An Appreciation – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
No other genre evokes a sense of place better than the western. You have vast rolling hills, expansive barren deserts, horses, hats and pistols, and sleepy towns where sheriffs and robbers shoot it out to the death. It’s a world long since passed, where those with gold and guns dictated the law. What I find so fascinating about westerns is that they are a representation of a place that once was—with people who perhaps lived lives that were similar to the ones we read about in folk stories, or watch in the movies. Survival and the hope of prosperity drove people toward these places, and motivated those who wanted to steal their way to a better life. There are a handful of great movies set in the Wild West, but very few have reached the plateau of Sergio Leone’s epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
It is arguably the quintessential “spaghetti western,” shaping the look and sound of the subgenre, and influencing countless films and filmmakers that came after it. Most recently, Quentin Tarantino would create his Kill Bill franchise (particularly Vol. 2) based off of what Leone and his contemporaries helped establish. There is a difference between the kind of western you have here and the ones that would come out of the Hollywood system. While John Ford may have captured his films with a kind of grand beauty, where the landscapes provide an inviting backdrop for his characters to live in, Leone’s westerns were far more rugged and dangerous. This is not a place one would try to escape to in search of peace—the mountainous regions and long stretches of desert are danger zones. They are unrelenting and harsh, easily devouring the weak with heat exhaustion or starvation. The people who live here show the signs of wear and tear: their skins scorched by the sun, their clothes tattered and unclean, and their faces sweaty with grime and dirt. It’s a place you want to avoid.
Not only is the environment a dangerous place, so are the people who inhabit it. While the film is titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, none of the main characters are really that “good.” Each has an agenda of their own, having to work with the others not because they like one another but because they have no other choice, and if they had a chance would kill each other in the blink of an eye. Deals are constantly made and then broken; each character has a plan up his sleeve but gets double crossed in some sort of fashion; death is always a heartbeat away. It also doesn’t help that the story is set in the middle of the American Civil War. Not only do our characters have to avoid killing one another, they also have to avoid stepping right into the middle of a fierce battle between the Northern and Southern soldiers. This makes the movie far grander in scope than what we would first believe. Sure, one of the main story threads involves our characters’ search for hidden gold, but there’s also another level involving Leone’s thoughts about the horror of warfare.
The “Good” character of the film is played by Clint Eastwood. While his character is nicknamed “Blondie” in this film, he actually is The Man With No Name, the character who is the lead in Leone’s Dollars/Man With No Name Trilogy, with this being the epic final entry (the first two being 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars and 1965’s For a Few Dollars More). The man in the hat and poncho has become one of Eastwood’s iconic characters, rivaled only by his turns in the Dirty Harry films. Blondie (in this film) is a man of very few words. Very rarely does he ever say more than a few sentences at a time or noticeably move in desperate actions. In all honesty, there are few times where Blondie even needs to run. But through his performance, Eastwood gives Blondie an attitude that says that he doesn’t need to talk a lot or move around. With a cigar in his mouth and a gun tucked neatly in his holster, Blondie is a person who moves and talks at his own pace, because he’s well aware that he’s good enough to take down any man that would threaten him. He makes a living capturing criminals, turning them in for the money, and then shooting them off of the hangman’s noose just before their necks are broken. So to say that he’s a good shot is an understatement. Blondie’s background isn’t delved into, and it doesn’t have to be. Everything we need to know is on the surface; we understand his motivations simply by Eastwood stoic, star-making performance.
The “Ugly” of the film is Blondie’s off-again/on-again accomplice/enemy Tuco, played with irreverent energy by Eli Wallach. While Eastwood is in the center of every poster made for this film, it can be argued that Tuco is the true main character of the movie. We follow his story the most, and we learn more about his background and his strained history. Wallach plays him as funny and brutish at the same time, to amazing effect. In one of the best scenes in the film, Tuco encounters his brother, Father Pablo Ramirez (Luigi Pistilli), and their conversation about how Tuco abandoned their family is surprisingly touching. While Blondie is a quiet man of action, Tuco is a non-stop freight train of banter, constantly trying to talk his way into and out of situations. Tuco and Blondie’s relationship in the film is a unique one. They first start out as business partners, and then one turns on the other, and vice versa. At one point, Blondie leaves Tuco out in the desert to starve to death, and then at another Tuco watches Blondie almost die of dehydration from the comfort of his horse with water canteen in hand. Only when the two learn of a hidden stash of gold in a cemetery do they become accomplices once again, with Tuco knowing the name of the cemetery and Blondie knowing the name of the grave it’s buried under.