My first impression of DUCK, YOU SUCKER(aka Fistful of Dynamite)was something like “pretty fun movie.” A big admirer of Leone, I’d wanted to see it for a long time. But I was underwhelmed by its flaws and quickly realized why it’s the least remembered and celebrated of his films, at least in the US. Still, I liked it enough, and there was no mistaking the unique and distinctive sensibility and style.
Problems with the DUCK, YOU SUCKER are many. Its intentions are confused, pandering to audience expectations yet striving to be artistically and even morally meaningful. It opens with a quotation of Chairman Mao, and one might expect a political tract along the lines of BATTLE OF ALGIERS or BURN, but instead, it begins as a Looney Tunes version of the Wild West and Mexico. Then, it lurches into an action adventure, then expands into an historical epic, then reverts back to farce, then rhapsodizes into lyrical romanticism, and finally ends as tragedy. In the simplest terms, the movie is a mess, a massive over-packed vehicle rumbling along on a flat tire. In my first viewing, I found just enough inspired Leone-isms, action, laughter, and amusing grotesqueries to come away with a more or less positive impression. It also helped that the film had gained a cult status in certain circles as a ‘neglected masterpiece’.
Let’s consider the acting. James Coburn, though immensely likable and charming, wasn’t really an actor-actor. One could argue that DUCK YOU SUCKER, at least in its more ambitious moments, called for an actor with greater depth. Even so, Coburn, with a face at once world-weary and mischievous–grave and grinning–was more than adequate; he had a hickory star quality, with a rugged countenance smoked and worn with experience and a set of teeth fresh as that of a rabbit.
Though Rod Steiger was considered a more ‘serious’ actor, he isn’t exactly convincing as a Mexican. His accent is strained throughout. He has a stocky body like many Mexicans, but his comportment lacks verve and spontaneity, and his every movement seems self-conscious, as if Steiger had to constantly remind himself that he’s a Mexican bandit. It reminds us of Akim Tamiroff’s weird role as a Mexican in TOUCH OF EVIL, but if the fun-house expressionism of Welles’s film seemed the natural place for weirdness and exaggerated theatricality, DUCK YOU SUCKER insists, at times anyway, on a degree of realism wherein Steiger seems out of place. If he comes across as too unreal in real situations, he also comes across as too real in unreal, especially comic, situations. The film’s mood, always shifting, generally remains out of tune with Steiger’s performance. Steiger seems to be straining to be comic and restraining himself to be serious. It’s a deeply flawed performance, but the unease does add something to the movie’s theme of the irreconcilability of history and the impossibility of dreams. To most viewers, Steiger’s performance will pale next to Eli Wallach’s bravura antics as Tuco. Wallach dived headfirst into his role without reservations and created one of the most memorable characters in action cinema. We didn’t see Wallach playing a Mexican bandit but simply Tuco the bandit. Even so, Steiger faced a more challenging task for Wallach only needed to play a caricature, a kind of a Mexican Tasmanian Devil. Tuco’s main purpose was to amuse and make us laugh. Steiger had to play comic, dramatic, and tragic, shifting through several layers of emotions; and he had to develop as a character. Tuco, in contrast, always sprung back to same old Tuco-ness whatever the situation–just like Wiley Coyote back on his feet after the umpteenth fall over the cliff. Steiger’s performance is far from perfect, often uneven, and rough around the edges, but it does ultimately convey something touching and affecting. And his despair at the end of the movie is unforgettable.
Why did I come to love, than merely like, DUCK YOU SUCKER? The music certainly has its charm. On the first viewing, I didn’t know what to make of Morricone’s score and thought it the weakest composed for a Leone film. It sounded airy and farcical, almost like a parody of romanticism, and like the movie itself, blended of incompatible elements of beauty, laughter, grace, clownishness, etherealness, playfulness, solemnity, silliness. In other words, ridiculous. There was genuine epic sweep but also cheesiness, kinda like Rossini crossed with Mantovani. It sounded like Leone score done by Michel Legrand(whom I like, by the way).
Consider the incantations of ‘Sean-Sean’ at certain intervals; they’re goofy and buffoonish, but then, the melody swirls rapturously in romantic delirium until, emotionally overstretched and drained, fades into silken cotton candy. As film score, it doesn’t quite work, yet somehow it’s all the memorable for trying to mix-n-match impossible moods and styles, in the process producing what is perhaps the most ridiculous piece of sublime music(or the most sublime piece of ridiculous music). There’s something heroically crazy and hypnotically silly about it.
The music got stuck in my head, and through its mad delirium the movie also stayed and grew in my mind. And strangely, it occurred to me that the movie’s very flaws made it all the more fascinating and intense. Besides, these weren’t flaws of incompetence but of an over-ambitious imagination. Noble flaws, I if you may. So, when the film returned to the revival theater, I saw it again and completely fell in love. Objectively speaking, I still think it’s the least successful of Leone’s films, but in some ways, it’s affected me more than any Leone film with the possible exception of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.
