Art Culture History Movies Politics

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time… The Revolution

I’m a huge fan of the late Italian director Sergio Leone, the inventor of the Spaghetti Western, a broad sub-genre of Western-style films which emerged in the mid-1960s. Mainly produced in Italy and Spain, using local crews and casts, with a handful of waning or upcoming American movie stars, they were popular with audiences and critics for nearly a decade before fading into relative obscurity. Born in Rome, the young cinematography cut his teeth in the peplum or sword-and-sandal genre of Italian-made historical or Biblical epics, before striking out on his own in the early 1960s. His first hit, A Fistful of Dollars, based upon Akira Kurosawa’s samurai adventure Yojimbo some three years earlier, put his name on the cinematic map in 1964. A rush of well-regarded movies were to follow including such classics as For a Few Dollars More (1965) , The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

However, it is one of the last – and most avowedly political – films from this era which holds my greatest affection. Released in the turbulent summer of 1971, the production came with a bevvy of alternative titles: Giù la testa, or Duck, You Sucker!, A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution. The latter name is probably the most apt since the movie follows the misadventures in 1913 of a Mexican bandit, Juan Miranda (a bravura performance by Rod Steiger), who accidentally crosses the path of an exiled Irish republican revolutionary, John “Seán” Mallory (portrayed with world-weary cynicism by James Coburn). Though set in Mexico during the internecine revolution at the start of the 20th century, the somewhat historically inaccurate story could just as easily have been in modern Europe, North America or Asia, as the film echoes with the then contemporary events of the burgeoning anti-colonial insurgency or “Troubles” in the British Occupied north-east Ireland, the Vietnam War, and the radical left-wing violence gripping Italy in the 1960s and ’70s.

(The movie opens with a line from the Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, which was quietly removed from the US release: “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with… elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”)

Much of the film’s cynical philosophy is summed up in the famous “revolution” speech given by Rod Steiger’s peasant character as he finds himself reluctantly dragged into a war not of his own making or choosing.

The revolution? Please, don’t try and tell me about the revolutions. I know all about the revolutions and how they start. The people who read the books go to the people who don’t read the books, the poor people, and they say, “Ho, ho. The time has come to have a change, eh?”

I know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about the revolution!

The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people?

They’re dead!

That’s your revolution.

Shhh… So, please, don’t tell me about revolutions!

And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!

Like most of Sergio Leone’s cinematic productions the music in Giù la testa came from the talented Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who was a childhood schoolmate of the director. It includes some beautiful compositions, notably Invenzione per John, which appears in truncated snips in the movie. The full length version is nine minutes long and is marked by its use of competing, overlapping melodies blending to create a harmonious whole. While the movie which inspired the song is generally relegated to the status of a “cult” favourite, the theme itself is held to be one of the composer’s best. Though it is rarely heard or known of today.

Featured below is a wonderfully over-the-top poster from the great American illustrator, Robert E. McGinnis, showing the character of the Fenian dynamiter John “Seán” Mallory astride his beloved motorbike. I have searched for a poster-size version of this movie artwork for years, not to mention desiring to have it on a tee-shirt. Though, admittedly, that might be thought impolitic in this day and age given the explosive imagery. Quite literally.

A Robert E. McGinnis illustration of the cinematic Fenian dynamiter John Mallory in the 1971 movie, Duck You Sucka!

Since I’m discussing it, here is a second image, featuring a nice location-shoot photo of Sergio Leone, Rod Steiger and James Coburn in Andalusia, southern Spain, during 1970-71. Unfortunately I don’t know of any images from the scenes shot in Ireland, which were mainly at Howth Castle in Fingal and Toner’s Pub on Baggot Street in Dublin city.

All in all, Duck You Sucka! has most of my passions covered: cinema, art and politics.

Sergio Leone, Rod Steiger and James Coburn in the 1971 movie Giù la testa, also known as Duck, You Sucker!, A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution


4 comments on “Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time… The Revolution

  1. Ceannaire

    Ah, Leone. One of my favourite directors. I have fond memories of my Dad letting me sit up late in the 70s whenever one of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns were on. To this day, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is my favourite film. But ‘Dynamite’ also holds a special place in my heart. My three grown up children know it well and still speak about it fondly.
    Me? I’d say at least once a year I settle down, pour a beer, put the feet up and put the DVD of this on – full blast, of course. And while the ‘revolution’ speech is a stand out, I also feel the ‘bank’ robbery scene is a classic, brilliantly acted by Steiger and hilarious.
    For me, while the music does not reach the heights of that in The Good…, it is nonetheless outstanding. Like all the Leone/Morricone partnerships, the music compliments the film and the film compliments the music.

    Great post, Seamus, a chara.


    • +1 The Eastwood ones are firm favourites with me too. For my sins I’ve never seen it. Sounds brilliant. I’m going to make a point of doing so now.


      • Try and get the extended edition. It’s a long movie admittedly, with typical Leone closeups and lingering camera shots, but the extra scenes do add a lot to the overall narrative. I love the Eastwood movies, which are better paced, but this has more dramatic impact. Especially in light of recent events around the globe.


    • Thanks, glad you appreciated it. The Good, the Bad.. etc. is one of my favourites too, though A Fistful of Dynamite is special to me not least because it was one of the first movies that I appreciated as a work of art when I was a kid. A crafted thing.

      Yeah, so many good scenes. Though most count it as one of his lesser films I love it.


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