A film by Sergio Leone...
Not so long ago Sergio Leone was only a cult figure, but today even people who are unfamiliar with the western genre know his name. He is now considered by many as the greatest director of western movies in history, eclipsing even the names of a Ford or a Peckinpah. Quintin Tarantino has called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the best directed movie of all time. The title has been referred to in fashion, construction, baseball, politics, pop music, Lego and God knows what more, while 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.
According to Dario Argento, who interviewed him at the time for an Italian newspaper, Leone had several films in mind after completing the second dollar movie, a biopic about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock (with Sohia Loren as Jane), a remake of Viva Villa! (he had not yet found an actor to play the Wallace Beery part) and an adventure movie set in war times. Once upon a Time in the West would eventually be his great western with a female leading character (Claudia Cardinale replacing Sophia Loren), while some think The Good, the Bad and the Ugly originated in combining ideas for the remake and the war/adventure movie : Leone's original choice for an 'ugly character', a good-for-nothing who tried to survive in war time by using the hostilities to his own advantage, was Gian Maria Volonté. But like he told to Argento, the character surely would become a neuropath when played by Volonté, and that was not what he had in mind. When he saw Eli Wallach (some say in How the West was won, other say in The Magnificent Seven) he knew he had found his actor, a dramatic actor with a natural talent for comedy, who reminded him of both Wallace Beery and Charlie Chaplin.
Eli Wallach's Tuco (ambiguous) character was to be the anchor point of the movie, with two more outspoken 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 story of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is relatively simple. Tuco, a Mexican outlaw, teams up with Blondie, an American bounty hunter, Blondie. The American will turn him 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 of the grave. The two dress up like Conferate 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 ...
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 philosophical movie about the horrors of war. As a literary work, The good, the Bad and the Ugly is deeply rooted in the tradition of the picaresque novel and the commedia dell'arte, two Latin literary traditions. It's also a character study Artaud style, which means the characters are illustrated by means of their actions and by confronting them to each other. Tuco, the Ugly, is open and direct, acting out of an earthy simplicity, without much recourse to postures, nor showing any lasting feelings of remorse or hate. Tuco is all but cunning, his feelings are changeable to an almost ridiculous degree, but they're not fake: every time he tries to fake a feeling (Blondie being his one and only true friend for example), he shows up for what he really is, a child begging for a cookie. Compared to Tuco, both the Good and the Bad are calculating personalities. Blondie misses Tuco's immediate strong emotions, but he has more insight in the vicissitudes of life. He doesn't fathom the true meaning of war ("I have never seen so many men wasted so badly"), but he understands some of the personal tragedy of the people involved and the pain they suffer, both psychically and mentally: there seems to be some understanding between him and the sympathetic Union officer, and he shows real compassion when he meets a dying Confederate soldier. Furthermore, he discharges Tuco's gun prior to the final shootout, so he won't have to kill him. The Bad, Angel Eyes, is shown as a cold professional, who will execute any assignment he's been paid for, and does so with a sadistic smile. Intellectually he is the direct opposite of Blondie: he has no feeling of empathy, but he understands the mechanisms of war so well he can use them to his own purpose. His calculated brutality is often frightening
These types are all played to perfection by the three formidable leads. We're so familiar with the characters and the actors playing them, that it's hard to imagine Leone had someone else in mind for the part of Angel Eyes. For the second time in his career, he thought of Charles Bronson (he had already wanted him for A Fistful of Dollars), and Van Cleef was contracted very late in the process. Actually, he made this film back to back with The Great Gundown. Leone's relationship with Wallach and (especially) Van Cleef was excellent, but he and Eastwood began to drift apart. According to Leone Clint had asked too much money ($ 250.000), and Clint was dissatisfied because he felt that Eli Wallach had the better part. There's one small element of Eastwood's character, that has escaped most people who have written about the movie: he picks up the famous poncho from the side of the dying soldier, wearing the distinctive garment only in the film's finale. The two other parts of the trilogy are both set after the Civil War, and when Blondie rides out of this movie, he is on his way to A Fistful of Dollars. Like this the trilogy can start all over again, ad infinitum. It leaves us with the difficulty that No Name would be a wealthy man at the beginning of Fistful, which makes it unlikely he would ever want to mess with the Rojos and the Baxters, but it's an elegant narrative device. I like it.
Two other works of art inspired Leone in particular while making The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, an Italian film from 1959, La Grande Guerra, directed by Mario Monicelli (and co-scripted by Luciano Vicenzioni, one of Leone's regular scriptwriters), about a group of not-so-brave soldiers who try to avoid war hostilities, and the novella Deux Amis by 19th Century French author Guy de Maupassant, about two French fishermen who accidently get lost between the lines during WW I. Both works are rather light-hearted at the surface, but thought-provoking and deeply pessimistic at the core. The same qualities shine through in the above mentioned Monsieur Verdoux. In the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the adventures of the three men are often seasoned with funny one-liners and moments of great burlesque humour, but there are also fast shootouts, elaborated scenes of physical and mental torment, and moments of great brutality. Every now and then the adventure story is punctuated by harrowing scenes of the war, showing that the conflict was an inferno of death and destruction. We get images of ruined towns, mutilated men, improvised army hospitals full of heavily wounded casualties, war thieves digging their own grave before being executed etc. Often described – even by American critics – as the most impressive depiction of the Civil War, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is also a bitter foreshadowing of the great conflicts of the 20th century: The scenes of the entranced armies fighting a bloody battle over a bridge, seem to refer to the French and Belgian battlefields of WW I, while Leone has admitted that he thought partly of the Nazi concentration camps with their Jewish orchestras when he was filming the scenes in the Northern prison camp.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is today on top of most people's favourite westerns. Funny, violent, meaningful, it's very close to perfection. One or two jokes maybe are a bit insipid, and the shootout in a ghost town, Blondie and Tuco versus Angel Eyes' men, seems a bit thrown in, but otherwise there's preciously little to find fault with. Some scenes, like the 'triello', the shootout with three on the cemetary, and 'the ecstacy of gold', Tuco's run around the graves of Sad Hill, are among the most beautiful ever filmed, and Morricone's score is one of the best of his career. If you haven't seen this film yet, you have some work to do. But I can assure that it's pleasant work.
DVD Info: Most recent releases have some 18 minutes of restored scenes, cut from the original theatrical release. On previous editions most of these scenes were added as extras, with Italian dialogue. The "Grotto scene" is a completely new scene, the "Sorocco sequence" a photo and text reconstruction of an apparently lost scene. The Lee van Cleef part is better defined now, and the scene with him making inquiries about Bill Carson in an improvised army hospital, is particularly strong. Other scenes seem to add little to the movie, and many have expressed the opinion that MGM should have created a menu option, so we could watch the film with or without them. Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood dubbed their new lines, while Simon Prescott replaced the late Lee van Cleef. The R1 and R2 releases have the same extras (documentaries, commentaries, interviews, an uncut version of the Tuco torture scene, cut in the movie) and similar video quality, but audio options differ considerably. All have English DD 5.1, but US R1 Special Edition also includes the original Italian mono track. The latter (sadly) lacks on the European R2 editions (which have slightly different names in different countries), but they offer (for obvious commercial reasons) DD 5.1 tracks in French and German. The Japanese release, called Ultimate Edition, offers an English DTS track.