I’m not sure if Leone consciously made a messy film to challenge audience expectations or conceived an vision so wacky and sprawling that it was bound to overwhelm his intentions. Yet the film works to the extent that it does(and manages to hold our interest even when it doesn’t)precisely because there’s so much going on, constantly posing more conflicts and themes when prior ones haven’t yet been resolved. In my second viewing, I found the mess more exhilarating than exhausting. With a loose plot without clear signposts–and with a wide range of emotions to match it–, it invited the viewer to navigate with his or her own emotional compass. While THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY has a pretty outlandish and episodic plot, each scene neatly fits into the whole like a perfect puzzle; we know when it’s being cool, cruel, funny, or suspenseful. It’s essentially a cosmic-comic Western. And ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was made in the form of cosmic-tragic Western, a kind of epic elegy. DUCK YOU SUCKER, in going for both at once(and a lot more), results in a kind of anarcho-aesthetic delirium, creating before our eyes a kind of twilight zone parallel universe where nothing seems what it is. This isn’t to be confused with the cynical and vapid ‘postmodern’ exercises of Quentin Tarantino where the name of the game is hipsterism. There is a sense throughout DUCK YOU SUCKER that Leone was sincerely striving for a great synthesis of the real and unreal, comic and tragic, fantasy and history. It has the breath of authenticity as opposed to the mere bubble gum flavored mouthwash of Tarantino.
Like Juan(Rod Steiger) and Sean(James Coburn), the viewer becomes like a lost nomad searching for personal meaning in a fallen world of chaos, confusion, and failure. We come to accept the world as a heaping pile of the ridiculous and the heroic, the hopeful and the cynical, the ugly and the beautiful, of friends who are foes and foes who are friends. Of course, there are plenty of movies and books that expounded much more intelligently on the complexities, subtleties, and contradiction of life, but if they tend to be of one piece–consistent in their seriousness or depth–the refreshing(though I suppose also exasperating)thing about DUCK YOU SUCKER is its devil-may-care, damn-the-torpedoes, and blow-em-up head-on collision with aesthetic, moral, and dramatic conventions(and with huge chunks of history as well), not so much to violate them but to have it all. Leone, in going for opera, circus, drama, and epic, may have been channeling Fellini and, in the bargain, may have influenced Lina Wertmuller, especially with SEVEN BEAUTIES.
Leone only finished six major films(ignoring his first and forgotten Sword & Sandals movie), which could divided into two sets of trilogies: the Dollars Trilogy and the Time Trilogy(or maybe the Dream Trilogy). The Time Trilogy comprises ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, ONCE UPON A REVOLUTION–the French title for DUCK YOU SUCKER–, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. The Dollars Trilogy–A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY–is comfortably nihilistic. To be sure, there’s a little room for compassion and sentimentality–the wife and child in FISTFUL, memory of Mortimer’s raped & murdered sister in FOR A FEW, and the dead soldiers in GOOD, BAD, & UGLY, but by and large, it’s world where the cool and tough play the only game that matters and come out on top. Since clear-cut good vs evil doesn’t exist, it all comes down to wit, luck, and the faster draw(generally belonging to the one with the most style). The Man with No Name has no childhood, no memory, no obligation. He’s out to kill because the world is full of killers and killing them pays. In THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY the Man with No Name, or Blondie, is motivated by pride as by money. After he misses his shot on Tuco’s noose, Tuco rubs salt into his wounded pride. Miffed, he abandons Tuco in the middle of the desert as punishment. By some very skillful shooting in the final scene, Blondie reminds Tuco and reassures himself that he is the master of the gun.
As great and fun as the Dollars Trilogy is, it doesn’t leave much if any emotional residue. The Time Trilogy is different. Here, Leone consciously tried to be an artist than merely a great entertainer. Given his favorite material and approach–reimagining Hollywood genres and myths–, even his serious films were a tough sell to many critics while he was alive. Even so, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA are, more or less, consistent and unified in their styles and themes. Both were obviously conceived of as art cinema. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST attempts monumental myth-making while ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA paints a fever dream fantasy. AMERICA is the more ambitious work, at least in philosophical and psychological terms, in its grappling with the meaning of Truth. WEST deifies the American Western into an operatic fresco with a unique European sensibility. It’s like John Ford movies re-imagined by Wagner, Verdi, and Visconti. Every character is like a giant statue, myth blown into grander myth. There’s no personal psychology. Chaney(Bronson)does remember Frank’s(Henry Fonda)murder of his brother and seeks vengeance, but it’s a ritual determined by fate. The emotions are geologic, even cosmic, than personal or individualistic. Both Chaney and Frank are a part of ‘Man, An Ancient Race’. Good or bad, their days are numbered, and they have no choice but to die or ride away in the classic western fashion.
More flawed but greater is ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, which, like WEST, is sufficiently consistent in mood and theme. Like the rest of Leone’s works it is mythic, but then it also looks beyond and even behind the myth. Myths can be official lies, collective fantasies, or private delusions favored over reality. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA goes to the source of myths–the human mind. If ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is an epic of the body(where every figure looms like a monument), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE AMERICA is an epic of the mind(where the soul is lost or hidden in the shadows). Heroes and villains in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST proudly stand out in the open space under the blazing sun, face to face, guns ready to blast. (The exception is the crippled industrialist Mr. Choo Choo, who anticipates the darker world of AMERICA.)
In ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Noodles(DeNiro) hides from the world, and Max, as Mr Bailey, hides behind a new identity. When they meet again, it’s in a secret room with a secret exit. It’s fitting that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a western and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is a gangster film, a darker genre(though, to be sure, AMERICA is different from most gangster films where the main characters tend to be big-mouthed and big-balled anti-heroes taking on the whole world; Noodles and even Max are atypical figures within the genre. Max is too smart and devious to be a romantic anti-hero, and Noodles is too passive and pensive.)
In the Dollars Trilogy and also in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, everything happens in the physical world. There is almost no psychology. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, on the other hand, mostly takes place in the inner world. THE WEST takes place in the open spaces of Olympian gods. AMERICA takes place in the ratholes of the heart. Noodles has his own myths, but they are private, his alone, and ultimately false. As a gangster, he’s filled with doubts about work and life, especially after the breakup with Debra, his great romantic fantasy. Later, he is both forced to live in his private memories. Even as the world changes around him and he grows older, Noodles remained trapped in the same memories which also morph into fantasies of what could have been or should have been. It’s almost as if the barrier between memory and fantasy dissolves within him, which makes him all the more poetic-tragic and pathetic-ridiculous.
There is something mythic about private memories and fantasies, but Leone is careful to emphasize the self-enclosed nature of Noodle’s inner dreams. Noodles, as an old man back in NY, is not living in a mythic universe but surrounded by harsh and changed reality. Even in physical terms, the world of his childhood has been replaced by new buildings and new demographics. The dreamy, the romantic, and the mythic are confined to his memories. It is this uneasy conflict between reality and myth, the present and the past, and faith and betrayal which makes the movie not only Leone’s greatest work but one of the most haunting in cinema. It is indeed epic and grand in its scope but also intensely poetic and private in its mood. It is a kind of pop version of the Proustian novel.
In some ways, however, DUCK YOU SUCKER is stranger because, in terms of conception and execution, it lies somewhere between ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. On the one hand, it reworks the old western myths. We encounter larger-than-life characters who pull off fantastically outrageous stunts and walk away in one piece. Much of the violence follows the logic of action adventures, meaning ‘our guys’ almost never get shot while the ‘bad guys’ are easy targets. But then, this gets complicated by the historical backdrop to which Leone pays much detailed attention and in which he invests a degree of moral concern lacking in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY–whose moralism was facile–, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST–whose historical themes in were cursory at best.
There is a degree of moral complexity in parts of DUCK YOU SUCKER, especially involving a revolutionary doctor who serves and then betrays the revolution under torture. Taken alone, these scenes are comparable to the best of Francesco Rosi or Gillo Pontecorvo. The doctor’s betrayal of his colleagues to the firing squad and his redemption via suicide attack on an army train have genuine elements of tragedy and gravitas.
Most of the movie, however, in terms of action and narrative, is closer to farce than historical epic or political film. It’s almost like a collaboration between Mel Brooks and David Lean. But then, this collective zaniness in the manner of THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY is disturbed and shaken by the slow and dreamy revelation of Sean’s private memory. If we removed Sean’s flashbacks(which anticipate the shadow world of Noodles in AMERICA) and its romantic musical motifs, DUCK YOU SUCKER would, more or less, be like the movie BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, a fun, farcical romp thru the Mexican Civil War.
Rod Steiger’s Mexican Juan would supply the laughs and James Coburn’s Irish Sean would supply the blasts. But the flashbacks infuse the entire film with haunting sadness, with doom and despair, with the sense of memory as both golden nostalgia and a black curse. Though the flashbacks are short, intermittent, mostly in slow motion, without spoken words, and laid with lush music, the main emotions of the movie come through them. And it is through our gradual knowledge of Sean’s past that the various emotional and historical threads mesh into a larger fabric.
There are two sets of flashbacks. One involves a much younger Sean with his friend and a lover in a menage a trois in happier days. They are all laughter, sunshine, love, and green fields of Ireland. The other flashback is bleak where the friend, having been tortured, informs on Sean the Irish freedom fighter, who then shoots the British soldiers and his friend. The betrayal and the killing could have been purely political or, perhaps, political and personal. (Love and power are also major themes in AMERICA.) Maybe love for the same girl was partly to blame for the betrayal; we know nothing, but we get a sense from the flashbacks that there is much more to Sean than what meets the eye. Without the flashbacks, he’d be little more than an adventure-seeking revolutionary who likes to blow things up. With the flashbacks, we sense that he’s running from his past–rather like Noodles in AMERICA, albeit in a very pro-active manner–, and that his destructive power grows out from the anguished barrel of his heart. It’s as though, having lost what mattered most–his lover, his friend, and his dear Ireland–, his only outlet is joining ever greater destructive causes and wreaking havoc. Revolution is an excuse; it’s as though he wants to spread his pain and misery onto the cursed world. If any group or movement wants to hire him for some ‘lofty’ cause to blow up ‘bad guys in uniform’, he’s game. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ireland, Britain, America, or Mexico. In his personal life, the ‘uniforms’–British soldiers–messed up Ireland, his personal happiness, and friendship. So, he finds satisfaction in blowing up and killing other ‘uniforms’ in the name of some cause, any cause. In him, the political is clearly tied to the personal.
