|Once upon a simpler
time, Sergio Leone set out to make a trilogy of films that would be
thematically related -- the "Once Upon a Time" films; many people
aren't aware of this, even if they know Leone's work.
This film (according to usually-reliable sources), shot under the
working title "Once Upon a Time -- The Revolution", was the second of
the three (between "...in the West" and "...in America".
While it mostly eschews the heavier-handed Messages of the other two,
still not everything in this film is surface -- there is subtext in the
relationship between the Mexican peasant bankrobber and the fugitive
Irish explosives expert.
Leone sets the theme early, opening the film with a quote from Mao:
The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary
event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and
The revolution is an act of violence.
Rod Steiger (in my second-favourite of his roles) as Juan, the
apolitical bank robber drawn into the Mexican Revolution very much
against his better judgement and James Coburn, travelling through
Mexico by motorcycle carrying enough dynamite and nitro under his long
duster to redraw the maps if he's shot, both appear to have had a ball
making this film.
In the elliptical way that Leone often approaches things, this film is
the story of the redemption of a man who has given up on himself -- the
cynical Irish fugitive begins to realise that, despite his claim that
"...in the end, all I believe in is dynamite", he DOES care what
happens to "the little people" and that he is willing to fight and die
for them. And it is the story of the radicalisation of a non-political
non-intellectual as he is forced to see, first-hand, the abuses of the
system and the casual mistreatment of the common man that he has
managed to avoid looking at so far.
And it ends with the question that anyyone who actually thinks must
ask, if only rhetorically, when others can no longer guide and protect
us and we must fly or fall, sink or swim on our own merits.. -- "But
what about me?"
And, as always, Leone's masterful portrayal of conflict, confrontation
and violence, physical and moral, is evident -- particularly the scene
in which the bandit and the Irishman set out on their own to stop an
armoured cavalry column that is pursuing the fleeing revolutionaries,
or the confrontation on a locomotive loaded with explosives between the
Irishman and a leader of the Revolution who (known only to the
Irishman) has cracked under pressure and caused the deaths of men from
The Morricone score, of course, is wonderful -- particularly the sly
little quotes from "A Little Night Music" in the middle of something
(I have read that the bridge sequence was the single largest full-scale
demolitions sequence ever staged for a film; i can believe it.)
The two-DVD set is excellent, with a lot of special features.