Duck You Sucker or Once Upon a Time… the Revolution

By James E. Platt

“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…” This quote from Mao Tse-tung is the first taste of what is to come in Duck You Sucker: betrayal, deception, loss of family, and inevitable brutality. While the design and craft of the film portray accurate historical context and the cruelty associated of war, it does not typically concern itself with telling the story of heroes of the revolution. Rather, Duck You Sucker uses a particularly violent period of the Mexican Revolution as a backdrop for a tale of loss and disillusionment with revolution in general.

Duck You Sucker has to be put into context to understand its particular depiction of the Mexican Revolution. The film was helmed by the famous Italian director Sergio Leone who is known for such films as A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This film, like most of Leone’s other films, falls in the genre generally known as the spaghetti western: films made by Italians about the American West and Mexico. The film came at a particular time in Italian cinema, generally the late 1960s through the early 1970s, when political statements were a common target for filmmakers. Films like A Bullet for the General or Quieimada use plausible conflicts or other real life conflicts to portray Italian politics. These films often use Mexico or other generic Latin American locations to represent Italy. The general reaction was one of reacting to what was seen as new forms of imperialism, such as cultural imperialism which threatened tradition and identity. These films were trying to express their own culture in a world that was heavily dominated by American culture after World War II.

This film is known by several names: A Fistful of Dynamite, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, and Giu La Testa which means ‘head down.’ The title most often found by American audiences is Duck You Sucker, which seems to be an odd phrase, but one which Leone was persistent in using. Apparently he believed it was a common phrase to Americans. No one knows why he believed Americans used such an odd phrase all the time. Duck You Sucker, beyond the quirky title, is quite different from any of Leone’s previous films particularly the westerns. It breaks from the traditional American western backdrop to 1913 Mexico after the fall of Francisco Madero’s government. The setting itself is during the fascistic military rule of Victoriano Huerta. The film abandons the gunfighter mythos, bounty hunters, and heroes in cowboy hats. Rather the film portrays a world in the midst of change, like the revolution itself, to the modern world with electricity, cars, and machine guns.

The tale begins with Juan Miranda, played by Rod Steiger, urinating on a pile of ants near a structure in the middle of nowhere. Stylistically Leone likes to place the viewer in the middle of things and have them figure out what is going on. Juan is soon picked up by a passing coach of opulent proportions. Within the coach the audience at last begins to get an understanding of the setting. The coach is filled with opulence. Everything is gilded, tables filled with fine dishes and silver, a fine meal spread before the occupants, the walls are covered in velvet, and there is even a full lavatory is in the back. The occupants are men of wealth and a female landowner, who look on the dirty barefoot Juan, whose appearance is that of the typical peasant, with unbridled disgust. The riders in the coach express their distaste for what Madero tried to do to the country. The people on the coach include a lawyer, a cleric, landowners, and even an American businessman. These people represent the exact classes who were in opposition to Madero. Their opposition to and blocking of many of the reforms he tried to pass led to Madero’s eventual downfall and the rise of the Victoriano Huerta.

The coach strikes out to its unspecified location. There is no explanation as to why this coach is traveling with such haste, but it is easily inferred that these wealthy few of society are fleeing from Huerta’s dangerous regime. Juan sits quietly near the back of the coach as the low members of society, the peasants of the revolution, are derided for their immorality, their bestial nature, and their racial inferiority. They show what these kinds of people were at that time. Round about the coach the riders spew their venom about those like Juan, while the lady, the landowner, looks to Juan, fantasizing. The other travelers are shown in the most disgusting light possible, stark close-ups of them chewing food while insulting everyone that is not like them.
The lady of the coach is called Adelita. “La Adelita” was a song famously sung during the Mexican Revolution. It refers to the women who fought and the women who waited for their men at home. Adelita who gives her life for the cause becomes a symbol of the women of the revolution. Later it grows to become a prevailing symbol of Mexican femininity and strength. The symbol of Adelita today,however, is often portrayed as hyper sexualized beauty, particularly in the popular calendars produced by Angel Martin. The Adelita of the film’s portrayal as an elite of society is quite interesting. Naming an enemy of the revolution after one of its heroes is an affront to those who believe in it. The next sequence of events puts the name of the affluent Adelita into context. The coach is robbed by Juan and his family. The Elites are stripped naked and Juan rapes Adelita off camera. Leone uses the idea of Adelita to show Juan’s general care for the revolution and all other aspects of accepted society in Mexico. Juan’s outlook, though, will forever be changed when he befriends John Mallory, played by James Coburn.

