A Fistful of Dynamite, Existentialism and the Paradox of Identity (Unedited)

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

John H. Mallory: “I used to believe in many things, all of it! Now, I believe only in dynamite.”

A Fistful of Dynamite is one of my favourite Leone westerns. Although it is not rated as highly as the ‘Dollars Trilogy’ or the ‘Once Upon A Time…’ films, the central theme of revolución, idealism lost, and cynicism gained are very interesting to me. James Coburn’s character, John Mallory, is a veteran of the revolution, a worn out old husk of a soldier who used to believe in the ideals of the revolution; but, when we meet him, he has become a sort of nihilist, having seen too much reality behind all that grand talk of change, liberty, justice etc…

The quote above is symbolic of Mallory’s new philosophical perspective on life and is also echoed in the words of Mao Tse- Tung at the start of the film where it is stated:

“[A] revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Mallory discovers the revolution to be a brutal affair; not the magnificent crusade he had once perceived it to be. And so now, he believes only in dynamite – violence. Violence is a pure act in itself which holds no falsehoods, no lies, no contrivances. It is purely what it is.

In other words, Mallory believes in nothing, only the physical brute facts of existence. He has dispensed with ideals and where once he saw himself as a revolutionary, possibly a “great, grand, glorious hero of the revolution”, he now sees himself as nothing. He has no identity. He shed it, along with his illusions, and now; he is just a soldier without a cause, without a belief of whether what he is doing is right or wrong, he just does it because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Innocence lost – it is an existential problem. Mallory cannot reconcile the idea of the revolution with its reality and so loses faith in it as well as himself. He cannot characterise himself as a revolutionary because he no longer believes in it and so he is stuck in a no-man’s land, with no paradigm to organise his role; his place in it, is now confused and awkward.

I can empathise with Mallory’s situation as I am sure many others can. Many men don’t realise many years after they have raised a family, advanced well into their careers, and bought that big screen TV; that their semblance of a life is without any kind of basis or grounding, that it is in essence free floating and as they start to consider this, they realise their life never had any hold in reality at all. Their conceptions were just that – conceptions, manifestations, a way of organising the world to ‘fit’ into the way one might want it to. Because it’s safe; where the truth is too hard a pill to swallow, that all life is in a state of chaos.

This is the world I find myself in, simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by – the prevalence of ‘images’ in our society. I find myself acting in perpetual contradiction, following an ideal but abandoning it at the next, being one thing and then proposing the exact opposite a day or two later. There is nothing to hold on to, to grasp, but a whirlwind of beliefs and ideas, and theories, and archetypes etc… We can never have what we want, a secure place in this universe is out of bounds for people who think this way, who are constantly re-evaluating their lives; who they are, what they are doing, what they have done, who they want to be and finally ending with ‘why does it even matter? Why should I care?’ In a world in chaos no answer is ever straight forward, we can never be right or wrong and there is no God to judge us, other than the one we create for ourselves.

Eventually I fall asleep and then wake up the next morning, and I enjoy that pleasant five minute haze where no grandiose intellectual contemplation takes place, only to repeat the cycle again further down the line.

There is no answer to this epic paradox and I would most certainly be happier if I never considered such questions. But then again, that’s not me, and the thought of being otherwise seems so, I don’t know exactly how to put this, unnatural.

Note: A Fistful of Dynamite isn’t the only film to express these Sartrian sentiments; Fight Club, Apocalypse Now, Stalker, Cross of Iron, No Country for Old Menamong others – are all films which feature protagonists who are struggling to make sense of an insane world, and their precarious position within it.

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