This brooding and violent epic from cult-director Sergio Leone was not an instant hit upon its theatrical release in 1971 and – despite impressive performances by its two stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn – one can perhaps see why. A complex story of political anarchy, human suffering and betrayal, it seems light years away from the shenanigans of Eli Wallach or even Clint Eastwood in the director’s earlier films.

Then there are the two titles of which neither quite hits the mark: A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (although plenty gets blown up) bears no similarities to the 1964 A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (which provided an early starring role for Clint Eastwood), or Leone’s 1966 masterpiece THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Far from it, A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE is set in revolution-torn Mexico of 1913 and is far darker and considerably more serious in tone than the aforementioned Clint Eastwood vehicles. The second alternative title, DUCK, YOU SUCKER! is perhaps even more misleading. Only in a few countries, including France, was the film released under a third title: ONCE UPON A TIME…THE REVOLUTION which of course hints much closer at the plot.

Steiger plays Juan Miranda, a Mexican outlaw and leader of a family of bandits. In a simple yet clever stunt he bamboozles a coachman to allow him a ride to the next village (apparently for his father’s funeral) though Juan really wants to rob the stinking reach passengers who display their disgust when he enters the coach. In particular arrogant Senora Adelita (Maria Monti) humiliates Juan at every opportunity. When the coach arrives at the little village (more like one big hacienda) some kids appear be to lazing about in the grass, prompting more insults from the coachman about the useless Mexican peasant vermin. Within seconds the lazy teenagers (in fact they are Juan’s kids) shoot the coaches’ windows to smithereens and the coachman dead, while Juan takes great pleasure in robbing the shocked and helpless passengers. He then proceeds to humiliate the male passengers by stripping them butt-naked while dragging Adelita into a barn where she gets raped. We don’t see it but the way the camera hints at her fate via her disgusted facial expressions and the slow unbuttoning of Juan’s trousers is more effective than any graphic depiction. After her ordeal the naked men are chased down a hill, with Adelita landing atop a pile of naked flesh (spare a thought for the poor actress and let’s hope the scene didn’t have to be repeated more than five times, though this being Leone the perfectionist, it probably was repeated twenty times).

Just as a delighted Juan looks at his booty, Irish Republican revolutionary John Mallory (James Coburn delivering an impressive Oirish accent) passes by on his motorbike (well, they did have them in 1913). On the run in his native country after a friend betrayed him, Mallory now works in Mexico as a silver prospector but when Juan discovers that the Irishman is extremely skilled when it comes to dynamite he asks his help to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank. When Mallory refuses, Juan frames him for the murder of his former employer and some soldiers. Suddenly Mallory finds himself in the thick of the action against his will. Pretending to help Juan with the robbery, Mallory manages to escape en route to Mesa Verde and arrives before Juan. Mallory then makes contact with Mexican revolutionaries – a feisty gang led by one Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli) – now the self-styled leader of the revolutionaries. Meanwhile Juan has also arrived in town and is inducted into the gang by Mallory, however, for Juan at least the robbery is a major disappointment because the National Bank holds no money. Instead it is used as political prison, now freed by our anti-heroes. From then on it’s pretty much action and executions non-stop as the gang are chased by ruthless Colonel Günther Reza (Antoine Saint-John) and his army detachment. But Mallory and Juan, deciding to stay behind, manage to machine-gun most of the army detachment though as it turns out that’s just the beginning of their combined troubles.

This main plot is peppered with sub-plots involving merciless Governor Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi) fleeing from revolutionary forces belonging to Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, while occasional flashbacks bring us back to Emerald Island where Mallory enjoyed a ménage à trois with his sweetheart Colleen (Vivienne Chandler) and best friend Nolan (David Warbeck) – the man who would ultimately betray him to the authorities (shown in another flashback scene), prompting Mallory to flee the country and board a ship for Mexico. The flashback sequences are particularly strange, not only because David Warbeck doesn’t get to utter a single line (let’s hope he got paid well nonetheless) but the action is rolling across the screen in slow motion, with incidental music (composed by Ennio Morricone) rather atypical for such a movie. Back in Mexico, as the bodies pile up and dynamite is used in copious amounts, the gripping climax heads towards its conclusion which, of course, cannot have a happy ending…

A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE is available in the UK for the first time in Blu-ray format, with a hardbound slipcase, a 60-page collector’s book and an array of Extras.