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A Fistful of Dynamite

This Sergio Leone film is definately the least seen of all his westerns. For some reason, this film is largely forgotten. It is never shown on cable, and the video was out of print for many years but has recently been re-released on both laserdisc and video. Hopefully now that it has been re-released, it will start getting the attention it deserves.

This movie is the exception to the rule that Leone gets better with time, but it is only a slight exception. After all, it's hard to beat Once Upon a Time in the West. Perhaps the slight imperfections comes because it was not originally a Leone project, and so he did not have quite as much control as usual.

This film, despite its name, is not a spaghetti western. It is what is called a "Zapata Western", after the famous Mexican revolutionary. These films are characterized by the simultaneously friendly and antagonistic relationship between a local bandit , and a foreigner who is an expert at revolution. In A Fistful of Dynamite , Juan Miranda (Ron Steiger) is a Mexican bandit who runs across Sean Mallory (James Coburn), who is an IRA terrorist on the run. After some initial hostility and a few explosions, Juan convinces Sean to rob the Bank of Mesa Verde. Sean, however, arranges things so that Juan frees hundreds of political prisoners while looking for the safe in the bank. After that, Juan slowly turns into a full- fledged revolutionary, while Sean loses his revolutionary fervor.

To contrast this plot with a few other Zapata Westerns, in The Mercenary, a Mexican who starts to get involved in the revolution is helped by a clever mercenary who treats himself to the Mexican's water, women, and gold. Quemada! ( also known as Burn! which stars Marlon Brando) is the story of a British officer (Brando) who helps start a revolution in the Antilles sugar farms by duping the soon-to-be leader of the slaves to rob a bank, then defend himself, and then defend his people.

One of the interesting things about A Fistful of Dynamite is the weird, offbeat, yet beautful Ennio Morricone score. From the Main Title's refrain of "Sean. Sean Sean Sean. Sean Sean.", to the March of the Beggars (Juan's Theme) croaking "wop. Wop. wop.", Morricone created something different than the usual spaghetti western, yet just as fun, and certainly just as moving.

The music is well suited to the equally quirky direction by Leone. This movie is full of fast zooms, extreme closeups, exaggerated, cartoonish visuals and sounds. A good example is the scene in which Juan is travelling with the upper-class snobs, who proceed to stuff their faces with all sorts of food (which Leone shows in extreme close-ups), and make fun of Juan and the poor Mexicans like him. The same phrases are repeated over and over, faster and faster, until the train is finally stopped by Juan's men. And one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Sean first reveals his incredible array of explosives, and the camera zooms to Juan's amazed eyes.. the organ music swells, and we see Sean standing there with a banner floating above him which reads "Banco National de Mesa Verde". It's one of those things that Leone does that reveals exactly what a character is feeling, even though nothing has been said. And, of course, a banner floating in midair above someone is just never done in movies. When Leone does it, it is suprising and hilarious.

A Fistful of Dynamite is a film unique in the Leone body of work. It is a comic film, yet serious at the same time. Even though Juan is the comic character, in this film the comic character is every bit as important as the serious one (John) (as opposed to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West ). It is Juan that we see develop ideals, while at the same time Sean loses his ("When I started using dyanmite, I used to believe in a lot of things. All of it! Now I believe only in dynamite"). In elevating the comic character to the equal of the serious one, Leone creates a film that is sensitive as it is cartoonish . "What about me?" we hear Juan ask at the end of the film. After these sad parting words, that Juan realizes that now he must fight by himself, thus losing his comic, sidekick quality, and becoming a serious John-type character. This is the only time that such a switch happens in Leone's oevre, and I'm glad it does.