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All the Great, Grand, Glorious Heroes of the Revolution: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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Director Sergio Leone is credited with re-inventing the western film genre by presenting a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Despite his never having visited the United States and not being able to speak English, Leone created western heroes, villains, and films that changed the genre forever. Paying tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them, Leone’s characters, heroic or villainous, are dirty, sweaty, and unshaven. It is often difficult to determine which are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all his characters are “morally ambiguous… [either] generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” The relationships of Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” and are emotionally, rather than politically, driven.

In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West; Duck, You Sucker (also titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, or A Fistful of Dynamite); and Once Upon a Time in America, the setting is not always the American Old West, and Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence than on the violence itself.” In Leone’s first trilogy of Westerns, the Dollars Trilogy, the protagonist doesn’t change, although those around him often do, if only because of his violent acts. In the Once Upon a Time trilogy, instead of there being a single protagonist, who is most often considered the “hero” of the story though he is neither moral nor “good,” there are at least two protagonists, and they do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters.

Though they might initially oppose each other, these protagonists are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain or even protagonist/antagonist. The female, who was intimately connected with the two protagonists’ battle in Once Upon a Time in the West, has completley disappeared in Duck, You Sucker (1971): the story focuses only on its male protagonists.

The moral journey of the emotionally complex protagonists in Duck, You Sucker occurs despite — or perhaps because of — all the guns, explosions, and battles during a revolution, but Leone’s protagonists are not even conscious of their changing behavior or natures.  These two men are trying to survive outside the political situation around them. For them, and for the film’s viewers, the Mexican Revolution is mere backdrop. Duck, You Sucker is, instead, a biting examination of racism, class differences, imperialism, and the violence that is sometimes used in an futile attempt to achieve permanent social and moral equality.

Rod Steiger and James Coburn, as Juan and John, respectively, in Duck, You Sucker ©

Despite the film’s constantly being edited to remove scenes considered too politically sensitive, too violent, or filled with too much profanity; despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns rather than as a drama; and despite its rather strange original title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa (Duck your Head), and its subsequent release under various other titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, this film is one of Leone’s best. Its exploration of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor vs. obligation to fellow man, and private vs. political justice is moving and powerful.

Rod Steiger as Juan Miranda, Duck, You Sucker ©

In a rural desert, a dirty, barefoot, obviously poor Mexican peasant waits at an isolated stop for the stage. Though the driver is intially reluctant to allow the peasant to board, despite his offering to pay for this passage, the driver decides it would be a good joke to put the dirty man aboard with the wealthy patrons. Inside, the others immediately insult and criticize the peasant, talking about him as if he were unable to hear or understand what they are saying. Along the road, the stage is ambushed by armed bandits, and the peasant is revealed as their leader, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who immediately takes revenge against the wealthy, upper-class patrons.

Rod Steiger (forefront) as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

Before Miranda and his gang have left the scene with the stolen stagecoach, they are distracted by explosions and the subsequent arrival of a motorcyle-riding stranger. Miranda disables the motorcycle and attempts to rob its driver, but is confronted by a man more cool-headed and cold-blooded than himself: Irish political terrorist turned mercenary, Seán (John) Mallory (James Coburn).

James Coburn as Seán (John) Mallory, Duck, You Sucker ©

In the violent struggle that ensues, the two men vainly attempt to outwit and physically master each other. When it’s clear that Irish John cannot be intimidated or emotionally manipulated, Juan decides he can use John’s skills to fulfill his own life’s dream of succesfully robbing the biggest bank Juan’s ever heard of, the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Romolo Valli as Dr. Villega, Duck, You Sucker ©

In Mesa Verde, the two begin working together, although unbeknownst to Juan, John’s motives are quite different from his own. In a secret meeting, Juan is introduced to one of the revolutionary leaders, Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli, above), who wants to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical local governor, Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi, below), and change Mexico’s entire social structure.

Poster of Franco Graziosi as Governor Don Jaime, Duck, You Sucker ©

Enter, stage-right: an even more powerful and dangerous opponent, Colonel Günther Reza —Gutierez Ruiz in English versions — (Antoine Saint-John), the ruthless German leader of a detachment of Mexican Federales.

