Monday, April 06, 2009

Duck, You Sucker!

Duck, You Sucker posterDuck, You Sucker! (1971) is the work of Sergio Leone, director of the famous Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Despite having attracted little recognition in its day, it is one of the most interesting examples of how Leone splices political commentary into his movies alongside the locomotive explosions and wild shootouts.

Duck, You Sucker! tells the story of how a troubled ex-IRA explosives expert and a Mexican bandit become caught up in the Mexican Revolution. The movie begins with an abridged Mao Tse-Tung quote on how “revolution is an act of violence,” followed by the metaphor-laden image of a stream of piss drowning an ant colony. It is clear that Duck, You Sucker! will be no ordinary Western. The urine comes from Juan Miranda, a grubby and crude Mexican who catches a ride from a coach driver who wants to play a joke on his ostentatious passengers. Throughout the journey, Juan passively receives the demeaning insults hurled at him by the rich Europeans and Americans, but when the coach pulls into town and is seized his family of shotgun-wielding bandits, the tables are suddenly turned. Juan has all of them, the men stripped naked, dumped into an animal pen. Juan and his boys, fathered with an unknown number of women, take to the road and before long encounter John Mallory. Juan instantly tries to enlist him to rob the legendary Banco Nacional de Mesa Verde. John, aside from fleeing the British Secret Service for his terrorist activities, is escaping his painful past, which we periodically see in gauzy, dialogue-free flashbacks.

After Juan carelessly detonates a church that John has rigged, killing Mexican military personnel and a German mine owner, the two men proceed to Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is in the grip of a tyrannical governor who conducts public executions. The pair descend into a dingy basement where revolutionaries, lead by a Dr. Villega, are planning a coordinated attack with Villa and Zapata. John is already in league with them and they tell the confused Juan to go ahead with his planned bank robbery. On the day of the attack, John detonates the bank entrance and Juan and his boys fight through the federal soldiers inside. After blowing the locks off the store rooms, Juan finds no cash but becomes an unwitting revolutionary hero; the bank was recently converted into a political prison and held 150 men, who now pour out into the streets. Later, in an encampment outside Mesa Verde, Juan expresses his resentment at being tricked into participating in the revolution. He assails John with a cynical rant about how a revolution involves “the people who read the books” discussing ideas around the dinner table and inciting “the people who don’t read the books” to loose their lives fighting.

This rant piques John’s conscience, leading him and Juan to attack a federal army contingent by machine gun then detonate the bridge underneath them. Meanwhile, there is a massacre at the encampment, including Juan’s six young boys. John solemnly observes while Juan grieves. When Juan is captured by the federal army, John goes into town and witnesses the revolutionary ringleaders being shot, noting that the ringleaders were betrayed by Dr. Villega. The next day, John rescues Juan on motorbike and they stow away on a train carrying the governor. Before long, the train is held up by revolutionaries and Juan shoots the escaping governor in vengeance for his children, elevating yet again his revolutionary status. Revolutionary leaders tell the duo that a military train loaded with over a thousand soldiers and heavy weapons is coming straight towards them, and they can expect no reinforcement. When night falls, John loads the locomotive with explosives and takes Dr. Villega on a kamikaze charge into the oncoming train; he finds that he ultimately cannot judge Dr. Villega for he regrets killing his Irish friend who too was an informer. The trains crash, with John jumping out just in time, and the revolutionaries finish off the survivors. John is shot the back; in the moments before death he returns the cross that Juan cast away after the massacre, then drifts off into happy memories of Ireland. As Juan frantically leaves to get help, John blows himself up in a death fitting to an explosives expert.

Duck, You Sucker! can be read as Leone’s protest against filmmakers who romanticize and sanitize revolution by avoiding the depiction of brutality and creating impossibly pure heroes. At the same time, he creates monsters of the Mexican governors and military colonels and the foreign capitalists, creating uniformly evil villains. These characters are thoroughly despicable, from the pretentious Europeans and Americans who have the manner and appetite of pigs, to the Nazi-like Mexican federal forces who drive in armored tanks and execute peasants en mass. Though Leone makes his political allegiance with the peasant class very clear, unlike many revolution-themed movies the heroes are selfish and fallible. This is true of John, who is haunted by having murdered his friend for a cause, and especially of Juan, who is considered a revolutionary hero because he freed the political prisoners and killed the governor, but he was first motivated by bank robbery then by personal revenge. In Duck, You Sucker! the Mexican Revolution provides a context in which to denounce the glorification of war, where killers can become heroes and friends turned into enemies. Interestingly, Duck, You Sucker! has a complicated release history in which scenes of violence at profanity have been edited out and later restored. It seems that when the movie was released in 1971, right in the middle of the Vietnam War (1959-1975), American audiences did not have a pallet for depictions of massacres and morally troubled heroes.

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