Movie Review – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Written by Age & Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone

So first things first, I didn’t know anything about this movie besides it being a western and the iconic central theme from Ennio Morricone. For years, my entire life, in fact, what I thought was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (GBU) was actually For a Few Dollars More. That showdown in the final moments of More is what I thought happened in GBU. So this was a treat for me because it meant I honestly was going in blind to this movie, and whatever happened was going to be a completely fresh experience. I walked away solid in knowing that More is my favorite Leone picture, but this is a masterpiece as well, a perfect thematic culmination of everything the Dollars Trilogy set out to do.

Not a surprise, but Leone is using his trinities again. This time it is in the form of the three central characters. Tuco (Eli Wallach) is a fast-talking Mexican bandit and finds himself the target of multiple bounty hunters. Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is one of those bounty hunters…sort of. The secret nature of Blondie & Tuco’s connection gets revealed relatively early on as we learn that not everything is what it seems here. The third element here is Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), a mercenary contracted to kill a former Confederate soldier who stole a cache of gold from his own side. The AWOL man goes by the alias Bill Carson and happens to cross paths with Tuco. This occurs at the moment Carson is dying, and he reveals the partial location of his loot to Tuco. The wanted man goes to find help, but when he returns, Carson is dead but not before speaking with Blondie. Blondie claims to have the missing piece of information that gives the exact location of the gold and won’t reveal it until he and Tuco are on the spot. Angel Eyes comes into their life eventually, and the three head toward a climactic moment, ironically in a cemetery.

To understand what a revelation this movie must have been, we need to understand what was popular in theaters in 1968. Despite being made and released in 1966 in Italy, the film didn’t get North American release until December 1967, meaning most of the money it made was in 1968. GBU would not make it into America’s top 10 grossing films for that year, but that doesn’t mean audiences were just gobbling up trash. Funny Girl was the number one film of the year, followed by 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Odd Couple, Bullitt, and Oliver! to round out the top five. Not a list of terrible movies in any sense. But other than 2001, I think these pictures are less visually striking than what Leone is doing in GBU. I imagine audiences at the time had their minds were blown by what they say playing out on screen, a western truly unlike anything that had ever come before it.

We know that critics of the era looked down on “spaghetti westerns” and made it known in their reviews. The New York Times reviewer stated that GBU “must be the most expensive, pious, and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” It’s funny that now most film critics would laud the work of Leone because time has shown it to sustain itself, to have possessed something bigger than just being another flash-in-the-pan western. Having credentialed film critics is a good thing. I like hearing what people with expertise say, but we should constantly question institutions. The NY Times critic making such a statement is, in fact, in line with that newspaper’s alignment with the establishment. Leone was from the outside, and his movies challenged popular romantic notions about the West; thus, these people saw his work as garbage. 

So what exactly is GBU saying about the West? Like the other two films in the Dollars trilogy, the narrative is centered on greed, probably even more so than the previous two movies. All three central characters are fixated on finding this gold and claiming it. They accomplish this through acts of cruelty & violence, making an obvious connection for the audience that greed and violence cannot be separated from each other. Angel Eyes is so consumed with avarice that he kills the man who hired him to find the gold in the first place so he can keep it when he does. Tuco’s bounty scam is another way where greed & violence intertwine, a type of gambling with your own life because you believe the chances you’ll come out alive are greater than the alternative. The bounty system was used so often because greed was an excellent motivator for a population that had been ground into the dirt, living on scraps. Give people a chance to betray their fellow man for some coins, and they will do it, sadly. Even Blondie, ostensibly the hero as he represents “The Good,” will not hesitate to be cruel to Tuco or double-cross an ally when he sees an opportunity. 

Leone loved western films, but he also acknowledged they sit on a mountain of lies & myths. Leone’s West is where you will never find a white-hat hero. Every sheriff is a corrupt prick. Every bounty hunter is in it for the money. There are thieves and rapists around every corner. So, does that mean the work is reactionary? No, because Leone finds heaps of humor in the reality of the American West. These are not brilliant minds but brutes & con men screwing each other over at the drop of a hat. This explains the critical pushback from the United States because Leone was messing with foundational fables used to push a regressive ideology within that country and still is to this day. John Wayne was and still is used in reactionary propaganda as a symbol of a “real man.” 

Leone’s own muse in the Dollars Trilogy, Clint Eastwood, had been positioned to take up that mantle, but his old man crankiness didn’t help. Eastwood would slightly continue Leone’s legacy by directing his own revisionist Westerns, but the critics were okay with those because he made the cowboys “real sad” about doing bad things. They begrudgingly point out that the West was flawed but still manage to present us with a slightly modified white hat, something Leone simply has no interest in doing. If anything, we have Leone to thank for being one of the factors in killing the rose-colored western as a viable subgenre going forward. It would be tough to make a straightforward western that doesn’t acknowledge the ugly truths of the period, which is a good thing.

The world is a dark, ugly place, and pretending it isn’t only serves to empower the people who have made it that way, we give them cover to obfuscate the truth. This doesn’t mean it has to be that way, as Leone finds so much natural beauty in his settings. However, it is not natural in his movies for humans to behave this way; it is a product of greed, which is simply a function of capitalism. For all those who try to act as if our system is merely corrupted by a “few bad apples,” filmmakers like Leone remind them that’s a load of bullshit. We’ve incentivized people to be terrible to each other because we’ve predicated their survival on it, so we cannot act surprised when they behave like monsters. If you want people who don’t behave like this, you build a world where they don’t have to. The West was not a place where rugged individualism won the day; it was a place where greed & cruelty were paramount. If you survived, it was either because you killed everyone that got in your way or you managed to carve out a niche where you live, protected somehow from these circumstances. The latter was not common. 

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