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Not so long ago Sergio Leone was only a cult figure. The Italian western was often thought to be a parody in itself, and Leone just happened to be the most skilful of those western making Italians. Today even people who are unfamiliar with the western genre know his name. He is considered by many as the greatest director of western movies in history, eclipsing even the names of a Ford or a Peckinpah. His movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is on top of most people's lists with favourite westerns, and Quentin Tarantino has called it the best directed movie of all time. The title has been referred to in fashion, construction, baseball, politics, pop music and God knows what more. Ennio Morricone's theme music has been used (and misused) so often, that it has become instantly recognisable to people of all ages in all corners of the world.
# Looking for the Ugly
According to Dario Argento, who interviewed him at the time for an Italian newspaper, Sergio Leone had several films in mind after completing the second dollar movie, among them a biopic about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock (with Sophia Loren as Calamity Jane) a remake of Viva Villa! (a romanticized biopic of Pancho Villa), and an adventure movie set in war times. Some think The Good, the Bad and the Ugly originated in combining ideas for the remake and the adventure movie set in wartime. Leone wasn't really fascinated by the Mexican revolution (unlike some of his colleagues), nor in the historic figure of Pancho Villa, but had been impressed by Wallace Beery, who had portrayed the revolutionary as the typical, ebullient Latin character. He wanted to keep the character, but use it within a different context. The background for his movie, wouldn't be the Mexican Revolution, but the American Civil War, his main character not an altruist who was concerned with the destiny of his people, but a good-for-nothing who tried to survive in war time by using the hostilities to his own advantage.
Leone's original choice for this 'ugly character' was Gian Maria Volonté, but he was afraid the character would become a neuropath when played by Volonté, and that was not what he had in mind. But then he saw Eli Wallach (some say in How the West was Won, others say in The Magnificent Seven) and all of a sudden he knew he had found the right actor: a dramatic actor with a natural talent for comedy, who reminded him of both Wallace Beery and Charlie Chaplin.
The anchor point
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third and most ambitious part of Sergio Leone's so-called Dollar Trilogy, and also his third movie starring Clint Eastwood, the man who made himself a name by becoming the Man with No Name. Eastwood had been a cynical opportunist in A Fistful of Dollars and a bounty hunter in For a few a dollars More. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly he's an opportunist again. In the triptych 'good-bad-ugly', he represents the good. But don't be fooled: like the opportunist and the bounty hunter from the previous two movies, the good is basically interested in money.
In For a Few dollars More, No Name had appeared alongside a second protagonist, Colonel Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef, and the newcomer had stolen the movie away from the veteran. Now a third character was added, and again this newcomer would walk away with the movie. Eli Wallach's ambiguous character is the anchor point of the story, with two other characters, one good, one bad, contrasting with his 'ugly' nature. Neither of them was to be defined in traditional terms of morality. Blondie is only 'good' because he isn't as ugly as Tuco, and Tuco is only 'ugly' because he isn't as bad as Angel Eyes. But all three are rather merciless opportunists, ready to kill if necessary, and 'villains' in the traditional good/bad polarisation of the western movie. Leone wanted to demystify the adjectives, and at the same time show the absurdity of war. He was, in his own words, pursuing a theme Chaplin had exposed in Monsieur Verdoux, a study of a 20th century Bluebeard, operating on the eve of WW II, who confuses the people who have sentenced him to death with questions about the true meanings of good and bad.
The plot is relatively simple. Tuco, a Mexican outlaw, teams up with Blondie, an American bounty hunter. The American will turn the Mexican in, collect the reward money, but rescue him from hanging by shooting through the rope. As a couple of illusionists, they travel from town to town, repeating the same trick everywhere. Angel Eyes, on the other hand, is a hired gun who is looking for a Confederate soldier named Bill Carson, who knows of the whereabouts of a load of gold. The two stories intertwine when Tuco, who was double-crossed by Blondie, leads his former partner into the desert to kill him. They meet a moribund Bill Carson, who tells them about the gold, hidden on a cemetery: to Tuco he tells the name of the cemetery, to Blondie the name on the grave. The two dress up like Confederate soldiers, but they're captured by the Union and brought to a prison camp. Tuco has taken the identity of Bill Carson, and attracts the attention of Angel Eyes, who works in the camp as a sergeant. After a long series of incidents, with endless double-crossings and changing alliances, the three men arrive at the cemetery ...
Ecstasy on the Altar of Death
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an assured work, made by a film maker at the peak of his art. The movie has been called a comical nightmare as well as a study of the horrors of war. It is deeply rooted in the tradition of the picaresque novel and the commedia dell'arte, two Latin literary traditions. The picaresque story of three adventurers chasing the same treasure is punctuated by brief but poignant images of the war. We catch glimpses of executions, humiliations and torture, and it all culminates in this protracted scene of the trench war at Langstone Bridge. The cruelty of the war also defines the morality of the movie, and the characters involved in it. The three men can be real bastards, but the war is shown as an inferno of destruction and pain. Ironically the war also intervenes to save lives: a mysterious Confederate death wagon appears from nowhere when Tuco is about to kill Blondie, a mortar shell breaks the beam from which Blondie is about to be hanged, etc. This is the true absurdity of the war, and of life. Blowing up the bridge, basically a selfish act ("If those idiots stop fighting, we can cross the river"), also becomes an act of mercy: thanks to Blondie and Tuco the sympathetic Union officer, the 'philosopher' of the movie, can rest in peace. This idea of life by destruction, is mirrored in the famous 'ecstasy of gold' scene, with a greedy and ecstatic Tuco running in circles, looking for a name that can change his life in the midst of this altar of death, the cemetery called Sad Hill.
Funny, violent and meaningful, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is probably as close to perfection as a film can get. A few jokes may be a bit insipid and I don't really like this shootout in a ghost town between Tuco and Blondie and Angel Eyes' men. There are also a few problems in regard to Angel Eyes' character: his appearance in a Northern POW camp is a bit suspicious (how did he get there, and how on earth did he become a sergeant in no time?). But some scenes, like the triello, the Mexican Standoff on the cemetery, and the ecstasy of gold, Tuco's run around the graves of Sad Hill, belong to the most beautiful ever filmed. The Langstone Bridge sequence is almost a movie within a movie. Morricone's score is one of the best of his impressive career. If you haven't seen this film yet, you have some work to do.