Duck, You Sucker! Sergio Leone’s belief in friendship

Few directors are as consistent and determined in sticking to the theme of friendship throughout their filmography as Sergio Leone was. The Italian filmmaker behind such classics like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America was always – no matter what – a great believer in the power of friendship. His movies always had two things in common: Ennio Morricone’s score and a sense of comradery that provided Leone’s characters with a lot of depth which the filmmaker was unwilling to offer otherwise due to his scarce use of dialogue. Leone’s cinema has always been a cinema of glances, silences and… understanding. His characters, good or bad, could comprehend one another just with the help of a simple nod of the head or a cunning smile that would equate an entire monologue in someone else’s hands.

Rod Steiger, Sergio Leone and James Coburn on set of Duck, You Sucker!

Leone’s career proved to be extremely rocky and the Italian director often struggled to make the projects he wanted, unsatisfied with the ‘Spaghetti Western’ label and the cult following that those movies drew in the late 1960s. He refused to be at the mercy of studios and was rarely taken seriously as an artist. Before making Once Upon a Time in America – the last film he would direct before his premature death at the age of 60 in 1989 – Leone made what is still to this day one of his lesser known works: Duck, You Sucker!, with James Coburn and Rod Steiger. This movie – perhaps more than any other work by Leone – shows the director’s undying belief in friendship and is a powerful denouncement of what lies at the core of most revolutions.
The film, released in 1971, tells the story of a former Irish Republican revolutionary with a knack for blowing things up with dynamite – John Mallory (played by James Coburn) – who teams up with a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger at the peak of his career). The two at first are intent on robbing a bank but eventually find themselves sucked into the Mexican revolution. This unlikely friendship, like in most Leone movies, is formed through a chance encounter – a clash of personalities and ideologies, an encounter that could go wrong very easily but ultimately ends up becoming an unbreakable bond between two men who learn to accept each other’s differences.

The chance encounter turns into a life-changing mission.

Leone’s cinema is all about characters. At the time, critics bashed him for his fascination with images and sounds, for stretching out scenes, filling them with odd moments and that trademark silence of his right before a duel, battle or gundown that would then let all hell break loose and result in a cacophony of cannon blasts, bullets whizzing and people screaming. Yet, Leone was always a very intimate filmmaker and knew exactly what strings to pull in order to make his characters believable rather than mere caricatures of the Western genre.
In Duck, You Sucker! the character of John Mallory is a tragic one: a haunted survivor of the Irish revolution, a man who does not considers himself a man anymore and continues to live with a sense of guilt crushing him into the ground. Despite being on exile, Mallory is unable to rid himself of his revolutionary tendencies. Revolution – the idea of turning things around, making life better for those who are suffering – is something he cannot let go: it’s all he has.

James Coburn plays an Irish revolutionary on exile

Meanwhile, Juan Miranda is oblivious to the state his country is in. Or rather, he chooses to be oblivious as Miranda is out to make a name for himself and his family. He robs and humiliates the rich for his sake, not the people he could – like Pancho Villa – represent. The bandit chooses to present himself as an ignorant brute, a dirty bully who molests women and terrorizes whoever looks down on him. But, deep down Miranda has a soul, and Mallory sees this the moment he sets eyes on him.

Rod Steiger’s Juan Miranda robs stagecoaches with his family of outlaws.

When Duck, You Sucker! opens with the following quote from Mao Tze Tung: “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..” it does so for a reason. The revolution included in the movie is not meant to be Leone’s political statement: it is his perception of life and the twisted human nature behind it. Leone sees revolution as an inseparable element of human life; a noble cause that can turn toxic and manipulative for those who feel compelled to pick up arms. It corrupts people by giving them hope, and tortures them, and their spirit for the rest of their lives, just like it does Mallory. This hope is what Mallory clings to, and what Miranda refuses to buy into. Unlike Mallory, the Mexican outlaw has learned to recognize where idealism ends, and where endless human suffering begins.
In a brilliantly staged scene, Leone brings the two men together by having Miranda explain to Mallory what revolution really means. “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 ARE DEAD!

Leone directs terrifying scenes of mass executions.

But, like most things in life, revolutions have a way of involving you against your own will. Miranda soon finds out the flip side to his denouncement of most revolutions when his close ones suffer at the hands of corrupt authorities. Mallory knows that this is the beautiful and terrifying thing about fighting back – you cultivate hope and belief in your own cause, but time and time again you fail to remember what you’re going up against and what you’re personally putting at stake.
In order to show this two-faced nature of revolutions, Leone directs the first half of the film with a great deal of humor, almost as if he was going all the way back to his Dollars Trilogy. At the beginning Miranda functions as comic relief, Rod Steiger’s puffy face and big eyes remind us of Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. In the meantime, James Coburn’s dry wit is also used to its full potential as Mallory walks around blasting everything in sight, telling Miranda, “Duck, you sucker!” whenever he decides to launch a stick of dynamite nearby. Yet, the second half of the film rarely feels like anything we’ve seen from Leone before. The movie feels angrier than usual. It provokes the viewer to reconsider all the assumptions they may have made leading up to that point. All of a sudden, Duck, You Sucker! becomes a profoundly sad picture, with an equally painful message. The only saving grace for its characters is the friendship they share. Leone symbolizes this by having Mallory throw a book he was reading into the mud. The book turns out to be Michael Bakunin’s writings on patriotism.

Mallory’s tragic past is revealed to us through flashbacks.

What our characters learn is that there is indeed something bigger than them, perhaps even something worth fighting for, but what happens on earth, stays on earth. Mallory and Miranda are only small cogs in a well-oiled but badly run machine. Their efforts are exploited for the sake of the cause. Which cause? They don’t even know. Mallory has given up trying to understand, when he says, “When I started using dynamite… I believed in… many things, all of it! Now, I believe only in dynamite.” Similarly, Miranda realizes that violence is the only way people take notice. Perhaps the only way hope can become an achievable objective. And that, ultimately, is the downfall of every revolution, argues Leone. The endless cycle of violence is demonstrated in the film through initial scenes of soldiers massacring civilians being slowly taken over by scenes where civilians stage cold blooded executions of soldiers. Miranda’s personal vendetta and Mallory’s own sense of duty and pride are lost along the way. But, at least they know they got each other.

Miranda’s personal vendetta turns him into a revolutionary icon.

This spirit of comradery and disillusionment are what make Leone’s movies special and painful at the same time. At the core of Once Upon a Time in America lies a deep wound caused by betrayal. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Bronson and Robards’ characters team up bound by mutual feelings of trauma and restlessness. Here, in Duck, You Sucker! Mallory and Miranda become friends because deep down they both want to live in a world worth believing in. Fighting injustice whilst maintaining one’s own humanity – this unattainable goal – like the precious gold in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – is what brings them closer. Before the revolution they were outlaws. The revolution turned them into men.

Mallory watches the world burn in front of him.

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