A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Italian West Part XI, The Zapata Westerns II
In continuing of the story of the Zapata Westerns from the last blog, it’s important to note the influence of Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished epic, Que Viva Mexico, not just on the Zapata pictures but on the Spaghetti Western genre as a whole.
In the 1930s writer Upton Sinclair and some financiers approached Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, director of the pioneering Battleship Potemkin, to make a film about Mexico, this was suppose to be a positive film and couldn’t imply anything negative about post revolution Mexico. He shot around 50 hours of footage before the money ran out and the plug pulled on the project. Producer Sol Lessor, mostly known for Tarzan pictures, got a hold of the footage and cobbled together two short films, Thunder Over México and Death Day and released them in 1933. Thunder Over Mexico was the most common of the two. The story is about a young peone captured by the Hacienados and beaten and tortured, he and two of his friends are buried up to their necks and trampled on by rancheros on horses afterwards his compadre’s revolt. This moment can be seen in a few Zapata Westerns like Compañeros and The Mercenary (two films I was hoping to cover in this blog but ran out of time); and quite a few of the shots could’ve been in any Sergio Leone Dollars film. There really wasn’t a whole lot of footage to do the story justice as they were shooting all kinds of different things like Aztecs and the pyramids and different cultural events.
Over the years other filmmakers tried to make something of the footage, until finally the footage was sent to the USSR in the 70s and put together by Grigori Aleksandrov, who had worked closely with Eisenstein during the original production, and released as ¡Que Viva Mexico! In 1979.
The some what finished film is a bit of a travelogue Film but it’s masterpiece of composition and style and I highly recommend watching.
Giù Le Testa aka Duck, You Sucker
- Sergio Leone
- Rod Steiger, James Coburn
- Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vencenzoni
Duck, You Sucker was Sergio Leone’s fifth picture and was late in the game when comes to the Zapata Westerns, a sub-genre of The Spaghetti Western.
The film takes place during middle part of The Mexican Revolution, General Victoriano Huerta’s reign. Huerta was out to squash the remaining revolutionary forces and reverse the land reforms of assassinated President Francisco Madero, that would put the picture’s time frame around 1912. This is the background for what would be one of Leone’s most under appreciated film.
The story is about bandit Juan Miranda, played by the brilliant but miscast Rod Steiger, and his rather large family, who have robbed an elegant stagecoach, this isn’t a Wells Fargo Coach but a limo like coach filled with elitists. While on the the road he comes across a foreigner on a motorcycle and shoots his tire out.
The gentleman gets off his motorcycle and walks to the stagecoach and blows off the roof. When Juan threatens to kill him he says “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Opening his trench coat to reveal sticks of dynamite and vials of nitro glycerin.
Juan stares back and in a nice touch, a graphic appears over the gentleman that reads Banco National De Mesa Verdé. We learn this gentleman is John Mallory , played convincingly by The Magnificent Seven’s James Coburn, an Irish ex-patriot and IRA revolutionary, a group that didn’t exist until 1917 but no matter is, hiding out in Mexico.
Juan tells him of his dream of robbing the The National Bank of Mexico and wants to partner up with him, after all he’s an explosive expert. In a humorous moment, one of his gang says “what do we need him for? All you need is a match and some balls.” He grabs a stick and walks over to a tree, lights the fuse and BLAMMO! “Short fuse.” Is John’s reply. John hesitantly agrees to Juan’s plan and off they go to Mesa Verdé. They make it to Mesa Verdé, where John takes Juan to a secret meeting with Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli) and revolutionaries to discuss blowing up the bank and the next day that’s precisely what they do, but to Juan’s frustration the bank has been converted to a political prison and he realizes he has been manipulated by John and is a now a hero of the revolution.
Juan and John ambush a bridge, where Colonel Gunther Ruiz and his squad of tanks are crossing over and blow it up in an explosion much bigger than that of the bridge explosion in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In retaliation Juan’s family are massacred and Dr. Villega is captured and beaten and betrays his men.
Sergio Leone by this time was burnt out by westerns and pretty much felt he had said all he had on the genre and originally wanted only to produce with Peter Bogdanovich as director but Bogdanovich backed out, this was a large scale production after all and he really only had Targets and a re-cut and shoot of Voyage To The Planet of The Prehistoric Women under his belt. So Leone, under pressure from United Artists jumped back into the director’s chair. The film doesn’t quite have the love that the dollars pictures and Once Upon A Time In The West have. Rod Steiger and Leone didn’t really hit it off and it shows, Steiger was a consummate method guy, Leone originally wanted Eli Wallach, Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to star as Juan but he had already committed to another picture, but after Leone begged him Wallach agreed but the studio already signed on Steiger and Wallach out of a gig wound up suing.
