"The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with...elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence....."
1971 film directed by the great Sergio Leone, it was released as Giù la testa in his native Italy and was entitled A Fistful of Dynamite when released in the UK. The working title was Once Upon a Time... A Revolution which is appropriate as this film acts as a bridge between the earlier Once Upon a Time in the West and the later Once Upon a Time in America. As with many Leone pictures various releases abound with differing running times, if you're looking for DVDs then the Italian language version is the one to go for, although the UK region 2 version contains a lot of material missing from older VHS versions. There does not appear to be any version available in the USA.
The film stars Rod Steiger as Juan, a Mexican bandit and peasant (looking like a second Tuco) who is politicised through his association and friendship with James Coburn. Coburn plays John Mallory, a former IRA man on the run from authorities in Britain and America and has become involved in the Mexican revolutionary war. Both men turn in excellent performance despite their accents sometimes slipping at moments of stress. We also have a wonderfully strange score by Ennio Morricone that really needs to be heard to be believed, it's quite unlike his other work with Leone.
Strictly this film isn't really a spaghetti western despite the setting, it is set in Mexico in the early twentieth century, and Coburn's first appearance is on a motorcycle, and the pressing concern is, similar to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, of the passing of the old west due to the progress of the technology of slaughter and the onward march of civilisation. Indeed the opening shot of the film is almost a tribute to The Wild Bunch, as we see a colony of ants drowning in what turns out to be Steiger's urine, which echoes the baby scorpions at the start of the Wild Bunch.
The opening of the film contains a number of twists which challenge our conception of characters, seen by the pitiful Steiger character being picked up by a stage-coach full of rich Spanish descended Mexicans who patronise and mock him, until Steiger's family of outlaws stage a successful raid on the coach. Watch Leone's increasing close-ups on the faces and mouths of his characters to emphasise the vulgar animality inherent in us all. After these exploits a series of explosions heralds the entrance of dynamiteer Coburn, who proceeds to engage in a sequence of tit-for-tat exchanges until the two decide to head to the city, bonded as Juan and John, to utilise Coburn's skills to rob a bank.
This leads to further complications as the duo get sucked into the revolution. Steiger proceeds to stage his bank raid with assistance from the revolutionaries, onto to find that the bank contains no money, but scores of political prisoners. Then we get some gloriously big battle scenes interspersed with the slaughter of a good two thirds of the cast. Remember the civil war scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where Clint Eastwood's character says he has "never seen so many men wasted so badly"? Well this up's the ante on that, as a bridge is exploded with a tremendous explosion (that was filmed as it happens) bigger then anything you're used to. We also see mass indiscriminate shooting in pits of the revolutionaries, clearly depicting the Mexican Federales as Nazis. We also see far more characterisation then in previous Leone films, with both Steiger and Coburn slowly changing as their relationship together grows.
There are several use of flashbacks to Coburn's betrayal back home in Ireland to the nagging 'Sean, Sean' score of Morricone. Each flashback serves to subtly alter our understanding of Coburn's character and how present events are effecting him, until we reach the climax where Coburn confronts the revolutionary middle-class doctor Romolo Valli who has betrayed many of his comrades to the Mexican army for the long-term good of the revolution, forcing him to accept his guilt.
We also see Steiger change from a greedy, money-grabbing bandit who only care is for his family, into a bona fide hero of the revolution who is prepared to risk his cash rewards for other purposes. Ultimately Coburn and Steiger decide to make their way to America, following the old dream unaware that the old West has passed away. Situations, of course, arise to complicate matters more than ever.
Although this is probably the least known of Leone's works it is, in my opinion, one of his better films, showing more maturity than the earlier films in the Dollars trilogy, tackling broader issues with broader strokes. The pacing is at times a little haphazard and the multitude of differing versions and titles of this film has not helped it to be re-evaluated the way that Once Upon A Time in the West was when it gained an new audience on home video in the 1980s. But if you are a fan of Leone's other spaghetti westerns then this is definitely worth a view.