coat of nihilism that is filthier than its predecessors and becomes even grimmer in “Once Upon a Time in America.” There is mischief, loss, betrayal and plenty of senseless death to go around.
The Revolution is merely infantile idealism, empty words, with human nature pissing all over it like the tree Miranda relieves himself on in the film’s first frames. The men who are supposedly the heroes are bandits at heart. They double cross each other to save their own ass in the pretension of the greater good. But it’s all for money. It will always be for money, regardless of who has to die.
By the end of the film, both characters lose everything but their sense of the pride that carried them this far into the fight. Miranda still stands as the hero, but it is only more empty words as he gazes into the long night. Mallory lies wrecked for the longing of the old days, when his world had beauty in it, which becomes the one thing he finds he truly believes in.
“Duck, You Sucker” is the first film in Leone’s catalog filled with heart. But its heart devours what it cannot understand, leaving us staring with Miranda into the void with the only guarantee being war for power. For, in Leone’s world, believing in ‘something that’s bigger than you are’ will leave you as a footnote in the annals of the myth you created. And that is the only fate worse than death.