It really should have used the title, “Once Upon a Time…The Revolution.
The first time I watched Duck, You Sucker, I did not enjoy it at all. I thought it was monotonous and thought that Sergio Leone was tired of the western. He was in a way, but upon this second viewing, I see he constructed a different type of western. I now have a new perspective on this film and how it fits in with his filmography.
Duck, You Sucker is the story of morality and amorality. The film is set during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. We have 2 lead characters. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger in a charming yet problematic performance), a bandit who represent the amoral side of things. He’s aware of the revolution yet doesn’t bother to get involved because he feels that these thing will eventually upset your way of life. Then we have John or Sean (James Coburn), a revolutionary from Ireland who has fled his home after killing British forces. He represents the morality.
You get insight into Juan Miranda during a conversation between the leads. Juan talks about the upper class who read and write the books and how they tell the lower class who can’t read the books how they need to change. So the lower class attempts to change. Only by the end of the revolution, the poor end up dead and those who read the books, keep reading them while the poor have even less than they did before. As the film goes on these men change perspectives. Juan slowly becomes a part of the revolution and John becomes disillusioned.
The works of Sergio Leone always strip away the gloss, the popular, the romantic of the subject. In Once Upon a Time in America, he asks us why are in love with the gangster film? The Dollars Trilogy attempts to tear the romanticism, the John Wayne-ness of the western genre. He wants to reveal the ugly. That this thing we loved was a lie, and he does that here with Duck, You Sucker. Here, Leone wants to remove the myth of revolution. This film reflects Leone’s feelings on the subject as not being worth it. That it destroys irrevocably. He presents it quite cynically. Juan becomes a hero of the revolution not because he made the decision to become a part of something bigger than himself, but by accident. Because the bank he thought he was robbing actually held political prisoners and not money. Yet his heart changes and things both good and bad begin to happen as a result. John, who always had a cause, loses faith after seeing what being a part of the revolution has cost his new friend. By film’s end, Leone is saying quite loudly, “Duck!” He’s saying keep your head down, don’t get involved because it will cost you more than you can ever imagine. I do understand however that it’s a sentiment that will not go over well with many viewers. Yet I also understand why he would take that stance, having grown up in Italy during an era of fascism.
Leone also steers to this thesis with the flashbacks of John’s life in Ireland. Here he’s presented with a youthful exuberance. It’s a time where his ideals were clear and the purpose of revolution was plain as day. As his story goes on it gets darker and things become less clear. Leone again saying, why bother?
I don’t hear Duck, You Sucker dissected as much as Leone’s other works. I wonder If the thematic choice he took for this film resulted in not much acclaim. I will say this though, for his final 3 films, Leone certainly makes sure you hear his voice even more than you did in his Dollars Trilogy.
Originally published at http://deaconsden.wordpress.com on May 30, 2020.