Sergio Leone revolutionized the Italian western, making them international box office hits, and a thing at all in the United States. His three films with Clint Eastwood — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — made the western cool again after becoming hokey and passe, and with his fourth western, Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone ended his love affair with the American West to focus on his 1920s gangster epic. But before he could do that, he’d return to the genre for 1971’s ode to revolution, Duck, You Sucker.
What’s this? Another trailer where the movie’s title is different than what I’m telling you it is? Yes, it seems to happen a lot. The title of this movie is a point of contention. The Italian title is Giu la Testa, which essentially means “Get Your Head Down,” a reference to both what the characters do when dynamite is thrown and what people do when they don’t want to get involved in something. However, Leone thought a good English translation would be Duck, You Sucker, maintaining it’s a very common American phrase. After the initial release did nothing, it was edited and retitled A Fistful of Dynamite to capitalize on Leone’s previous success, even though the movie is nothing like that. The French title ended up being a translation of Once Upon a Time…the Revolution, which is actually the most apt.
This movie — Leone never intended to direct but just write and produce — represents the filmmaker at his most political, about how revolution is the child of the intellectual but it’s the grunts, the peons, the peasants who fight and die to make it happen. The movie begins with a quote from Chairman Mao, which was of course cut from the U.S. theatrical release. And while Duck, You Sucker takes place during the Mexican Revolution, it’s an anti-Fascist/anti-Nazi/anti-Mussolini film; Leone’s reaction to growing up during the reign of the Fascist State. As a result, the movie is a much more somber and serious than he’d made before, but it’s still full of explosions and gunfire and fun moments, because how could it not be?
Rod Steiger stars as Juan Miranda, a Mexican bandit who pretends to be stupid in order to rob various stage coaches with the help of his massive gang of sons. Right from the start, Leone sets Juan up to be a petty loathsome, base individual, which only stands to make his transformation more heroic. He so happens to meet Sean Mallory (James Coburn), an Irish ex-pat and former I.R.A. munitions expert who fled his homeland for personal reasons. Now he’s in Mexico with a chest full of dynamite, selling his skills to the highest bidder. Sean’s catchphrase before an explosion is the eponymous “Duck, you sucker.” Juan wants Sean to help him rob the bank of Mesa Verde, without realizing that it’s actually where political prisoners are being kept by the Spanish military.
What makes the movie stand out (besides Ennio Morricone’s brilliant and weird score) is both the scope (somehow Leone’s biggest film to date) and the performances of the two leads. They have great chemistry, but they’re each able to convey their own sadness and pathos. Sean is the hardened revolutionary who believes the cause, even if he doesn’t feel like he has much personal reason to help the Mexicans. We also get several very slow flashbacks to Sean in Ireland that reveal his history, the halcyon days with his best friend John (David Warbeck) and a girl they both like. Without dialogue, and shot in super slow-motion, we learn through these that John turned traitor to the I.R.A. after being beaten up by the authorities, and Sean had to shoot him. It gives a tragic reason for Sean’s malaise and expatriation.
[Sidebar: it should be noted that the I.R.A. hadn’t yet been established during the Mexican Revolution, but it works thematically, and in keeping with the trope of having a European mercenary helping with the Mexican plight.]
Juan, conversely, starts as a very base and greedy individual who wants nothing to do with the Revolution, but gets sucked in through the course of the drama, and is eventually hailed as a freedom fighter and a great hero of the Revolution. Many bad things happen to his family/gang, but that’s what revolution is.
The other main figure is Dr. Villega (Ramolo Valli) who represents the intellectual joiner of the Revolution, but who is ultimately too cowardly to continue. His betrayal leads both Sean and Juan to their eventual fates, which culminates in a massive dynamiting and machine-gunning of a bridge, and then a huge train crash to end the film.
Duck, You Sucker is generally, of the six mature films directed by Sergio Leone, his least remembered. It could certainly be because of how political it is, or how generally serious and tragic the tone is. The Dollars Trilogy were fun action movies with a dark sense of humor, Once Upon a Time in the West is a wistful farewell to the idea of the mythic west, but Duck, You Sucker is about how change costs, people get hurt or die, and innocence can’t last. It’s a much harder pill to swallow, but if you want a little bit more depth in your western action, and a lot of explosions, then this might be the movie for you.