Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy was the fruition both of the dying myth of the Old West and the Italian’s recognition of the demise of a myth that America had clung onto too firmly. In his Gunfighter Nation, author Richard Slotkin describes the phenomenon as the scrutinizing of the public myth of white domination in the frontier. This is a fancy way of saying that Leone, who cornered the spaghetti Western wave, sought to tell the truth about the forming of America. In his day many were jarred by his cleansing of a dearly held fantasy. Today, the violence in his films seems less gratuitous but an honest depiction of the results of war.
The Vietnam conflict was also intruding on filmmakers’ consciousness and the responsive violence in movies was become increasingly graphic. Graphic as it was, the violence in Leone’s films was brief. He created suspense, instead, in the build-up to brutality.
This controlled rage is present in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the final chapter in Leone’s trilogy but released in America at the same time as its predecessors. That it is the best of the trio says nothing of the shock the film caused upon release in the States and the trendy revisionism it launched. Perhaps the clearest testaments to the film’s legacy are the countless imitations and even parodies of Ennio Morricone’s haunting score. The John Ford and John Wayne Westerns remain the most iconic, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the most influential. Then again, in his own way, Sergio Leone was heavily influenced by Ford.
Conceptually, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a traditionally mythic tale about three men’s quest to find buried Confederate gold in a dangerous wasteland, here referred to as Sad Hill Cemetery. Think Treasure of the Sierra Madre combined with the writings of Frank Dobie. But from the start the film promises to hide none of history’s ugly truths. Filming in Spain, Leone captured not the stoic Monument Valley but a rundown dirty West.
The three central figures are not just anti-heroes but pure sociopaths, even “The Good” is a sinister snake and his classification is relative. Arguably Clint Eastwood’s most iconic role (certainly the one offering him the best entrance), Blondie is the mysterious stranger from his previous collaborations with Leone before he focused on collecting bounties for a living.
Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), earns the title of “The Bad” right from the start, seen standing in a doorway in a scary deep focus shot clearly influenced by the work of John Ford. What’s amazing is not only how much fear Leone creates from this single image but how much he tells us about the character. Angel Eyes is the inverse of Frank from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and is also a hired gunslinger working for a pathetic old man. Ironically, Angel Eyes is the most obscure of the three. What are his true morals? He is not above killing for money, but what is he like outside of his job? Only his modus operandi gives any indication and only makes him all the more chilling a person. He makes his victims feel comfortable before attacking.
It’s Eli Wallach’s Tuco, “The Ugly” that surprises us. He is not just a bumbling bandit, but a skilled marksman. He is label as “ugly” refers more to his reprehensible tendencies than the physical. As shady ad Blondie and Angel Eyes are, they have a certain code (Angel Eyes even appears dignified walking through a town devastated by cannon fire). But Tuco is a weasel of the dirtiest kind. He will switch alliances and signs according to the tides of fortune and is not above taking barbaric revenges.
Despite the title, each one of the three fortune hunters is bad to an extent but only Blondie has any goodness to speak of. The three are engaged in a continuous game against each other, each one thinking they are a step ahead.
Conniving power games delighted Leone and so did biblical allusions. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly makes the same reference as Once Upon a Time in the West to the story of Judas, but redemption and salvation are bigger motifs. Blondie is Tuco’s inconsistent guardian angel (although his interest is motivated by reward money) and when Tuco turns on him, Blondie is himself “rescued” by a horse cart. But the cart brings a grisly surprise; all of its passengers have been slain in a robbery.
A religious institution, a Jesuit chapel, represents the film’s sole place of pure goodness. In there, wounded men are cared for regardless of the army they are fighting for. Leone always had a glimmer of hope in his operas of violence. In A Fistful of Dollars it was personified by the hospitable innkeeper, here it is the Jesuit chapel, and in Once Upon a Time in the West it was Jill. Even Tuco finds a temporary redemption here when he encounters his brother Pablo, now a priest, who lectures him about he error of his ways. It’s a sadder scene than one would expect, drawing from the story of Cain and Abel. One brother followed a righteous path while the other brother became a bandit.
The Good, the Bad and Ugly is part comedy, part suspense, and part legend and there are some hilarious moments such as Blondie and Tuco’s mix-up with Union soldiers. The overall tone, however, is darker than that of Leone’s other works, occasionally creating a soundtrack dissonance. Like Tarantino and Scorsese, Leone had a keen sense of how to employ music.
The Civil War is the psychological backdrop of many Westerns and many soldiers did indeed migrate West after the war to restart their lives. However, the battle scenes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are parables to Vietnam. Like Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film annihilates the glory of combat. For one, the soldiers aren’t noble and their depiction in the film is a reaction to how America lost its morals in Vietnam. Of course, Tuco and Blondie are not exactly the rebellious heroes of the anti-establishment, taking a stretcher from a wounded soldier to carry explosives to bomb a bridge in Bridge on the River Kwai fashion.
Both the bridge bombing scene and the unforgettable stand-off at Sad Hill Cemetery are classic examples of Leone’s building up to a violent ritual. Some of the best moments in Leone’s career are featured in the climactic cemetery scene, shot as if the men were in an arena. It is a scene of primal suspense and even beauty, before it fizzles to a bloody conclusion. Leone ends his trilogy in his best manner.