Runtime: 2 Hours
and 38 Minutes
One of the great joys of this....well, I hesitate to call it a job,
seeing as how there is no money in it, let's call it a hobby.....is
that sometimes I discover a great film and then I get to blather to
all you fine people in cyberspace about it. Sometimes, it is a film
you have heard of. Like "Lawrence
of Arabia" or "Network":
magnificent old films that everyone and their brother praises to the
rafters. And they should, because both of those films are amazing.
But sometimes it is a film that, for no apparent reason, has been
chained up in the basement of cinematic history much like a stepchild
in a V.C. Andrews novel.
"A Fistful of Dynamite" is one of these films. Other films
in the ouevre of master filmmaker Sergio Leone have gained much praise,
and deservedly so. There is no finer Western to these eyes than "The
Good, the Bad and the Ugly"...unless it is "Once
Upon a Time in the West"...which was also done by the great
Sergio. Sergio also trumped all films in the gangster genre with his
breathtaking and haunting "Once
Upon a Time in America". Well, what you may not have heard
is that between "Once
Upon a Time in the West" and "Once
Upon a Time in America", he did yet another outstanding film.
But the reason you may not have heard of it is that it's not as ambitious
in scope as those other two. Nor is it as serious. Though neither
of those two is without it's moments of light heartedness and humor.
Such was the genius of Sergio. But neither of those films is as occasionally
gut-busting as "A Fistful of Dynamite".
Yet, what makes "A Fistful of Dynamite" so great is not
that it has humor. It is that it has an immense scope, yet tells a
rather personal and passionate tale. It tells the story of an entire
nation through two characters who are actually outsiders to the conflict
of this country. In that matter, it reminds me of "The Good,
the Bad and the Ugly", wherein the Civil War served as little
more than the backdrop for three men on the trail of some gold. This
time, the revolution at hand is a larger part of the story, but in
much the same way.
Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is no revolutionary. He is a bandit. He
robs stagecoaches with his sons and his father (where is his wife
in all this? Who knows. This is never explained, and it doesn't need
to be) and has a dream that is the main reason for his existence.
His dream is to rob the First National Bank of Mesa Verde. It is all
he has ever wanted. He has even gone so far as to construct a shrine
to this bank and talk at great length about its loveliness.
One day, after robbing a stagecoach, Juan meets an Irishman named
John Mallory (James Coburn). He shoots the back tire of this man's
motorcycle. Coburn responds by calmly blowing a hole in the roof of
Juan's pilfered stagecoach with some nitro. This gives Juan a wonderful
idea: with John and his explosives knowledge on his side, he can finally
rob the Mesa Verde bank. John wants nothing to do with this at first.
He is on the run from the law in his own country for another revolution
and, we soon find out, is a flag-bearing member of the IRA.
Soon, on their quest to rob the bank (mostly Juan's quest, really)
they become entangled in the Mexican Revolution. At first, they use
the revolution as a front for their robbery. But once they are in,
they find getting out a little harder than they had first imagined.
Soon, they are among the leaders of the revolt: whether they like
it or not.
Among this film's greatest assets is its plot. The idea of a man becoming
a hero of the revolution by doing things which are motivated simply
out of his own selfish desires is simply ingenious. I have never seen
a plot like this in a film, and I was completely enchanted by it.
The humor in this film is remarkable. It's not quite as funny as "The
Good, the Bad and the Ugly", but it is refreshing and based on
character. The characters are also a major selling point here. I've
seen a lot of movies (understatement of the year, that) but I've never
seen a couple guys like Juan and John. They're a joy to behold. At
first, you laugh at them, then with them, and by the end you feel
them in your heart. For a rousing, bloody action movie, this film
generates a surprising amount of emotion and warmth. I don't mean
the goopy, "Patch
Adams" sort of warmth either. There is something deep and remarkable
beneath the surface of this film. I'm not sure how it was accomplished,
but I believe it owes to the sure-handed direction of Sergio Leone,
and the acting finesse of both Steiger and Coburn. Though their accents
are shaky at times, they simply remind you that accents aren't everything.
You don't think of them as Coburn and Steiger during the course of
this film: you buy them completely as Juan and John.
There is another noteworthy character here as well: the character
of Dr. Viega (Romolo Valli). He is a rich and riveting man to watch,
as are all of them in this film. Sergio even provides us with a notably
vicious villain. With only a handful of words he creates a genuine
sense of menace from this man. We sense him not so much as a man but
as an unstoppable force, relentless and tough and enigmatic. I also
liked the enigmatic nature of Coburn's character. Though you get a
real sense of where he comes from, you're never exactly sure what
he will do next, or exactly what he wants to get out of this or where
Personally, I thought that was nicely done. It keeps you on your toes
and close to the edge of your seat.
Another thing that keeps you on the edge of your seat are the pulse-pounding
action sequences. There are some moments here that, even thirty years
later, get the blood pumping in ways that modern action films only
dream of. A bridge explosion near the middle of the film, in particular,
leaves one gasping for breath. I can't figure out how it was achieved:
but I can't think of any way other than the utter annihalation of
a real, stone bridge. Damn! The train sequence is also very exciting.
Moving back to the direction, I must say that Leone's command of camera
placement and his magnificent flair for transitions have never been
better. Morricone's score is also worth note.
The only thing I've heard mentioned about this score is its strangeness
(and it is strange) but it is also beautiful, haunting and unshakable.
It's so far removed from your traditional movie score that one has
to marvel at how Morricone even devised such themes. Then again, the
same statements could be made about any Ennio Morricone score, which
simply means that this one is up to his usual brilliance. The film
is paced perfectly, no complaints in that department. Or in any department,
for that matter.
Try as I might to find fault with this film, I just can't do it. Sure,
it's strange. It's not your average western. With cars, tanks and
motorcycles, it may not even be a western. It's violent as hell, with
a body count that is still remarkably high. It's cynical. It's beautiful.
It's mesmerizing. It's fun. It's nothing short of brilliant, actually.
And it's a shame that it isn't more widely available and more prominently
mentioned. It may take some effort, but seek out "A Fistful of
Dynamite". You won't be disappointed.