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For the part of John Mallory, Leone wanted Jason Robards or the young up and comer Malcom McDowell, McDowell would’ve been interesting he would’ve given it an edge that this picture lacks. According to his book Once Upon A Time In Italy, Sir Christopher Frayling says that Leone was thinking about remaking the 1934 picture Viva Villa staring burly actor Wallace Berry in the lead and have Tishiro Mifune as Pancho Villa, as he wanted to challenge “The Hollywood Romance with the Sombrero.”
So I think he was really trying to break new ground like he did with the Dollars pictures. In many ways Giu Le Testa is Leone’s commentary on the Zapata Western fad, which he felt were pushing politics too far. An example of this would be would be in a key moment that really sums up the theme of the picture, Juan lays down on top of a map and John tells him hey your laying on the map of your country “My County is my family” John replies “your country is also the government… the revolution” Juan screams back “Don’t talk to me about revolutions, I know how revolutions start! The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and tell them we have to make the change, and who makes the change? The poor people that’s who! Then the people who read the books sit around their big polished tables and they talk, and talk, and talk and they eat, and eat and eat. And what happened to the poor people? They’re DEAD!…And then what happens… the same fucking thing happens all over again!” John raises his eyebrows, sighs and tosses a book he’s reading on to the muddy ground, the camera zooms in, it’s a collection of works from Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Now juxtapose that with the end of Damiano Damiani’s Bullet For The General, which was a critical and financial hit in Europe. Gunrunner bandit for the revolution El Chuncho goes from being a revolutionary bandit to capitalist sell-out then seeing how he betrayed his comrades, becomes a stark raving Anarchist the final words in the picture being “Don’t buy bread! Buy Dynamite!” Screaming to a peasant on the street. Giu Le Testa is a statement of the futility of revolutions, the other a call to action.
Giu Le Testa I believe also marks the beginning of an artistic turn for Sergio Leone. With Giu Le Testa, there’s a lyricism that seeps into the picture, a lyricism that is not found in his other pictures, but a voice that would really come to fruition in his next film, 1984’s ill fated and unfortunately his swan song, Once Upon A Time In America. An example of what I’m speaking of would be the flashback sequences in Ireland featuring John Mallory’s character and a later moment where Juan sees the massacred corpses of his beloved family laying in a cave.
Throughout the film John Mallory flashes back to a time in his native country of Ireland. The first of these flashbacks are in the countryside with his friend Seán and a woman, a nod to François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Peppered through out the film are the trio driving through the lush green country side in an automobile. The trio laughing and obviously enjoying each other’s company. Later at the end of the picture, John along with Dr. Villega (you remember he sold his comrades out) are aboard a speeding train heading towards another train that carries armaments, John, disgusted by the sellout, tells him to leap off the train and save himself. The Dr. does not head his words and John jumps off. The two trains collide and a very ambitiously composed gun battle begins. Juan now in full revolutionary mode sees his friend shot by Ruiz and kills Ruiz. Juan and John share a moment then Juan takes off running. As John lays dying, the final part of the flashback appears…the the trio rundown a hill, beautifully shot in slow motion and accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s lush music, John and the girl swap kisses while their friend gleefully watches. Then John steps away to watch his friend swap kisses. We cut to John smiling as the shot enigmatically blurs out. The mystery, at least for me is, earlier in the picture when John tells Juan his name he slips and says Seán, which comes from the Norman French, Jehan and anglicized would be John. So are we really seeing a trio or is it just in John’s mind? In earlier flashbacks we learn that Seán had fingered fellow NRA revolutionaries and John kills him and a couple soldiers. Did this all really happen or is John hiding in Mexico because there is no “Seán” and it was John who sold out his comrades like Dr. Villega, left the girl he loved behind to run away? If you seen Once Upon A Time In America, then you know that that picture ends in the same enigmatic and poetic way, was that whole film after a point just Noodles’, played by Robert DeNiro, opium induced hallucination? The film was recut and had scenes rearranged or taken out, so I can’t say what Leone was thinking but that’s how I’ve come ton teepees it. After John’s “dream” there’s a massive explosion and Juan spins around, the camera zooms to his face and Juan says “What about me?” The shot freeze frames and the the title appears Duck, You Sucker…when the film was later re-titled it lost that joke.
Giu Le Testa was a major hit in France where it was titled Il êtait une fois la révolution or Once Upon A Time, The Revolution, making this the middle of a Once Upon A Time trilogy, though Leone never considered that since he was developing the third in the Once Upon A Time trilogy, Once Upon A Time In Russia when he suffered a massive heart attack and died. In the states it was re-cut and titled Duck, You Sucker.