The flashbacks are presented in a somewhat silly manner, and on the first viewing I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be taken seriously–as vision of paradise(with the girl) and vision of hell(betrayal and murder)–or as a parody of such cinematic cliches. The music–half lush, half slush–confused things even further.
Yet on the second viewing, I found myself taking the movie more seriously and willing to adjust my feelings to the ever shifting narrative. I got the sense that Leone was presenting two powerful realities–the brutal clamor of history and the music of the soul–and showing how the two realms were incompatible with yet integral to one another. Reality around us can never conform to our desires, and the past is a foreign country. But no amount of reality can completely alter or break the dream machine churning within the soul. The world will be what it is–brutal and mundane–, and the individual soul will be what it is–dreamy and poetic. Yet, the two worlds feed on and indeed depend on one another. Dreams, no matter how divorced from reality, must be fed by images and sounds of reality. Sean is haunted by memories of his lost love, friend, and country because he was entangled with reality in that part of the world. And Noodles of AMERICA is a dreamer because he has something to dream about, the people he encountered and loved in the real world–Debra and Max. If reality feeds dreams with things to dream about, the corollary is reality is built on dreams–corrupted along the way though they may be(though I suppose one could argue that one’s dreams are a corruption of reality into fantasy).
Though the war and revolution in Mexico is brutal and grim–in very real terms–, they were inspired by the utopian or progressive dreams of intellectuals. And to the extent that Sean too is a political activist, he is driven as much by the collective dream of chasing after utopian rainbows as by the personal dream of running from reality. Though we generally equate politics, business, science, technology, and social issues with material reality, each of those endeavors have dreamers and idealists, visionaries and madmen. So, in a way, history and society are dreams materialized into concrete reality, and our dreams and desires are concrete reality spiritualized into inner fantasies. If we generally divide reality into the external and the internal, Leone’s films, especially DUCK YOU SUCKER and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, situate us where the two intermingle.
If there’s an element of tragedy about Sean, it’s because he lives in two worlds but belongs to neither. His memories keep returning to happier times in Ireland, but he cannot go back, nor can he share his beautiful aching pain with others. Love can only be shared with the one you love, friendship is shared with a friend, and patriotism has meaning on one’s own soil. Sean is an exile(like Noodles in AMERICA). His past means everything to him but is lost to him forever. It certainly has no meaning to anyone else in crazy Mexico. But even in purely political and social terms, he’s like a fish out of water. He may be fighting on the side of progress, but what does Mexico really mean to him? Dedicated revolutionary or not, it isn’t really his battle, and he’s more like a mercenary or journeyman terrorist than a committed idealist. He has nothing to live for in his personal life so he hit the bottle of world revolution, through which he tries to belong to some larger meaningful community. But in his more pensive moments, we sense he’s lost faith in man, a faith essential to a true revolutionary.
In politics, there are only general theories, big ideas, and collectives of people–heroes and villains, oppressors and victims, our side and the other side; the cause and the consciousness are unified and shared; groups win or lose together. In some ways, there’s no need for personal attachment nor anguish. When your side loses, it may be a political setback but not necessarily a personal disaster. And political losses need not be permanent whereas personal losses often are.
One can lose a nation and win it back, but there’s no way to recover a dead friend, mother, or lover. The paradox of historical reality is it’s both brutally materialistic and brazenly abstract. A nation may lose a war, come under subjugation for many generations, but the descendants of the vanquished may eventually reclaim land and freedom. Though the nation upon liberation may be a very different place than it had been centuries earlier when it came under subjugation, we still say that nation has survived. This is essentially an abstract idea. Greece today is very different than what it was thousands of years ago, but because of the idea of ‘Greece’ and ‘Greek civilization’, we tend to see more connections between present and past than there really are. And Mexico and Southwest parts of the US are very different than what they were hundreds of years ago, but the abstract concepts of ‘Mexico’, ‘Aztec civilization’, and ‘reconquista’ inspire many Mexicans to see politics in terms of reviving Old Mexico–sometimes confused with traditional Spanish Mexico or pre-Columbian Mexico.
Of course, all nations, ideologies, ideals, and values are abstract concepts of the mind in the sense that there is no natural or scientific reality called United States, Germany, or China. They were land masses artificially drawn and divided on a map, formed into entities called ‘nations’, and instilled with certain values and ideals. It is then amusing that those who study history and social issues put such premium on reason and science in understanding the true nature of history and society.
