Occasionally during this Cinematic Century project I’ve built for myself I’ve been forced to make some pretty difficult decisions. I’m only letting myself pick one film as my favorite of each year, which has often led to some incredibly tough calls, picking between a slew of truly wonderful movies. But, this week I had a different sort of conflict to deal with. This week I had to wrestle with the idea of “favorite” versus “best.” From the beginning of this series I’ve made it clear that I’m highlighting the films that I think are my favorite of the year, not what I think is the nebulous “best.” And this conflict ended up pitting two very special movies together, which are shockingly hard to compare. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Batman. That’s a hell of a double feature, but not really a fair fight. There’s some other great movies from 1966 like Persona and Blow-Up, or I could have been a real asshole and wasted everyone’s time by talking about Manos: the Hands of Fate, but it was impossible to deny that the contest for 1966 came down to those two movies. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which you can tell is what I went with, is a phenomenal film. One that I love more every time I see it, and probably the only film that can give Stagecoach a run for its money as my favorite Western. And Batman is an absolute delight. I’ve talked about it quite a bit before, but I love the Adam West Batman series. It’s a wonderful piece of insane art, giving us a fun little superhero show that was completely tongue-in-cheek and immensely entertaining. And the film that spun out of the television show is also a hoot. It’s goofy, campy, and full of some of the most instantly identifiable images from that entire series. But. And it pains me to say this. It’s kind of uneven. The television show is the purest form of the whole Adam West Batman thing, and while the movie has some incredibly great highs, it also has some extreme lows. It’s too long, and parts of it just don’t work very well. So, it’s with a heavy heart I have to push Adam West aside. But, when Adam West falls, Eli Wallach rises.
Now, as you may be aware, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was released in the United States in 1967, not 1966. But, I’m going to go with 1966, since that’s when it was initially released. It’s not all about America. Plus, in a very strange turn of events, the entire ‘Dollars’ trilogy came out in America in 1967, pushing all three out in one twelve month period, just churning out the insanity of the spaghetti Western genre. This is the third film in the trilogy, while serving as the first chronologically, following the continuing exploits of Clint Eastwood’s unnamed protagonists, the Man With No Name. After the success of For a Few Dollars More United Artists ended up reaching out to the creative team behind the film, asking them to make another Western that they could distribute. Work then began on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, working on a much higher budget than either of the previous films, and with a whole lot more riding on it. The tone of the film was apparently a large debate, and Leone ended up pushing it further away from the comedic tone the original script took on, instead choosing to focus on the time period of the Civil War, giving them the chance to tell a rousing Western story while also tackling the absurdity of War. The production of the film then began, after convincing Clint Eastwood to come along for a third ride, tossing them into the death-defying world of Italian filmmaking. There were scores of accidents, multiple near-deaths for poor Eli Wallach, and a lot of perfectionism from Leone. But, the film was eventually finished, and promptly disliked. Because apparently every damn film I’m going to feature on this project was initially rejected by the public. It was too violent, too complicated, and too Italian. It wasn’t what the American public expected a Western to be, still trapped in the mindset of John Wayne, even though archetype was nearing thirty years old at this point. But, as we all know, the film was re-evaluated, and has now gone on to be considered not only one of the finest Westerns ever made, but one of the finest films period. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a goddamn delight.
The film follows three Western archetypes as they navigate the American West during the Civil War. There’s the Bad, a murderous mercenary who goes by Angel Eyes, the Good, a mysterious bounty hunter with no name, and the Ugly, a loudmouthed thief known as Tuco. When the film begins Angel Eyes is in the process of completing a dueling assassination, killing two men who have hired him to kill each other, and in the process learns that a Confederate soldier going by the name Bill Carson has stolen $200,000 in gold, putting Angel Eyes on the man’s path in order to steal it. Meanwhile, Tuco and the Man With No Name, who Tuco calls Blondie, which is what I’ll be doing to save space, have a con going where Blondie captures Tuco, brings him to various towns where he’s wanted, and turns him in for the reward. But, before the town can kill Tuco, Blondie frees him, they split the money, and head to the next town, letting his bounty go up each time. But, after a few times pulling the con off successfully, Blondie decides that their partnership has reached its conclusion, and he leaves Tuco bound in the desert, after taking his share of the bounty. But, Tuco proves to be incredibly hard to kill, and he manages to reach a town, get a gun and some partners, and tracks Blondie down to a town where Blondie is hiding out, and that’s also being bombarded by Union soldiers. Tuco gets the drop on Blondie,and after some failed attempts, he’s able to capture Blondie, and bring him out to the desert.
Tuco plans on marching Blondie through the desert, watching him die of exposure. And, it goes pretty well for a while, until Blondie is on his last leg, and Tuco notices something strange. A stagecoach full of dead Confederate soldiers comes barreling through the desert, stopping near them. Tuco goes to investigate and finds that one of the men is barely alive, and it’s Bill Carson. He tells Tuco about the money, and says that it’s hidden at a graveyard. But, he’ll only tell him where specifically if Tuco gives him water. And, while Tuco is fumbling to find some water, Carson dies. But not before telling Blondie the name of the grave that the money is hidden in. Tuco and Blondie then agree to work together, put their past aside, and go get that money. They steal the stagecoach and some Confederate uniforms, and start riding towards their destiny. They take some time to heal at a local mission, which just so happens to be run by Tuco’s brother, and then start their trip to the small graveyard. And this is almost immediately foiled when they come across a large battalion of soldiers, who end up being Union. And, since they’ve decided to dress themselves up as Confederate soldiers, they’re taken prisoner and brought to a POW camp. But, while at the camp, Tuco starts calling himself Bill Carson, which catches the attention of Angel Eyes, who is currently posing as a Union sergeant. Angel Eyes and some men who are loyal to him begin torturing Tuco, and get the name of the cemetery from him. But, he also realizes that Blondie won’t give into torture, and instead makes a deal with him, cutting him in on the profit.
