Dir. Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the movie that is credited as one of the game-changers for the Western genre. And it shouldn’t have been made.
At least, according to some of director Sergio Leone’s contemporaries, including Orson Welles. Orson “show me how you can say ‘in July’” Welles himself tried to talk Leone out of filming due to the film taking place during the Civil War, a box office poison. (Susman, 2017) Other than that, the film had other problems such as Clint Eastwood demanding several benefits, including a new Ferrari, as well as having the general stigma of being a Western made first in Italian by an Italian filmmaker.
Still, the movie has become one of the most iconic films of the genre, thanks to its themes, characters and the score of Ennio Morricone.
Bounty hunter Blondie, played by Clint Eastwood, and his criminal partner Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, scam various towns for the latter’s large bounty, but each other’s greed and distrust cause a series of attempted murders that lead them to a dying Confederate soldier. The soldier, with his last breath, is able to tell the location of $200,000 worth of gold buried in an army cemetery. As it happens, only Tuco hears the name of the cemetery while Blondie hears the name on the grave, forcing the two to work together one last time. Their obstacles include Angel Eyes, an amoral mercenary also after the gold, both sides of an increasingly bloody Civil War and each other’s sense of survival. At the climax, the three men duel in a Mexican standoff, one of the film’s most iconic scenes, where only one man will be able to find the treasure.
As previously stated, this film is an iconic example of the Western genre. You are probably already imagining the film’s main theme song in your head right now. Nowadays, it is most likely that your first experience with this theme was in something parodying not just The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but Western films in general, and it is really strange how pop-cultural evolution has made that the go-to soundtrack for a stereotypical gun duel because that isn’t even the song played in the film’s famous climax.
Still, as recognizable as many aspects of this film are, there seems to be just as many that aren’t. For example, did you know this was the third installment of a trilogy? And not only that, but it can be interpreted as the prequel of the first two films, as all three starred Clint Eastwood as “the Man with No Name” and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends with him wearing a poncho similar to the one he wore in the two previous films. Thankfully for me, that means I’m not necessarily watching these movies out of order should I watch A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More at some point in the future.
It is possible that the rest of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy isn’t as remembered as the final installment due to the initial disapproval of the Spaghetti Western, films based in the American West but made by Italian filmmakers, filmed in Italian and shot in Europe. Leone represented the Western genre becoming not only more international, but less romantic and more grittily realistic, which didn’t sit well with jingoistic Hollywood elites who preferred the traditional, idealistic approach. As William McClain wrote in an article for the Journal of Film and Video, “They were bitterly resistant to what they saw as an existential threat to the Western genre and to some extent their understanding of the American cinema as a whole,” which resulted in similar trends creating what was called “New Hollywood.” (McClain, 2010)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in particular, but also the other films in the Dollars Trilogy and other work’s by Leone and his Italian contemporaries, moved away from the West’s rigidly moral protagonists. Ever since the beginning of film and ending around the 1930’s, the Western genre had a very clear view of black and white morality. One side was good, the other side was bad, and that was about it.
After the 1930’s, it got a little more complex. Black and white morality was still in place, but unlike some of the more purely good heroes of before, now heroes struggled with their goodness. The Old West was a corrupting force because of how difficult it was to live there, and avoiding that corruption entirely could have been a death sentence. The heroes may be good, but they are not innocent.
That leads us back to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, because right in the very title it challenges people’s preconceptions of morality in the Old West. The “Good,” Blondie (no, seriously) is only seen as a good person in comparison to the “Bad” and the “Ugly.” He regularly scams towns out of thousands of dollars in reward money for hunting criminals before saving them to repeat the process, and is very cold and emotionless. Even though does exhibit mercy and compassion, and he’s the only member of the trio to never intend harm against innocent people, his motivation still boils down to one thing; money. He is not a hero. He is not even a very good person. But he does represent the trend Westerns will like to follow from now on, where morality isn’t a battle between black and white but between gray and gray.
His contrast with the “Bad” and the “Ugly” further illustrates this. Angel Eyes (again, dead serious), the “Bad,” is also motivated by greed, but is far more amoral. He is a bounty hunter, and is one with a very strict honor code, as he’ll always finish a job once he’s paid. Even if that means he’ll end up killing his employers. He’s more than willing to beat and torture anyone he sees as an obstacle in his quest for money. The one time he doesn’t it’s made clear that it is only because he knows it wouldn’t work and doesn’t want to waste his time.
Tuco, the “Ugly” played by Eli Wallach, is different. He doesn’t particularly relish killing others (excepting his ex-partner Blondie), but his hedonism and self-preservation means that he inevitably will. It is unclear how many of the crimes leveled against him, such as murder, theft and rape, he actually committed, and that ambiguity can either make him better or worse than the “Bad.” He’s worse than the “Good,” but unlike Blondie, Tuco at least expresses emotion and is given a reason as to why he’s become a greedy criminal. It’s revealed in the movie that his brother left Tuco in charge of the family so he could take a life of religion. While Tuco’s brother gets a free pass for abandoning his family, Tuco struggled to support his family, falling in to crime as a way to support them and is grief-stricken when he finds out his parents are dead.
While all three characters are framed as dangerous, all three are given moments to show that they aren’t completely unethical. Especially in scenes with Civil War soldiers. In one part of the film, the Union and the Confederate soldiers are fighting over a bridge that neither side particularly wants to die over, except for their superiors hundreds of miles away. As Blondie and Tuco watch them kill each other, they both lament over the pointless waste of human life. Even Angel Eyes pities some wounded Confederate soldiers he encounters, who are basically left to wait out the end of the war, although this scene was originally cut from the film to help with the pacing.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an example of a film that had a lot stacked against it, but its quality ended up speaking for itself. Even Roger Ebert, on his revaluation of the movie, said he gave it a lower score at first “because it was a “spaghetti Western” and so could not be art.” (Ebert, 2003) It has a truly classic score and a cast of characters that revitalized the nature of Westerns.
And what other movie could force me to imagine Clint Eastwood being married to Dagwood?
Ebert, Roger. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Movie Review (1968) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, Brian Grazer, 3 Aug. 2003, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-1968.
McClain, William. “Western, Go Home! Sergio Leone and the ‘Death of the Western’ in American Film Criticism.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 62, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 52–66. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jfilmvideo.62.1-2.0052.
Susman, Gary. “19 Things You Never Knew About ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’.” Moviefone, Moviefone, 16 Jan. 2017, www.moviefone.com/2017/01/17/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-facts/.