For Sean, the personal life is dead. It died with the tragedy of the Irish Revolution, the betrayal by his friend, his killing of the friend, and his own exile–which no doubt also meant the loss of the woman he loved. Though resourceful, clever, and good-humored in his romp thru Mexico, there is a gaping hole in his heart. To alleviate the pain, he has a kill-wish and a death-wish. Though ostensibly fighting for oppressed humanity he exults in destructive and often murderous violence; and when finally shot and dying on the field of battle, he seems to have gotten what he wished for: peace and void away from the turmoil of the world and his heart.
There is something of Sean also in the character of colonel Mortimer in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY(at least in the scene where he meets his priest brother), and Chaney in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. But DUCK YOU SUCKER delves deeper than those films and produced the first fully realized character in a Leone film. The Dollars Trilogy and THE WEST produced many memorable characters, but they were more icons, archetypes, or caricatures than real characters. They were an assemblage of styles, mannerisms, and carefully worded quips than individuals.
Though THE WEST was Leone’s first foray into ‘serious’ filmmaking, Chaney’s flashbacks feel more godly than human. Chaney is a man of granite and as immovable as a mountain. When the music howls and blares during the key climaxes, it might as well be Zeus playing the harmonica with Apollo on the electric guitar.
The major characters of DUCK YOU SUCKER are more flesh and blood, with hearts that bleed and weep. Between Sean and Juan, Sean seems the tougher, harder-headed, and more stoic character. But through flashbacks, we discover he’s a ruined man, haunted by his past, unsure of his place in the world. Money means little to him, and the revolution means only a little more. He survived thus far and has wits enough to go farther, but he’s an inner wreck. He has no real affinity for anyone or anything. In one instance, he says he’s more wedded to the dynamite than even to the revolution. He likes whiskey and nitroglycerine. He wants to drown out the past and blow up the world for a future he doesn’t even believe in.
When Sean first meets Juan, Juan is still a happy guy. Juan is the leader of a bandit family made up of his children and his father. His only worldly ambition is to grab more loot anyway he can. He may lose a kid or two in his criminal ventures now and then, but that’s okay since he has a large family. Juan doesn’t understand a man like Sean–and early on, we share his befuddlement. There is a mysterious and stubborn quality about Sean. Though he’s traveled far to take part in the Mexican revolution and is undoubtedly a reliable professional, his enthusiasm for the cause seems only lukewarm. He still chases after causes, but he’s seen too much of life and politics to care very much. His commitment is habitual than principled.
Juan the Mexican bandit is, of course, even more skeptical about the revolution. Even so, there is an innocent quality about Juan that echoes the childlike personality of Tuco. Juan may be distrustful of politics, but it’s more a simple-minded defense mechanism and justification for his own banditry and ignorance than an insight gained through varied experience and reflection. For all the robbery and rape he’s committed, he is something of a peasant-child at heart. He really believes in what he’s doing as something honest and truthful; if the world is corrupt and oppressive–where the powerful gained their wealth and privilege through deceit, cunning, and exploitation–, then it follows the only honest way to survive is through thievery. Juan sees himself as an honest thief for having no pretensions otherwise. And he is also convinced that everyone else too is a thief, and Leone, perhaps having grown up in corrupt and sleazy Italy, identified with Juan to an extent. (Juan is fat and stocky like Leone. The opening scene shows a lavishly furnished wagon carrying rich pompous Americans filled with disdain for ‘niggers’ and the poor. Juan and his family ruthlessly and comically rob this bunch, and we are invited to laugh along with the sadistic merriment. Funny but ugly scene.)
If the cynicism of Juan is innocent–for lack of a better term–, that of Sean is actually knowing and world-weary. And to an extent, this is one of the ironies of the film. Sean, though no less cynical than Juan and probably more so, continues to serve political causes.
When Juan tells him that the revolution is only so much shit, he laughs and tosses away a book by Bakunin. Sean probably didn’t get involved in political causes for intellectual reasons but accidentally through the Irish struggle for independence against Britain. Over the years, he’s even lost his youthful zest and idealism, but the revolution is the only life, the only ‘family’, he knows. Given the likely permanence of his exile, he can only feel at home or part of something when he’s serving a cause. Juan too is a wanderer in the sense that he moves about looking for victims and evading the law, but he genuinely feels at home since he is a Mexican in Mexico and is surrounded by a large family. Due to circumstances as the story progresses, Sean and Juan become a sort of odd couple and find each other useful, somewhat like Blondie and Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY, but their bond isn’t purely mercenary as with the other two.
A major emotional shift happens in the movie when Juan loses his entire family in an army massacre. Suddenly, Juan finds himself all alone in the world and, in a sense, becomes like Sean. (Of course, ‘Sean’ and ‘Juan’ are ‘John’ in English.) It is from here that Sean begins to feel something for Juan. For so very long, Sean had been hung up with his own angst and loss.. (Paradoxically, Sean’s sense of personal tragedy seems to inspire both more sympathy and hatred toward humanity.) But when Juan loses the thing that mattered to him most–indeed, one could say Juan loses his entire world given that his criminal activity was a family enterprise–, Sean feels a degree of kinship. Of course, as Juan knows nothing of Sean’s past, he can’t fully comprehend Sean’s sympathy, and besides, Sean isn’t the type to wear his emotions on his sleeves. In the simplest terms, Juan follows Sean because he has no one left, nowhere to go, nothing to do. And in a way, Sean feels kinda guilty because Juan got involved in the revolution through his machinations, and it was this involvement which exposed Juan’s family to army reprisals.
