A Fistful Of Dynamite

A Fistful Of Dynamite


Reviewed by: Nick Jones

After Sergio Leone exploded onto the scene with A Fistful Of Dollars and its two sequels, which spawned the term "Spaghetti Western", his career developed into a more pensive, cynical mood with Once Upon A Time In The West and this, his "Zapata Western".

Juan (Rod Steiger) is an amoral and opportunist Mexican bandit, who rapes and pillages with no remorse. The revolution is going on around him, but he sees through it; he will not be a pawn in someone else's war. His only allegiance is with his family; that is until he meets Sean (James Coburn), an ex-IRA explosives expert, who is on the run from the British. The two get off on the wrong foot. One of Juan's relatives plays with Sean's dynamite and blows himself up. Their relationship survives this minor setback, however, and, seeing potential in each other for their own gain, they set off to Mesa Verde together, where they are drawn in to the Mexican revolution.

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Steiger is perfect as a roguish thief. His face alone is enough to convince you, managing to balance the comic element of his simple peasant image with a credible villainous streak. The scene in which Juan rapes Adelita is deeply unpleasant and it is down to Steiger's believable performance and Leone's strong characterisation that we pity Juan later in the story, when tragedy befalls him. And it does, in spades.

Coburn also performs well, as the other half of this unlikely pair of bank robbers. His appearance suits the role of Sean very well; he acts cool as he walks around blowing everything up, but there is a sadness in his eyes and an underlying sense of humanity in his face, which gives him a more vulnerable side than Eastwood ever had. His best moments are when he is observing his surroundings. Unlike Juan, who never shuts up, he spends much of the film thinking, and you wonder what is tormenting his soul. Certainly, it is better when his mouth is closed as his Irish accent oscillates between very bad and appalling - did people in 1913 really have teeth as white as this?

Not previously known for his ability to flesh out characters, Leone does an admirable job, making the film a more rewarding experience as a result. Particularly poignant are the flashback sequences. Leone always likes scenes to take their time and Sean's memories are in such slow motion, they almost stop. Synched with long-term collaborator Ennio Morricone's haunting score, these scenes become strangely mystical. The beauty and homeliness of Ireland contrasts with the barren, earthy landscapes of Mexico, where danger is everywhere, accentuating the sense of disillusionment.

By the time he came to make this, Leone was no longer interested in celebratory western films, which glorified violence, and he certainly hated revolutions, or at least the rose-tinted depiction of them by other directors of the time. The dreaminess of the flashbacks, Sean's yearning for a more innocent time, make the frequent violent scenes even more repugnant and regrettable. The finale, an explosion to end all explosions, is almost nihilistic in its tone, and echoes back to Sean's eternal line, "When I started using dynamite, I used to believe in a lot of things. Finally, I only believe in dynamite".

Despite the great action sequences, some good comic moments and competent acting, A Fistful Of Dynamite does feel messy as a whole. With its problematic production, it has never been a film known for its coherence. The fact that the British version was even called A Fistful Of Dynamite, when it is closer to Leone's Once Upon A Time series, shows how confused the whole affair was.

It seems that by being tugged at one end by the director's political standpoint and from the other by the commercial demands of MGM, the movie finds itself pulled in both directions. At its newly extended length of 132 minutes, the stretch marks seem clearer than ever.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2005
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A Fistful Of Dynamite packshot
A Mexican bandit and an ex-IRA explosives expert are drawn into the Mexican revolution.
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Director: Sergio Leone

Writer: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone

Starring: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Maria Monti, Romolo Valli, Rik Battaglia, Franco Graziosi

Year: 1971

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy


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