The Mexican revolutionary war is raging, but not everyone has an interest in the politics of it, as one peasant, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), is more invested in looking out for himself and his family. He stands at the side of a road waiting to be picked up by a stagecoach, but when one happens along, it races past him only to stop at a water trough for the horses which affords him the opportunity to rush up to the driver and request a ride to the nearest town. The driver is disgusted to see Juan with his dusty, barefoot, impoverished appearance, so regards him as perfect to put the wind up his wealthy passengers, and takes him to the doors round the back, letting him on. Sure enough, if anything the rich folks are even more disgusted - but Juan will have the last laugh.
Duck, You Sucker, also known as A Fistful of Dynamite, wasn't meant to be a Sergio Leone film at all, at least not with him in the director's chair as after Once Upon a Time in the West he grew more interested in the production aspect of moviemaking and Westerns were tiring him anyway, but once stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn were hired, they were deeply unimpressed with the arrangement they were presented with: being ordered about by one of Leone's assistants on the set. The only reason both had signed on was because they had it on good authority that Leone was a genius at what he was best at, which was directing, and thus he was persuaded to take the helm, not having much choice in the matter if he wanted the production to go ahead as planned.
The results were possibly his most controversial feature, at least until his treatment of his female characters in Once Upon a Time in America was brought up (there's only one actress with a speaking role here - Maria Monti - and her character is raped as well). What would you expect from a work with international revolution on its mind? Some prints opened with a quote from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung advocating violence as the sole method of gaining political change, and the Coburn character was John Mallory, an ex-Irish revolutionary against the British, though his reasons for heading across the Atlantic to Mexico are not as clear cut as simply being a fugitive from the British army as we discover. Indeed, the apparently unironic endorsement of bloody rebellion was by no means as blatant as it looked, with the mood of the plot passing through what appeared to be stages of grief.
Juan and John (or Sean, as he is actually called before he alters his name) meet after the former has killed and/or humiliated the rich passengers and taken their swanky carriage for himself and his gang. Suddenly there are explosions set off nearby and he goes to investigate, finding John experimenting with a wide range of dynamite and a bottle of nitroglycerine, indicating it would be a bad idea to attempt to best him, though that's precisely what the foolhardy Juan does. Realising here is the ideal cohort for his proposed robbery of a gold-hoarding bank in town, he forces John to join his gang, though after a while they grow to like each other as friends, and against the odds and the leads' dastardly nature and propensity for murder, so do we. It's a very strange relationship, not only between the protagonists but between them and the audience too, one which has been offputting to as many as those who embraced it.
If you don't appreciate being asked to sympathise with hardened criminals, no matter how sentimental they can be, then the sheer scale of the production remains impressive, as if Leone was intent on recreating the Mexican war at actual size. Like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, there is a sequence which sees a bridge destroyed, but to underline the scale of the slaughter he also saw fit to include shots of hundreds of extras being gunned down in staged massacres, some of which are carried out by Juan and John. Initially we are invited to enjoy this anti-establishment behaviour, but there comes a point around the halfway mark where that indulgence turns to self-loathing, then after that outright anger, as if to question the worth of either side in a revolution should both be executing countless people as a matter of gaining the upper hand. Even this tone doesn't last over a film reaching almost three hours in its original cut, as Ennio Morricone's masterful score tugs on the heartstrings while Leone makes the story personal once more. Vivid, over the top, dodgy accented, and not exactly like any other Western.