Sergio Leone’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER is the director’s most overtly political film statement. Butchered and retitled A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE by United Artists upon its American release, the film was restored to its full glory in 2007. The print I viewed is the full 157 minute version broadcast last summer on Encore Westerns, and the result is an epic tale of revolution, the futility of war, and class struggle starring two great actors, Rod Steiger and James Coburn. Filled with violence, humor, and Leone’s signature touches, DUCK, YOU SUCKER is second only to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on my personal list of Leone favorites.
The film is essentially a buddy movie at heart. Juan Miranda (Steiger) is leader of a bandito family that robs from the rich and gives to the poor… namely themselves! They come across John H. Corbett (Coburn) riding on his motorcycle. John’s an ex-IRA man on the run (as we learn in flashbacks spread throughout the film). He’s also an expert with dynamite, and Juan has visions of joining forces with John to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank. But John has other ideas, planning on going to work for a German silver mine owner. Juan isn’t easily dissuaded, though. He tricks John into blowing up the German and his men, and now John, wanted for murder, reluctantly agrees to work with the bandit.
Or so Juan thought, as John ditches Juan and his crew with the help of a speeding train. Undaunted, Juan continues on to Mesa Verde, only to be met there by John, who’s now aligned with Mexican revolutionaries. The revolutionaries attack the soldiers while J&J put their bank heist into effect. But to Juan’s chagrin, the vaults aren’t filled with Mexican gold but political prisoners, and Juan becomes a reluctant hero of the revolution! The revolutionaries are chased by the soldiers, and retreat to caves while J&J hold off the soldiers with gatling guns and blow up a bridge. The two men head to the caves, only to find everyone has been slaughtered, including Juan’s children. Juan goes on a suicide mission and is captured. He’s facing a firing squad when John swoops in like an Avenging Angel to free his buddy.
And we’re only about halfway through the film! I’ll won’t spoil the rest for those of you who haven’t seen DUCK, YOU SUCKER yet. I’ll just say there are many more twists and turns on the two men’s journey… you’ll have to watch for yourselves. Instead, I’ll tell you the film walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and its success lies in Leone’s genius as director. Leone has created an unheralded masterpiece which is only now beginning to get it’s proper due thanks to its restoration and rediscovery.
You tend to forget what a brilliant actor Rod Steiger was if you haven’t seen him for a while. There are echoes of Eli Wallach’s Tuco from THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY in Steiger’s performance, as intended in the screenplay by Leone with Sergio Doanti and Luciano Vincenzoni. But make no mistake, Steiger puts his personal stamp on the role as the bandito more interested in gold than revolutions. James Coburn is his equal as the Irishman Corbett, a man grown weary of revolutions and killing for other people’s causes. Despite their cultural differences, Coburn and Steiger form a bond of friendship forged by mutual tragedies and their common distrust of the powers that be.
The cinematography by Guisseppe Ruzzolini is breathtaking, and the film is masterfully edited by Nino Baragli. No Leone film would be complete without Ennio Morricone, and he supplies his usual fine and unique score. The special effects are done by Antonio Margheriti, better known to film fans under the pseudonym Anthony Dawson, director of HORROR CASTLE, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, WAR OF THE PLANETS, TAKE A HARD RIDE, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, and YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE.
DUCK. YOU SUCKER was Leone’s last Western. His valedictory film, the gangster epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, would be released in 1984. Leone died at age 60 in 1989, leaving an indelible mark on film in general, and the Western genre especially. Though he’s only credited directing seven features, among those seven are some of the best Westerns cinema has to offer. Find yourself a copy of the uncut, original DUCK, YOU SUCKER and prepare to be amazed at the artistry of Sergio Leone.