Because they have no one else in the world–and even the revolution seems to be going to pot–, Sean and Juan are drawn together and become unlikely friends. They help each other in fleeing from danger, but danger or no danger, neither has a place in this world. In a way, they are running just to run.
In one affecting scene, Sean, naturally cool to the world he’s come to loathe, tries to comfort Juan in the compartment of a train headed to the US. Earlier, Juan had asked Sean to join his family on a grand adventure to rob bigger banks in America, what with Sean’s expert knowledge of explosives and all. Though the idea still has no appeal, Sean brings it up in the train just to take Juan’s mind off his dead family. If Juan regains even a little bit of the old spirit, it’s thanks to Sean’s being there for him. They become kinda like Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in THE MIDNIGHT COWBOY, two loners who only have each other.
DUCK YOU SUCKER achieves–not least due to Morricone’s sometimes lachrymose score–a rare degree of emotional complexity, especially when Sean dies at the end. In a way, he gets what he wants–a dramatic exit from a world without meaning. But what about Juan? Though he remains alive, he loses the last person in the world with any meaning for him. Juan, unlike Tuco, was never just a loner out for gold and loot. He always needed some kind of emotional attachment. With the death of Sean, he has nothing and nobody. When they first met, Juan was living in the happy present while Sean was, emotionally at least, living in the moody past. In the end, Sean departs from this world while Juan is now condemned to live in the past(the world of his lost family and Sean). It’s almost as though Sean passed the torch of elegiac despair to Juan. (Of course, one dramatic problem for us is that we got to know very little of Juan’s family who came across as cartoonish cretins. If we can relate to and emote with Sean’s loss–pretty girl, best friend, beautiful Ireland, patriotic fight for freedom, etc–, we have to take Juan’s great despair after losing his family on faith. This is one of the problems of Leone’s attempt to make his first full-fledged comedy and his first full-fledged tragedy in one bundle.)
Juan will surely rob more banks or may be even join the revolution, but he’s soulfully left all alone in the world, having lost his family and then even Sean, his only friend.
The first image of Juan in the movie is comical, happy and bright under the midday sun. The final image of Juan which closes the movie is tragic, wrapped in the darkness of night.
There is a sad death of a ‘good guy’–Cheyenne(Jason Robards)–at the end of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but as a staging of mythic god-like figures, human emotions don’t come into play. Besides, the bond between Chaney and Cheyenne was more an alliance than a friendship. Ultimately Cheyenne dies ‘alone’, and Chaney understands the rules of western myth.
In contrast, when Sean lies dying, Juan begs him not to die and goes looking for help. When Sean blows himself up anyway with the last remaining dynamite, he finds his peace(and perhaps personal glory) but, in a way, betrays Juan who is left behind all alone.
There is, in the character of James-Coburn-as-Sean, a personal reality of private memories haunting him wherever he goes. There is a dual nature to this reality for Sean wishes to leave his past behind but revisits it endlessly. Despite his loud and busy activity in the field of revolutionary terrorism, his truest self hums to the song of youth. He knows this bliss and pain cannot be shared with others, which adds another layer of duality to his inner reality–sadness of lonely memories but also the delight of possessing something solely his.
At any rate, all truly beautiful, painful, and tragic memories must be personal, which is why the arch nemesis in the movie is some ‘Aryan’ looking army commander who’s all about mechanical order and group-mentality. He is Dr. Organization than Mr. Organicism. He’s like a robot with no existence outside the militarism and war, a trained killer and a cold mercenary professional. He’s like the prototype of the Terminator. (As in BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, this aspect of the film reveals the Latin fear of the better organized but less sentimental Anglo-Teutons.)
In contrast, there’s Sean and Juan. Sean is an Irish revolutionary killer, therefore something of a romantic and a dreamer, not just a ruthless defender of the status quo dominated by the rich and privileged. Also, he was a lover and a friend. The tragedy of his life was his political ambitions couldn’t coexist with his personal dreams; one had to die.
Juan is no romantic and indeed a brutal lout, but there is fuzzy–albeit scuzzy–warmth to the blood flowing in his veins. He certainly feels no great love for humanity, but he does believe in human attachments. One might say he is something of a family values bandit. His criminal organization is like the Partridge Family of Mexican chicken thieves.
In contrast, there are the rich & powerful class obsessed with their status and the intellectual & radical agents committed to their books and theories.
Juan is by nature a sentimental sort despite his greed for money and his penchant for violence. He has a kind of innocent attachment to his family(though he may not care in the slightest about any other; but perhaps the death of his family ignites a consciousness of the larger humanity), and after losing them he develops an almost childlike affection for Sean.
