Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A Fistful Of Dynamite - James Lewis


It's impossible to separate James Lewis's A Fistful Of Dynamite novel from the Sergio Leone film of the same name and view it as an entity unto itself but then I don't suppose you're meant to. Lewis's book is a movie tie-in and as is the point of these kind of books they're meant to be viewed as a companion to the movie or at least as some kind of memento of it. The problem with Leone's film, however, is that it's a work of flawed genius whose grandeur casts an extremely long shadow, thus effecting how the book is read.

Set in Mexico, 1913, A Fistful Of Dynamite is a story of friendship and revolution. Juan Miranda Ibanez is a Mexican bandit in the same mould as the Eli Wallach character, Tuco, in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. He leads his gang - comprised essentially of his children and his father - in the robbing of stagecoaches and it's just after one such robbery that he encounters John Mallory who is in the employ of a German silver mining company. Mallory is an IRA revolutionary on the run from the British army and is an explosives expert. He's loaded with dynamite and nitroglycerine, and through foul means Juan persuades him to join him in the robbery of the biggest bank outside of Mexico City.
"Hey, what's your name anyway?" asks Juan. "John" Mallory replies. "Hah, like Juan. The same name" Juan exclaims. "So what?" says Mallory. "I thought that maybe having the same name was destiny" says Juan. "You don't wanna be my partner? You don't wanna get rich? We'll be famous. Juan and John, specialists in banks. No, no, I got it: 'Johnny and Johnny!' Sounds better, more American."

The country, however, is in a state of turmoil due to the revolution going on and when they get to the bank they find the whole town over-run with Mexican soldiers. They join with the rebels who are planning an assault upon all the key positions in the town and opt for the bank as their own specific target. Mallory is fully aware, however, that the bank no longer holds any money and is being used instead as a prison for captured rebels though he keeps this information from Juan. Their raid on the bank is successful but rather than liberating it of money and gold, they liberate instead the prisoners and Juan is unwittingly hailed as a hero of the revolution.

After another battle with the Mexican army, the local leader of the rebels - a doctor by the name of Villega - is captured and under torture reveals the identities of all the supporters of the revolution who are then summarily rounded up and executed. Mallory bears witness to Villega's betrayal of the rebels but unbeknownst to him the hideaway of Juan's children and his fellow fighters has also been revealed and on returning to the hideaway with Juan discovers they have all been slaughtered. Juan heads off to seek vengeance only to be captured by the army. Mallory rescues him and whilst escaping on a train sees the tyrant governor of the town - the sworn enemy of the rebels - is a fellow passenger. Juan kills him, resulting in him once again being hailed a hero of the revolution.

In the final battle between the rebels and the Mexican army, Mallory heads off on a potentially suicidal mission; his plan being to ram a train head on into an another approaching train full of soldiers so as to take out as many of them as possible. He needs just one person to help him and though Juan volunteers, he chooses instead Villega, who at that point realises that Mallory knows of his act of betrayal.
The trains duly collide and whilst Mallory manages to jump free ahead of the collision, Villega remains on board to be killed in the ensuing explosion. As the rebels led by Juan descend upon the surviving soldiers in a final gun battle, Juan and Mallory come face-to-face again but it's for the last time as Mallory is shot in the back and dies in Juan's arms, though not before setting off another massive explosion.
The book ends with Juan looking up into the darkness and asking: "Oh, Johnny. What about me?"

Sergio Leone ends his film with the same question being asked and a freeze-frame shot of Juan (played by Rod Steiger) staring into the camera. It's a poignant and meaningful question when put into the context of the film's two main themes of friendship and revolution.
Over the course of the film (and likewise the book) Juan and Mallory's relationship develops from hostility, to curiosity, to bemusement to ultimately mutual respect. Come the end, they're even like brothers but with the death of Mallory, Juan's dream of a great bank-robbing partnership - Johnny and Johnny - dies also.
As his family has been wiped out, Juan is alone, and the only real place left for him is among the rebels in the revolution. The problem with this, however, is that Juan has all along been mightily cynical and mocking of that revolution. Never mind 'Land and liberty', Juan has only ever been interested in 'Gold and Money'. For Juan, a revolution is a pointless exercise; an endless game of cat and mouse where the land owners and the rich once ousted are simply and very quickly replaced by a new set of land owners and rich who must then be ousted themselves. On and on and so it goes, and at the end of the day all that a revolution leaves is dead poor people and a new set of rulers. This is borne out by the death of Juan's family and then underscored by the death of his friend Mallory. If Juan is an example of the kind of person a revolution is meant to help, as well as an example of a hero of that revolution, then what hope for him?

In an earlier argument with Mallory, Juan states that the only country he knows is that of him and his family. Once his family has been destroyed this obviously means that so too has his country. So what is there left to fight for? During that same argument in the film, Mallory (played by James Coburn) is reading a book and Juan lambastes the people who read books for telling poor people who can't read books that they need revolution. So the poor people make a revolution whilst the book readers continue to sit and eat and talk. But as for the poor people - they end up dead. That, to Juan, is what a revolution means. Mallory throws the book he's reading into the dirt and the camera zooms in to the cover to show its title. It's 'The Patriotism' by the Russian godfather of Anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin.

What Leone brilliantly illustrates at the start of the movie, however, is that Juan is actually conducting a revolution any way, without being spurred on by intellectuals or political leaders. The stage coach he and his family rob is bedecked in plush velvet with gold-plated handles and is populated by an American land owner and his wife, a salesman, a Mexican noble, and a priest. They're depicted as all sucking food into already overstuffed mouths and washing it down with wine; all talking disparagingly about Mexican peasantry. Juan and his children rob them of all their valuables, ravages the wife, strips them of their clothes, packs them all off in an old mule cart and commandeers the stage coach as a new home. Leone makes it very clear that this isn't just robbery that is being conducted - it's a class war.

The original name for the film was going to be Once Upon A Time... The Revolution, which is actually a much better title. Leone debunks the myth of the romance of revolution and shows it instead to be a violent, dirty and horrible affair. He entwines this with the subject of friendship, showing how it can grow but also be betrayed and destroyed. Just like a revolution.

Whilst all this makes for a very good story and a very good subject for a film, Leone's final creation is flawed and it's not the masterpiece it so nearly could have been. That particular accolade was achieved earlier with The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and then again later with Once Upon A Time In America. A lot of the blame for it being flawed must be laid at the door of Leone's American producers, and their interference with his vision and original plans. It was they who insisted on the role of Juan being played by Rod Steiger but it was a classic case of miscasting and his portrayal of a Mexican bandit is nowhere near as good as Eli Wallach's in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Wallach was Leone's first choice for the role but his American producers insisted on Steiger - apparently for his potential appeal to a large American audience - which was all well and good but Steiger's Mexican accent is atrocious and jars throughout the film, causing a negative effect even upon James Coburn's sterling performance. It was they also who messed about with the film's title, insisting it be called Duck You Sucker in America, A Fistful Of Dynamite in Britain, and Once Upon A Time... Revolution for some reason only in France. Presenting and publicising it as a comedy western didn't help either.

For all that, A Fistful Of Dynamite is still an exceptionally good film and as a companion to/memento of the film, the book is also very good. And as an example of how different it is as a film to so many others of the same genre, how many other western movies begin with a quote from Mao Tse-Tung: '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... by which one class overthrows another.'

John Serpico

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