Posted by: dougery | June 15, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Nine: Duck, You Sucker! (1971)

Alright we get it, Sergio. You’re kinda sorta good at directing westerns. Leave some for the rest of the filmmakers, sheesh.

I’ve been sitting on Duck, You Sucker! (or as it is occasionally referred to as A Fistful of Dynamite or again, in that it is the second part of a trilogy of similarly titled films, Once Upon a Time… The Revolution), I’ve been sitting on it for a while now, intimidated by its sprawling running time. Now that I have finally watched it I can assure you that it is every bit the epic 157 minutes can deliver, and to think it was shaved of almost 40 of those minutes when it was originally released in the US. There are some spectacular set-pieces that manage to stun the already (after only 9 films into My Year of Westerns) cliched bridge explosion scene that must be a literary obligation for penning a western (and if you can have a train passing over said exploding bridge, so much the better).

And what’s not to like about a film featuring an Irish ‘cowboy’? James Coburn plays John Mallory, an Irish revolutionary in Mexico, on the run from the British. The aforementioned explosions and the titular phrase “Duck, You Sucker!” are the product of his predilection for blowing shit up. Also, his mustache is exactly the one my face grows when I’ve chosen to annoy my wife and disgust my friends and family.

It seems John has a problem with allying himself to doomed causes and friends who end up informing on their revolutionary brothers. The film is peppered with flashbacks of a ‘stache-less Coburn, grinning or else running through an idyllic field, often in slow-motion. He’s in love with some woman in these flashbacks but that plot point feels largely arbitrary. Like most westerns, women here are few, far between, and used more as symbols than anything else. Feminists rightly should have a problem with this, however the defense might simply be that men are the cause of all of the violence and horror in the film. This would imply the near exclusion of the fair sex as perhaps a good thing, for their sakes.

Oddly enough, as much as Duck, You Sucker! is a tale of revolution it is also very much a buddy comedy, at least in its opening third. Rod Steiger plays Juan Miranda, a ‘hero of the revolution’ despite himself. He is a lowly bandit, using his large family to waylay coaches. He’s a pathetic figure, a kind of Sancho Panzo (some of the movie was filmed in Spain) who is caught in the middle of a country fighting for its own future, the only problem being that none of these promised lands have a place for men like him. As a bandit, Juan lives outside of laws and outside of the power players behind them. He is specifically apolitical, which makes his pairing with the revolutionary John Mallory all the more interesting (Juan and John, get it?). We’re meant to sympathize with Juan, whose family’s poverty is a direct result of impossibly large political forces continually smashing into one another. Much of the film’s comedy and later, its sentimentality are directed through him.

Initially Juan sees Mallory as another tool to transform his life from horrible grind to one where he can put his shoeless feet up (the film’s first shots are of Juan pissing on a termite infested tree, then backing away so that it doesn’t stream back on his feet).  The bandit and his family have a dream to rob the Mesa Verde national bank after Mallory blows some holes in it. Mallory wants nothing to do with this scheme and repeatedly shirks Juan’s advances–these moments are funny as hell and end up bringing the men closer together. Eventually Mallory does help Juan get inside but the bank has been transformed into a political prison, the money magicked into people. The prisoners embrace Juan as a hero and he wants none of it.

The latter third of the film finds the comedy siphoned off.  The opposition appears in the form of an endless parade of uniformed soldiers. Evil in this world is faceless and cartoonishly flat. These are not forces or figures one can love to hate. Sergio does his best with the inclusion of the ghastly Colonel Reza, but there’s not enough depth to a man who, if memory serves, has no dialogue whatsoever. Our heroes foes are implacable and voiceless, its easy to see a ‘bad’ ending for the good guys. Yet before this happens there is a wonderful scene where the two are hiding in a train-car filled with livestock.

A cock crows over and over, warning the viewer of the terrible end that is to come. Both men sleep, or try to, until Mallory walks over and attempts to calm the poor bird by gently petting its head. This fails to work and the camera pans up to Mallory’s face before he violently ends the rooster’s plaintive cry with his hands just off screen. Meanwhile Juan’s encounter with a different bird leads to him being, what else, casually shat upon. It is a perfect mini-film inside the larger framing story and tells the viewer everything you need to know about both main characters.

Grade: Flush (hearts)

Next Up: Blazing Saddles (1974)

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Responses

  1. That IS your stache, bro!

    • its pretty weird you just called your husband ‘bro.’ At least, that’s my opinion of your comment.


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