This vulnerability, indeed an emotional need, is something Sean notices in Juan–that for all his uncouth boorishness, Juan does have an heart.
Anyway, I love DUCK YOU SUCKER, which currently happens to be my favorite Leone film. Not because it’s the best–in purely ‘objective’ terms, it may be the least successful–but because it’s so wild, contradictory, unpredictable. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is also a sad, tragic film but it begins and ends in tragic mode, so it’s all of one piece and without many emotional surprises–though there are several big narrative surprises. We see the fall from the very beginning. Prohibition is dead, and Noodles loses his friends; later he discovers a much worse secret involving a betrayal by a friend. The entire film is shrouded in a sense of loss, wounded nostalgia, and remorse. The entire film is a downer, a thematic and narrative depressant about a ruined life, whose only escape is the opiate of memory, which too is mostly filled with sadness and lost dreams. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is also a kind of emotional downer but in a beautiful elegiac way. It’s as if we are watching the ghosts of vanished gods restaging the myths of the Wild West–in Ford Country, no less.
In no way am I suggesting that these consistencies are shortcomings of AMERICA and THE WEST. They are, of course, their strengths, making them Leone’s two greatest films, and some of the best ever in the history of cinema. AMERICA and THE WEST are clearly superior to DUCK YOU SUCKER as finished works.
However, DUCK YOU SUCKER makes for a more interesting viewing as a work-in-progress because there’s so much that don’t fall into place.
Of course, most failed movies–about 99% of all movies in fact–are not worth watching because they have nothing to say, little to show, and not much imagination. But there is the rare failure like DUCK YOU SUCKER which is fascinating because it does too much, shows too much, and is brimming over with imagination and mastery. In this case, Leone lacked sufficient vision or skills to pull it all together–or maybe the project was thematically and aesthetically doomed from the start–, but what does come through is a zany and epic ambition, a reckless pride and abandon in experimenting and fusing just about everything under the Sun. Prior to DUCK YOU SUCKER, Leone had had the idea of fusing the American Western with the European operatic sensibility(with maybe a touch of nihilistic Eastern Zen he took from Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO), and in the process creating the Dollars Trilogy. He took this a step further with THE WEST, a gourmet art film reworking of the Spaghetti.
Then, with DUCK YOU SUCKER, he also went for farce, tragedy, historical epic, and even political or revolutionary filmmaking. It’s like the spaghetti western going for Visconti and Pontecorvo. This kind of epic visionary tragi-comic operatics has been a common feature among Italian and Italian-American filmmakers. One need only consider the first huge film productions of silent Italian cinema, the grand epics of Visconti, Zefferelli, Fellini, Bertuloucci(especially 1900 and THE LAST EMPEROR), Coppola, Cimino(especially THE DEER HUNTER and HEAVEN’S GATE), Depalma, Scorsese(especially beginning in the 90s with THE GOODFELLAS). And even Antonioni with ZABRISKIE POINT and Pasolini with some of his bigger, albeit grubby, productions.
Leone was no different in this, always dreaming to work big, which was perhaps one of the reasons why he only finished seven films in his life. But in some ways, Leone was the odd man out. Most of the Italian directors mentioned above gained their reputation as important and sincere–and personal–artists whereas Leone exploded onto the movie scene as the guy who made those bloody and ridiculous spaghetti westerns, which were popular in their time but disdained by most serious critics and film scholars–with maybe Andrew Sarris being one of the exceptions. So, the idea of Leone making a serious movie or a work of cinematic art sounded ridiculous to many back in the late 60s and early 70s, and all of his films have been met with controversy. But most people in the film world today would recognize Leone–Morricone too–as a major film talent, who not only made great films but was highly influential.
In this light, DUCK YOU SUCKER is worth revisiting because more than any other movie, it shows the conflict within Leone’s soul between the clown-entertainer(his Juan part) and the dedicated artist(his Sean part). And even if DUCK YOU SUCKER is a failure or folly of sorts, it inspires in a way that other failures don’t. DUEL IN THE SUN is probably the most ambitious western ever made–produced by David O Selznick of GONE WITH THE WIND and directed by King Vidor of many classics–, but the heaping mess of a movie feels stiff and strained. As for LEGENDS OF THE FALL, it mixed the western with war movie, gangster film, and romance, but came across as over-written by a gang of Hollywood writers. It lacks a powerful unifying vision. All the elements of DUCK YOU SUCKER may not hold together, but from beginning to end, there is no denying the great film signature of Leone the maestro.
In a way, Sean and Juan reminds us of David and Teddy(bear robot doll) in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Remember how David, haunted by memories of his ‘mother’, goes looking for her while Teddy loyally tags along. For all of Teddy’s devotion, David’s love is fixated on his ‘mother’. Even after many centuries have passed and his ‘mother’ has long been dead, she’s his only reality, a kind of eternal faith. In the end, David finds peace(and presumably death)with his ‘mother’ as conjured up by future beings. And poor Teddy is left all alone in the world.