The audience learns that Mallory is a revolutionary from Ireland, and highly skilled in explosives. Juan thinks he can use him to rob the bank at Mesa Verde. Mallory agrees to help, but it turns out that he has only used Juan as a tool in for the revolution. Juan in his assault on the bank at Mesa Verde unwittingly frees hundreds of political prisoners being held there. He is now a hero of the revolution for which he cares nothing. Mesa Verde is the first place where it really becomes apparent how bad the situation is in Mexico. Posters of the local governor are everywhere. Soldiers are patrolling the streets in force. Juan witnesses civilians lined up against a wall being shot. Huerta’s control of Mexico was one desperate to retain peace by any means. Huerta and Felix Diaz, a relative of Porfirio Diaz who was president of Mexico when the revolution began, overthrew the government of Francisco I. Madero. Huerta was accused by many of killing Madero. The United States president Woodrow Wilson personally believed that Huerta killed Madero.

Huerta’s government was never recognized by the United States. The violence under him would be so bad that American forces would eventually take the town of Vera Cruz. American investors had reason to be troubled by what was happening in Mexico. In 1911 American interests in the railroads of Mexico alone was valued at over six hundred million dollars. Prominent American businessmen like J.D. Rockefeller had significant stakes in Mexican oil while other businessmen were significantly involved in mining. Americans were not the only ones who had noteworthy interests in Mexico. Businessmen from nations like Britain, Spain, France and Germany were all investing in the resources the country had to offer.
Porfirio Diaz, the president under whom the revolution began, regularly benefited from these foreign investments. Diaz used this capital to modernize Mexico. Electricity was brought in, streets were paved, and public transportation was provided, but Diaz also used the capital gained in these foreign investments to solidify his dictatorial rule, in turn bringing revolution. Diaz often fixed elections, keeping many of the elites from gaining power. The film portrays Mallory, who was a strong revolutionary early in the story, reacting to the foreign encroachment on Mexico when he murders the German investor for whom he was working. Despite the turmoil some European investors were confident in their investments in Mexico. Britain invested over ten million pounds in the new government under Huerta, and France was willing to promise the equivalent of over six million dollars. Their confidence would prove unfounded as his governance would only last until 1914.

Mallory successfully lured Juan into the conflict. With the prisoners freed from Mesa Verde the two men retreat with other revolutionaries. The two men volunteer to face down the pursuing force while the other revolutionaries continue on to safety. Mallory rigs a bridge the soldiers must cross with dynamite and sets up machine gun nests to fire down on them. The soldiers, led by a rudimentary armored car, come into view. These soldiers look very modern compared to what one expects from a western film. They are wearing colonial pith helmets and their horses are wearing goggles in the sandy landscape. Between the machine guns and the explosion it is a massacre. Cars, machine guns, and colonial style helmets all seem out of place, but these things were present in the revolution. In preparation for the film Leone pored over hundreds of photographs taken during the revolution to be sure the depiction was accurate. All the uniforms, civilian dress, buildings with their bright tile work, and weaponry are accurate to the period and place. The execution scenes were of a particularly exact construction.

When Juan and Mallory arrive at the area the other revolutionaries have set up they find that all of them including all of Juan’s family have been killed. Mallory feels responsible and Juan seems to have lost everything and turns himself into authorities. Leone’s portrayal of Huerta’s Mexico resembles that of Nazi Germany in the 1940s. This is clearly an intentional attempt to draw a parallel between Italy’s and Mexico’s pasts. The film makes a poignant statement of their pasts when hundreds of civilians are shot in the trenches of what appears a factory, and again when Mallory witnesses a tortured revolutionary giving up his comrades. The scene of the tortured man is nearly indistinguishable from scenes from Nazi Germany. Mallory rescues Juan the only way he knows how, with dynamite. From here the two heroes make their way to other revolutionaries who are reminiscent of Villa or Zapata’s troops in their cowboy garb.

They establish a plan to thwart a train carrying thousands of Huerta’s troops by driving another train engine packed with explosives headlong into the other. Their tactic, which seems a bit ungainly to the audience, would be rather prudent given how dangerous attacking a military train carrying thousands of soldiers could be. These military trains could have cars with machine guns and checkerboard patterns painted on the side to hide the holes from which guns would be fired. It is also prudent that they chose to attack at night. The trains crash into each other at full speed and there is a fantastic explosion. The revolutionaries are victorious, but in the fray Mallory is shot in the back. Juan goes to get help, but Mallory, in his unique way, ends his life in a stunning explosion. The film ends with Juan looking directly into the camera asking what it is he should do now.

Duck You Sucker presents the Mexican Revolution as it looked quite accurately. It also lays out the general feeling of the people in Mexico truthfully. The film though does not portray any of the factual participants in the revolution. Leone wanted to resist any notion of creating a caricature of respected historical figures. Leone’s take on the Mexican Revolution does not place it in the most flattering light, but what it does show is an honest take of what it was like. The characters of Juan and Mallory are the true heart of the film, but their stories can only be appreciated by watching the film. It is also an interesting piece of Italian cinema from one of the most interesting film directors who ever lived. The director’s cut of the film is not rated, but the film does contain some very adult themes, strong violence, strong language, and some brief nudity. Other films of the genre that are recommended are A Bullet For the General and Compañeros. Some recommended reading on the subject: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela and The Mexican Revolution: 1910-1940 by Michael J. Gonzales.