A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE, directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Rod Steiger, James Coburn. Music by Ennio Morricone. Released by United Artists.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE, directed by George McCowan. Starring Lee van Cleef. Music Elmer Bernstein. A Mirisch Production distributed by United Artists.
From the late thirties to the early sixties, a small wizened American with a black patch over one eye and a rather odd preference for Big John Wayne, made countless loud, patriotic, (US Cavalry stiff upper lip) Westerns. They were I suppose, always exciting and there was the occasional masterpiece like ‘Stagecoach’. Nevertheless, his reputation as a ‘living legend’ has largely been created by some rather pseudy queens who run the National Film Theatre, and the film programmes on BBC2, who are now running a season of his films on Sunday nights, so you can see for yourselves can’t you? Basically the old style Westerns were sweet; they upheld what are now Mr Nixon’s values.
The modern Western is essentially (that is if it is any good) sour, cynical, bloody, funny, realistic, escapist; and one of the best exponents, directorially speaking, is Sergio Leone.
In fact he’s a kind of latterday John Ford. His films are ponderous, rich in ideas, yet entertaining, atmospheric and exciting. His latest, A Fistful Of Dynamite, originally and more aptly titled ‘Duck, You Suckers’, is divided into two segments. It is 1913, and in hot dry Mexico a peasant who has become a bandit, because he is a fundamental revolutionary, not an intellectual revolutionary, relieves his abject poverty by robbing those who have wealth; he doesn’t care for, or understand, demonstrations or violently exchanging one ideological political junta for another. After various amusing incidents he comes together with a dynamite expert who is wanted by the British for his IRA activities. I think I and Leone as he shows in the film love the IRA because its members, unusually, are both thinkers and activists. Through a series of amusing incidents they plan a series of bank robberies. While travelling to Mesa Verde where they are planning to rob the National Bank, John Mallory (James Coburn) is saved from being arrested by one of the leaders of the Mexican revolution, who then persuades him and his partner, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) to rob the bank, while he tries to divert the attention of the anti-revolutionary troops who are covering the town. The bank vaults turn out to be full of political prisoners rather than gold bars; they set them free and suddenly find themselves heroes of the revolution, most unwillingly on the part of Juan, who simply realises it is money, not a new dictatorship that will help his people.
From here onwards the film loses its flippancy and becomes a stern, suspenseful saga on the bloody reality and conflict of revolution. Steiger’s performance as the man who the revolution is supposedly about, but who can’t relate to what the revolutionaries are doing, is masterful, and the ability of the film as a whole to fuse such disparate elements as amusing action scenes with pieces of dynamite, and the philosophy of revolution, makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience.
The Magnificent Seven Ride
features that ageing spaghetti cowboy, Lee van Cleef in his first starring role in an American Western. Dear old Lee! He just can’t act. Thats fine in low budget Italian westerns where half the fun lies in the bad acting, and anyway there’s a wailing pouf of a screaming director who just can’t fail to contort your face into some kind of expression. But I’m afraid our hero back in his homeland where everyone is faced with the choice of either just dead pan or grimace finds himself rather out of depth in this cheaply, hurriedly made Seven film, which just doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, except in a monetary sense. After the brilliance and success of earlier Seven films the money grabbing distributors, realised that they could serve up the gullible cinema-going public with just about anything with ‘Magnificent Seven’ in the title and they’d go and see it.
Everything in the film is kind of watery and insipid, from the rather unoriginal story which deals with a group of seven men who set out to track and kill a Mexican gang, seventy strong, and naturally succeed, after they’ve kidnapped the marshall’s wife. Everything that made Leone’s film brilliant is lacking here and the flat fifties style direction, and the drab, cliche ridden script seems to have been ripped off from every bad western ever made. The whole thing’s probably making Audie Murphy turn in his grave.