Director: Sergio Leone
Stars: Clint Eastwood (‘Blondie’ / ’The Good’), Lee Van Cleef (‘Angel Eyes’ / ’The Bad’), Eli Wallach (Tuco / ’The Ugly’)
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly was always one of those titles. It ranks in the IMDB’s top 10. Its three hours long. It’s constantly revered by critics and movie-makers alike. Like Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind, it exists under it’s own bloated legend. So I pretty much avoided it for a long time. It didn’t help that it was a Western, a genre I have only recently come to respect and enjoy, and even then, I’m more a fan of the darker, dryer, revisionist Western as opposed to the simplistic, problematic sheen of John Wayne’s white-guys vs. coloured-guys.
Needless to say, I got around to it eventually. And if you haven’t, you really should. Of course it’s worth seeing the first two instalments in the Dollars Trilogy as well. A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More are both brilliant, brilliant films, but they’re not essential to enjoying TGTB&TU.
It begins with THAT theme from Ennio Morricone, a theme so ubiquitous now that it sets the film up as a classic. You feel as though you’re about to watch something monumental, and it contains the elements of nearly every music cue to come. It was the height of the 60s and Sean Connery’s James Bond was devouring the world, so Sergio Leone was attempting to bring the same rock ‘n’ roll spirit into the Western. This is reflected in the gun-blasting titles. Shit, I’ve got a 171 minute movie to cover and I’ve just spend a whole paragraph on the credits.
But who’s counting? Certainly not Leone, who lets the film unfurl almost by accident. Leone’s style, which was groundbreaking at the time, is displayed perfectly in the opening shot. A vast landscape infringed upon by an extreme close-up. The first half hour’s only concern is introducing the three leads; Eastwood as Blondie (a.k.a The Good), Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes (a.k.a. The Bad) and Eli Wallach as Tuco (a.k.a. The Ugly).
Yet these titles seem arbitrary to say the least. Leone’s vision of the West is shamelessly operatic, epic, mythic. He celebrates the American mythology of the West, just as he subverts it. Blondie is a selfish opportunist and con artist. An antihero just as the ‘American Dream’ dictates to its citizens. Even Morricone’s score hints at sarcasm as Eastwood is christened ‘the Good’ on screen.
“You’re the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you!” Tuco cries at him. Eastwood may be the star, but it is Wallach’s Tuco who steals the picture. Tuco is forever the underdog, and cinema audiences will always love rooting for the underdog. Yet again we’re not presented with a hero. Tuco’s vengeance upon Blondie is openly sadistic. One is left to wonder if anyone can really be called ‘the Good’, aside from perhaps a good shot.
Leone shows us that there is no heroism. TGTB&TU takes place against the broader canvas of the American Civil War. Throughout we are presented with man vying against man. The violent growing pains of a young nation. Yet none of it is glamour. We see the irrevocably injured and the dying. The Civil War is presented as a senseless waste of life.
However the film is not without its sense of humour. How Blondie and Tuco become prisoners of war is the stuff of comedy gold. It is thanks to colourful moments like these, as well as other human touches (Tuco’s reunion with his brother) that make TGTB&TU such an enjoyable, rambling experience. A crowd pleaser eligible for all, despite its 18 certificate. Could it all be streamlined? Sure. But would it feel half as rewarding? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The scale of Leone’s vision becomes clear when Tuco and Blondie encounter a Union Army outpost over a strategic bridge. “Come along and enjoy the spectacle” the drunken captain invites. And what a spectacle it is. A virtuoso battle, more impressive than any modern day CG-aided affair. “Never seen so many men wasted so badly” Blondie muses. Perhaps Tuco and Blondie’s solution to the army’s problem – blowing up the bridge and therefore negating such senseless death – constitutes heroism after all. Perhaps there’s no perhaps about it.
All of which brings us to that epic finale. The three-way standoff to end all stand-offs. Never bettered. Leone expands time. Morricione’s music soars. Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef stand equidistant, and the audience holds its breath. Terrific stuff. In fact Leone’s skill for creating a ‘protracted reality’ is at it’s finest in TGTB&TU. Everything is build and release. When Angel Eyes rides up to an old man’s adobe home 6 minutes into the picture, you already know exactly what’s going to happen, yet Leone tease it out. The old man doesn’t die until 8 minutes later. Angel Eyes eats the old man’s dinner, gets what he wants and then kills on principle, but the atmosphere is electric. Quentin Tarantino was obviously paying attention. A lot of people were.
For my money, this is a more enjoyable movie that Leone’s next project, the equally revered Once Upon A Time In The West. Leone employs similar tactics of expanding time in that movie, but the indulgence seems much more pronounced, occasionally a little tiresome. Here it works wonderfully. Of course the audience is in on it. We all know we’re being toyed with. But it’s thrilling, so we play along. If you haven’t seen The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, I recommend giving it a try. Even if you don’t like Westerns. You never know. You might be converted.