Antoine Saint-John Colonel Günther/Gutierez Reza/Ruiz, Duck, You Sucker ©

Though sometimes considered the film’s antagonist, Reza/Ruiz’s character is completely undeveloped, which makes it clear that he is not important enough to be the antagonist. Reza/Ruiz functions merely as a catalyst for the evolution and moral development of Juan, John, and, in a minor capacity, Dr. Villega. Even Villega, though his character is important enough to be slightly developed, is really only vital to the story because of his treachery toward the major protagonists, Juan and John, and how his betrayal changes them.

James Coburn as John, and Rod Steiger as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

The story of this brief moment in the Mexican Revolution is interwoven with flashbacks revealing John’s time in Ireland fighting the British government. Featuring a former comrade and the women whom both men loved, these flashbacks have no dialogue: only a musical soundtrack.

John’s former comrade Nolan (David Warbeck); Colleen (Vivienne Chandler), the woman they both loved; and Seán/John (James Coburn, in Ireland, in flashbacks only, Duck, You Sucker ©

 

Apparently, this time, in Mexico, John wants to get the revolution right. Meanwhile, Juan only wants revenge against everyone for his own poverty and illiteracy. The story’s violence increases, but begets nothing except more horrific violence, more betrayal, more death.

Rod Steiger as Juan, and James Coburn as John, Duck, You Sucker ©

When finally offered a chance to take hold of his dreams, “Chicken-Thief” Juan and “Firecracker” John each realizes that he no longer wants what he once most desired. Each discovers that he is not the man he once was, and that he must now make different moral and political choices, difficult and surprising as those choices may be.

The chemistry between Coburn and Steiger, as “John and Juan,” who eventually form a bond that forces each of their characters to evolve, is one of the things that makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best films ever made. The intellectual political terrorist John (Coburn) begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan (Steiger) stops thinking only of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care more about his family members as individuals, his relationship with his fellow man, and his country. From a relationship built on fear, intimidation, and coercion rises a relationship built on love, respect, and empathy.

Sergio Leone, Rod Steiger, and James Coburn, taking a break on set, Duck, You Sucker ©

Duck, You Sucker is available for rent ($2.99-$3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon,  iTunes, and Vudu.

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I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns

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The Magnificent Seven (original) ©

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about 10 films, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The top five films are in I Ain’t Like That No More: Top 5 Westerns. Here are the remaining of my five top Western films.


Red River
(1948)

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John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan, Red River ©

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big John Wayne fan. Whether Hollywood pushed him into “The Duke” mold or whether audiences simply preferred that role, many of Wayne’s films portray him playing basically the same character. (That kind of thing always leads the viewer to wonder if the actor is acting or just being himself.) But Wayne’s early work in Westerns was much more daring as well as varied. In fact, he should have received Oscar nominations for quite a few of his early Westerns, rather than the token one he received (and won) for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

One of Wayne’s finest roles and one of his best Westerns is 1948’s Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.

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John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Red River ©

Starring Walter Brennan (Groot) and Montgomery Clift (Matt) along with John Wayne (Dunson), Red River is a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. As a boy, Matt — sole survivor of an Indian attack — joins Dunson’s group and is adopted by Dunson. Though Matt is his adopted adult son, Dunson is continually forcing Matt to prove himself, leading to many conflicts, as well as to a split in the group on the cattle-drive.

Dunson is tyrannical and angry; Matt, who is fair and stalwart, rebels, taking many men with him. Dunson sends a posse after the group, intending to force his authority on all of them, but especially on his adopted son. The final showdown is stunning and effective.

Red Riversome of the best acting that Wayne and Clift ever did, is available for rent, starting at $2.99, from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


Open Range

(2003)

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Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, Open Range ©

Beginning as a relatively quiet film that deals with free-grazing, or individuals or small groups with small herds grazing on public lands, and who come into conflict with larger corporations or ranchers who want the land exclusively for themselves, Open Range (2003, directed by Costner) is a powerful statement on individual rights, expansion in the west, land ownership, and power.

Kevin Costner (Charley) and Robert Duvall (“Boss”) as the free-ranging partners are the principals, with an excellent supporting cast which includes Annette Benning as the town Doctor’s sister Sue, who becomes Charley’s love interest, and Michael Gambon as the ruthless and powerful Irish immigrant rancher Baxter who “don’t want no free-grazers” and uses violence and murder to terrorize them into leaving the area.