Gone were most of the poignant flashback sequences that were most important to Leone and it was just an action picture. It did not do well both critically and with audiences. United Artists later re-released it as Fistful of Dynamite in hopes of reminding people of the dollars pictures. Over the years with home video it has been reassembled and re-evalude..
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- Gillo Pontecorvo
- Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez
- Franco Solinas, Gillo Pontecorvo, Giorgio Arlorio
- Ennio Morricone
To list Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 picture Burn! as a Zapata Western, let alone a Spaghetti Western, might be a bit of a stretch, but I’m including it because it does fit the Zapata mold, a white interloper manipulating a commoner into revolution while lining his pockets, and the people who were involved in the production have a background in the Spaghetti genre, in particular writer Franco Solinas, who, if you recall, wrote some of the genres best films like Bullet For The General, The Big Gundown, Tepeppe and The Mercenary. The picture was also produced by Albert Grimaldi whose western credits are to massive to list here, but he did some of the Italian Zorro pictures, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, one of his last credits was one of the many producers on Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs Of New York! Burn! also features a fantastic score from maestro Ennio Morricone.
Burn! tells the story of Sir William Walker, played brilliantly by Marlon Brando, during his period of being persona non-grata in Hollywood, as a British agent provocateur, whose sent to a fictitious island (here called Queimada, which means burnt) in the Antilles in 1841, that’s governed by the Portuguese (though in reality that area was controlled by Spain, but since it was partly backed by Spanish investors it was changed to Portuguese) Walkers job is to create a rebellion amongst the African slaves and the local government against the Portuguese rule and to install a puppet regime most friendly to the British, thus keeping the sugar cane production in the hands of British interests.
Walker choses a baggage handler by the name of José Dolores, realistically played by first time actor Evaristo Márquez, and grooms him to be a guerrilla leader. Ever the Machiavellian, Walker convinces the government to abolish slavery, how he does this is crazy. “Which is more economical?” He asks “A wife or a prostitute?” A wife, he reasons, you have to feed clothe, house and otherwise provide until they die, and if you live longer, one has to pay for their funeral. A prostitute you get what you want and pay them, by the hour, that way they can provide for themselves! The same goes for slaves. The Brits install Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) as president most friendly to their sugar interests and he frees the slaves but they still have to work in the sugar plantations under harsh conditions.
Ten years later William Walker, no longer working for the British Admiralty is asked to manipulate things again, this time for the Achilles Sugar Company. It turns out Jose Dolores has re-started a revolution against the the sugar company and the whole thing starts over again. This time Dolores is no longer grateful for Walker’s interference, as he now understands his people were deceived .
This was director Gillo Pontecorvo’s first picture after the critical success of his Battle of Algiers. Burn! has a lot of similarities in that both pictures take a kind of pseudo-documentary approach, the realism in Burn! and it’s depictions of death can be starling at times. His use of non actor Evaristo Márquez, is incredible. The studio originally wanted Sidney Poitier in the role and thank God Pontecorvo fought against it. As incredible an actor as Poitier is, his present would’ve brought too much of a Hollywood gloss to Pontecorvo’s grungy mise-en-scène. Instead we get Márquez’s natural performance, Evaristo Márquez was a poor laborer and herdsman who was discovered in San Basilio de Palanque, Columbia while the filmmakers where scouting locations. When José Dolores is finally captured, and says to a soldier “If a man gives you freedom, then you are not free. Freedom must be taken!” Márquez makes you believe that, it comes from a man who himself must’ve been in similar situations. I don’t think a movie star could’ve delivered some of his lines with as much veracity as Márquez has.
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The script took some liberties with the character of William Walker, who was an actual person, not British but an American lawyer and mercenary who was trying to create an English speaking colonies in 1850s Nicaragua that would be under his control. In his autobiography Brand: Songs My Mother Taught Me, he says Burn! was his finest performance and he is very good with his aristocratic British accent, he’s both elegant and Machiavellian and his character also comes off as having admiration for his revolutionary protégé, José Dolores. His Sir William Walker is a very complicated man and you can compare it to another William Walker portrayal, actor Ed Harris portrayed him in Alex Cox’s unconventional and very underrated 1987 film Walker.
That’s about it on the Zapata Westerns, though I hope to write about Compañeros and The Mercenary soon. The next blog will be more light hearted as I’ll be writing about the more Bondian Spaghetti’s, like the Sartana series and the Sabata films as we approach the 70’s.
-Phillip López Jiménez
Once Upon A Time In Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone
by sir Christopher Frayling