The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Dir. Sergio Leone

Doowadoowawoo… Wah Wah Wah…

Intro

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.

Synopsis

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.

Analysis

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.

If you’ve seen Hail Casesar!, think of this guy. If you haven’t, you’re getting two recommendations.

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.

“The Man with No Name” aka “Joe” aka “Manco” aka “Blondie.”

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.

But AWWWW, look, he has a kitty!

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.

Don’t look too deep into those Angel Eyes.

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.

Whaddaya mean Clint Eastwood was afraid of being upstaged?

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.

Conclusion

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?

If you weren’t thinking it, you never read Sunday morning comics, and I pity you.

Sources:

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/.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Directed by Edwin S. Porter

Starting off my journey into the Western genre, I start with the very first. Or, at least the first popularly remembered Western film. There were at least a few films to take place in a Western setting before this 1903 film, but aside from their IMDB pages I couldn’t find much about them. Also, one has to consider the length of these films, as The Great Train Robbery is barely 12 minutes long and was revolutionary at the time, especially for its action-packed and composite narrative.

Aren’t guns a necessary part of a civil discussion in the West?

In summary, a few bandits break into a telegraph office for a railroad, forcing the operator to stop a train and give the engineer orders to stop at a water tank. The bandits proceed to knock out the operator and tie him up before rallying at the water tank to sneak aboard the train. Two of the bandits kill a man in the luggage and mail car before using explosives to open a locked box, while the other two kill the train’s fireman and hold the engineer at gunpoint to stop the train. The passengers are then herded off of the train and relieved of their expensive belongings. One passenger attempts to escape but is quickly stopped by a bullet to the back. While the other passengers crowd around the downed man, the bandits disconnect the train to the passenger cars and use it to escape to where they are keeping their horses. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator’s daughter shows up at his office to bring him food, and she uses the meal’s knife to cut his ropes and a cup of water to wake him up. Now conscious, the operator runs to a dance hall, where people are forcing a fancily-dressed person from the eastern U.S. to dance at gunpoint for some reason, and rallies them into a posse to hunt down the bandits. After a chase and a shootout, all the bandits are killed and the valuables are recovered.

CAN I GET AN AMEN?!

I won’t go to great lengths to summarize most of the other film’s I watch, but I feel it is important in this case. Just watching this 12 minute film, I can see so many iconic tropes of the genre already coming to life. For one, the tales of train robberies in the West were very common. In fact, not only was this film named and based after an 1896 play, but train heists were still a common occurrence in the time period, as not three years before THE Butch Cassady had robbed a train. (Kramer, 2013) This also means that this film was made in the exact period it was representing. It is fascinating to think about how the Old West died around the time the film industry was just beginning.

Speaking of the time period, this movie is extremely dated in its visual effects, but it is more than worth noting that this film was a technical marvel. The fact that the narrative changed location and had scenes taking place at the same time was very uncommon. The violent action was especially visceral for the time, no matter how silly some of the actors looked when they pretended to be shot. One death scene was so brutal that I was able to ignore that it was clearly a dummy having his head caved in by a lump of coal. And lastly, I want to commend that little girl who played the daughter. What is melodramatic overacting today was Grade A silent film acting back then. I salute you, little girl, you were a standout.

Going back to the specific tropes associated with the action and Western genre, there were two I wanted to specifically point out. Did you know that this was one of the first examples of the so-called Bullet Dance?

…This is another…

That worn-out gag of making someone dance via guns is older than the first public radio broadcast. It is almost as old as film-making itself. Remember that the next time you see it. One should respect their elders.

I’ll be taking that there popcorn.

My last observation is the film’s last shot, which according to the director could also have been placed at the beginning. The bandit leader, played by the appropriately named Justus D. Barnes, shoots his pistol directly into the camera. Aside from the thoughts of early film-goers ducking for cover at this scene, it is fascinating how this image has stuck. Not only will this scene be referenced in Tombstone, a Western made nine decades after, it also is very reminiscent of the most iconic ‘shot’ of James Bond.

No Mr. Bond, I expect you to shoot the audience.

And even outside of film, think of all the posters you’ve seen of the subject looking and pointing directly at the view. I can think of one very particular example.

This poster was made 14 years after “The Great Train Robbery.”

Still, this image is so common for action-oriented media, I’d be here all day just finding more examples. Instead, I’ll just finish by saying that The Great Train Robbery is a very outstanding film, for its revolutionary aspects both on film and behind the scenes. If you have 12 minutes to spare, I’d suggest you watch it. Due to its significance, it is a preserved film by the Library of Congress and can be found on their Youtube channel here.

Sources

Kramer, Fritzi. “The Great Train Robbery (1903) A Silent Film Review.” Movies Silently, 8 Apr. 2016, Accessed 4 Feb. 2019, moviessilently.com/2013/11/03/the-great-train-robbery-1903-a-silent-film-review/.

Porter, Edwin S., director. “The Great Train Robbery.” Youtube, Library of Congress, 11 Dec. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=In3mRDX0uqk.

Project Proposal

There are two types of film criticism; academic and journalistic. Academic tends to focus more on the film itself, what went behind the scenes during production and the greater cultural context it was made in. Journalistic focuses more on informing potential audiences what is worth spending money on in the movie market, as well as providing entertainment themselves à la Siskel & Ebert.

In this online project, I would like to explore a bit of both. I am a student of journalism, not film, so I will grant that my experience in the academic is more amateur. As for journalistic film criticism, I participated on Northwest College’s former newspaper as a reporter. I often wrote for the weekly film review section and was tasked to redesign and reformat it a few months after I joined. I set it up as a weekly preview for upcoming films where three people shared opinions on whether a film was worth watching based on the latest film trailer, and the new format was well-received. So, I’d like to think I have some experience in that regard.

What I aim to do here on this blog is to explore popular culture in a journalistic style. How I plan on doing this is via two methods.

  • Weekly reviews of Western films: Inspired by the fact that I am a student at the University of Wyoming, the “home of the Cowboys.” Despite growing up in Wyoming, I did not watch a lot of Western films. Having little experience with the genre, I’ll be coming at it from a completely fresh and unbiased perspective. I will gradually come to understand the appeal of ‘the Cowboy’ as a recurring aspect of American zeitgeist. Or to put it simply, I’ll know why so many people are obsessed with the stories and the aesthetic of the Old West. The purpose of this is too further and focus my interest in film into a productive outlet for critical analysis and entertainment.
  • Biweekly essays exploring specific aspects of popular culture: Unlike the first method, this method will be more open to different genres of films and focused on contemporary issues. The purpose of this is further my, and hopefully other people’s, understanding of what goes on behind and surrounding our favorite media.

What we, as individuals and as a culture, choose to make successful or not says something about us. That goes for anything, whether it be businesses or political figures or social movements, but also for the entertainment we consume. We often take our entertainment for granted, thinking that it is inherently less important than those other things, but it isn’t. The dreams and innovations of writers, artists and scientists created moving images that do anything, from teaching small children to informing grown adults. From reliving the past to predicting the future. The entertainment we create and consume shouldn’t be taken for granted. With this blog, I hope I can bring out new ideas that help people to think about what they watch. So I hope you’ll enjoy my exploration into the worlds of popular culture.

And my attempts at humor. Hopefully someone will enjoy those too.