Though Boss, Charley, Sue, and other characters don’t seek violence, it becomes inevitable as they must defend their lives, property, freedom, and individual rights, which incorporates many of the themes of the most enduring Westerns.

Open Range, which was both a critical and box-office success, is available for rent ($2.99-3.99)  from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


Tombstone
(1993)

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Bill Paxton, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

Concentrating on the story of the Earp family — all three brothers and their wives — and Doc Holliday after their move to Tombstone AZ, this movie usually ranks high in any Western “Top Ten” list, not just because of the historical characters and events, but because of its fine acting and production values.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) convinces his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) to join him “for retirement” in Tombstone, where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer, in his Oscar-winning, and most brilliant career performance) is already settled and winning outrageous amounts at gambling.

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Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

The Earp brothers “acquire” interest in their own gambling establishment, and seem only to want to make money and live comfortably with their wives. Their gunslinger pasts, however, cause them to come into conflict with a red-sashed gang, The Cowboys, and with the Dalton Gang. Once the Earps become lawmen, they are bound for the historical confrontation at the OK Corral.

The film’s unique and interesting interpretation of historical characters and events, along with plenty of action and love interest, make it worth watching. But Kilmer’s Oscar-winning performance as Doc Holliday is mesmerizing. Tombstone is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


The Magnificent Seven
(1960)

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Cast of The Magnificent Seven, including from L to R, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn (4th), Charles Bronson (5th), and James Coburn (last) ©

Based on Japanese filmmaker’s Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, these seven are transformed into gunslingers and hired to protect a small Mexican village from a notorious bandit who is extorting money, livestock, and grain from the villagers, leaving them to starve. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn are among the magnificent seven, each of whom has a past he’s running away from.

Though notorious or shady in their previous lives, they are convinced to help protect the villagers for virtually no pay whatsoever, reluctantly showing their moral side as the film progresses.

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Eli Wallach, The Magnificent Seven ©

As the seven teach the villagers to defend themselves against the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang, the 7 become emotionally attached to their charges. Some of the scenes with the young boys and Charles Bronson’s character are among the most amusing yet moving.

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The Magnificent Seven ©

Set to a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, the film embodies the iconic Western theme of the strong protecting the weak, and landowners (or townspeople) defending themselves against villainous intruders (or outsiders).

McQueen was apparently envious of Brynner’s mega-stardom [from The King and I] and was constantly trying to upstage him, even standing on his tiptoes to be taller than Brynner [who was shorter than McQueen in any event]. Producers eventually supplied a box for Brynner to stand on when they were in set scenes together, to prevent McQueen’s antics. The Magnificent Seven is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(1966)

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, top to bottom, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef ©

No list of great Western films would be complete without Sergio Leone’s classic “Spaghetti Western” (because shot by the Italian director) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, supposedly represented by Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach), and Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef), respectively, as each searches for stolen and buried Confederate gold during the American Civil War. They need each other because none has the complete list of clues as to the gold’s burial place.

As you might guess, nobody trusts anyone in this film, least of all the three protagonists who, despite the title and the heavy-handed identification as “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” are actually all comprised of those characteristics. This combination of good, bad, and ugly in each of the major protagonists makes them some of the most fascinating characters in any Western.

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Lee Van Cleef (back to camera), Eli Wallach (kneeling), and Clint Eastwood, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly ©

Besides many memorable images and music, Eli Wallach supposedly improvised one of the film’s most famous lines. While bathing, his character is confronted by other gunslingers who argue with him about revealing the gold’s location, and explain repeatedly that they’re going to kill him if he doesn’t reveal it. Wallach’s Tuco raises his gun out of the murky bathwater and kills them all, stating afterward to their corpses: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk.” (In interviews, Wallach still expresses surprise that such a simple line garnered so much attention.)

The final showdown and gunfight in the cemetery, accompanied by an unforgettable score by the venerable Ennio Morricone, make The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a classic. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
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Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
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Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Westerns

“If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk”: Top 10 Westerns

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My original Top 10 Westerns post If You’re Going to Shoot, Shoot: Don’t Talk is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:

We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and

I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Movies/Films, Movies/Television