Sean wanders thru the world much like David. Unlike David of course, he’s a grizzled man who knows a thing or two about reality; even so, he can’t let go of what had been–the sunlight, love, friendship. Sean meets Juan, and gradually Juan comes to like Sean; after Juan loses his family, Sean becomes his companion. But Sean dies in battle. In a sense, David and Sean abandon Teddy and Juan. One might characterize Juan and Teddy as ‘orphans of friendship’, at least in the sense that their attachment to their friends or companions took on an element of emotional need.
The ending of DUCK YOU SUCKER is, in some ways, even gloomier than the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA because the first half of the film led us to expect something like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Instead, we get the funny, the epic, and the tragic. Also, the survivor of AMERICA is Noodles, and though his illusions are shattered by the revelation at the end, we know he, like David of A.I., will always be a dreamer and find escapism in his fantasies. Not so for Juan, a ruffian with simpler emotions. When he loses Sean, he really is all alone in the world.
There’s a ‘friendship’ between Tuco and Blondie but essentially a facile and self-serving one. Even the kindest moment between the two is triggered by one of Tuco’s lies. Tuco, after a nasty argument with his brother, tells Blondie that his brother welcomed him with open arms and fed him a nice meal, which Blondie knows to be false. Growing more reflective, Tuco says both he and Blondie are alone in the world and have no one but each other. At this moment, there is something approaching tenderness, something more than an alliance out of mere greed. But, all said and done, they are devoid of psychology, and soon enough, we see Tuco grinning mischievously and looking forward to the pot of gold as the electric guitar licks up another tune. And at the end, greedy Tuco tries to take all the gold, and Blondie shares the gold only on condition of proving to himself and to Tuco that he’s the best gunman this side of the West. To Blondie, pride is more valuable than gold.
In DUCK YOU SUCKER, a genuine friendship or at least a deeper understanding develops between Sean and Juan. It’s not just an act, though it began as such.
The death of Sean is a great loss to Juan. A friend also dies in THE WEST and AMERICA, but Chaney had no emotional dependency on Cheyenne. In AMERICA there is a powerful bond between Noodles and Max, but it’s understood that nothing can be repaired or restored. The betrayal was too deep, indeed evil.
In DUCK YOU SUCKER, on the other hand, there is a chance of Juan’s emotional healing through Sean’s friendship. And, it should also be added that Juan’s loss of his family does some good for Sean by shaking him out of his nostalgic doldrums. Sean has seen many dead bodies but from a politicized distance, whereas he shares Juan’s sadness man-to-man.
It may be ridiculous to compare a Sergio Leone Western with the art films of Alain Resnais, but allow me to be ridiculous, which can be enjoyable sometimes. DUCK YOU SUCKER has something in common with HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and MURIEL in the sense that all three films are about the paradoxical nature of man(or woman) to maintain the passion for life by recourse to fading & deteriorating memory. Memory in this sense is like a drug that one turns to again and again, each time feeling refreshed and revitalized through nostalgia and longing, all the while growing staler in relation to the real world.
It’s interesting that as time went on, Leone’s film became more obsessed with memory–in a sense, Leone grew up in the dream magic and memory of Hollywood cinema. In FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the Man with No Name tells a woman that he once knew someone like her. In FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, there’s the memory of Indio(Gian Maria Volonte) who raped a woman who then killed herself. As loathsome as Indio is, he is almost poetically haunted by this cruel remembrance of murder, beauty, and defilement. If incapable of remorse(being a psychopath), he is not without a certain penchant for reflection. And Colonel Mortimer(Lee Van Cleef)surely has memories of his own, as the woman turned out to be his sister. He is motivated by vengeance, not money.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY isn’t big on memory on a personal level, but there is a sense of historical memory–The Civil War and its allegorical associations with WWI and WWII. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a ghost epic of faded ancient gods. And Chaney’s memory of his brother’s murder at the hands of Frank is crucial to the narrative and finale.
DUCK YOU SUCKER is the first Leone film with a deep sense of personal memory.
Finally, the bulk of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is about memory and presented in the form of a dream.
The key to appreciating DUCK YOU SUCKER as something more than a Western romp or failed historical epic is through Sean’s memory and Morricone’s score.
Both convey the ridiculous bliss and tragic beauty of memory as an obsession. There’s a scene in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE where Laurence Harvey reminisces of a time when ‘everyone was lovable’. It’s silly yet undeniably touching.
Sean’s memory is both beautiful, ridiculous, and tragic–of a time when he was an unabashed romantic and idealist. He’s grown older, living as an exile, and the people he cares about are dead or far away. But there is a kind of eternal hope in failure and loss. After all, Noodles never forgets Debra because he lost her. If he’d won her, she would have been a part of his mundane reality, not the youthful dream goddess who haunts his entire life. Same goes for Sean. It’s because he loses the girl and his friend that the past, as poetry of sadness and happiness, replays in his mind. With Sean’s memory and Morricone’s lush/dreamy cotton candy music as the starting point, DUCK YOU SUCKER pulls us into the lush dream-forest of cinema. Its seeds must have sprouted in my dreams as well for Sean and Juan are with me forever.