Angel Eyes, Blondie, and Angel Eyes’ goons start heading in the direction of the graveyard, while Tuco is put on a train to be executed. But, as we know, it’s hard to kill Tuco, and he ends up escaping the train and heading towards the graveyard himself. He manages to track down Blondie is the abandoned town that he and the rest of the team are staying in. Blondie and Tuco reach an agreement, and decide to team back up, cutting Angel Eyes out of the money. The duo then head to the last leg of the trip, and find that they have one last obstacle to cross. The only way to get to the graveyard is to cross a bridge that just so happens to be a major sticking point in the war. The Union and the Confederacy are both fighting over the bridge, making it impossible for them to cross it. So, they decide to just blow it up, so that the two armies will get bored and leave. Before pulling it off though, they agree to tell each other their halves of the secret, in case one of them dies. They’re able to destroy the bridge, and after the two armies stop fighting and go their own way, the two men head out to the graveyard. But, true to his nature, Tuco slips away from Blondie and gets to the graveyard first, planning on opening the grave of “Arch Stanton,” which is the name Blondie gave him. He finds the grave, and opens it, shocked to find only a skeleton. Which is when both Blondie and Angel Eyes arrive. Blondie admits that he lied about the name on the grave, and suggests that he write the name on a stone, letting the last man standing in a three-way duel get the money. The men agree, and a Mexican Standoff begins, ending with Blondie killing Angel Eyes, and Tuco realizing his gun didn’t have bullets in it. Blondie then tells him that the gold is actually buried in the unmarked grave next to Arch Stanton, and he lets Tuco dig it up.Sure enough, they find the gold, but once Tuco gets it all out, Blondie tells him he needs to pay for almost killing him in the desert. He forces Tuco into a noose, gets him to stand on top of a gravestone, and rides off, leaving Tuco to tire and hang himself. But, just as Tuco is losing hope, Blondie fires at the noose, just like their old scam, and leaves Tuco alive with his share of the money.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has gained a reputation as being not just one of the greatest Westerns ever made, but one of the best films ever made. And, it’s easy to see why. The entire “Dollars Trilogy” is great, and I’m personally a huge fan of the whole “Spaghetti Western” aesthetic, but while I enjoy the other movies, I love the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The continuing adventures of the Man With No Name, travelling through an absolutely mythic American Old West are just guaranteed to lead to amazing stories, and this film is the pinnacle of that idea. Everything about this film works for me, creating a well-oiled machine of a film that manages to turn its over three-hour runtime into a breezy experience. The film is gorgeous, full of that loving photography that is so connected with the works of Sergio Leonne, this time pulled off by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. The film is massive and gorgeous, becoming a truly epic film that tackles the scale and horror of the Civil War while focusing on an intimate story of three awful men doing their best to survive in a world that’s being torn apart. And that intimacy is brought to vivid life by the three primary performances in this film, bringing humanity to these archetypes. Lee Van Cleef could do more with his eye than most actors can do with their whole bodies to bring the menace and amorality of Angel Eyes to life. Clint Eastwood’s enigmatic sociopathy as the Man With No Name is perhaps at it’s apex in this film, giving us a twisted man you can’t help but root for. But it’s impossible to leave this film without falling in love with Eli Wallach’s manic performance as Tuco, one of the most endearingly unpleasant characters in cinema history.
When I talked about Stagecoach a few months ago I brought up the fact that the film felt like mythology. A bunch of archetypes heading through the desert, clicking off a series of Western cliches, while doing it all perfectly. And this film has a similar feel to it. The Western was such a juggernaut of American cinema. It dominated popular film-making, taking a similar place in popular culture that superhero films do today, but on an even more massive scale. For decades this genre took over America, serving to idealize and represent everything that Americans hoped to see in themselves, that rugged individualism that has permanently warped the psyche of America. And yet, with films like the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the entire Spaghetti Western subgenre in general, it becomes apparent that this isn’t a uniquely American fascination. The Italians took to the mythology of the American West, and embraced it wholeheartedly, putting out some of the best Westerns ever made. And they aren’t alone. Damn near every major film making culture on the planet has tried their hands at bringing the Western to life, putting their countries unique spin on the tried and true tropes. Movies like the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly helped prove that while the Western genre has a whole lot of America in its DNA, it’s also a a malleable genre, one that can be picked up by anyone and used to suit its own means. Because the Western, with all of its tropes, mythology, and aesthetics have been proven to be one of the best things that America has given the world.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was written Age & Scarpelli, Lucian Vincenzoni, and Sergio Leone, directed by Sergio Leone, and released by Produzioni Europee Associate, 1966.
Categories: Cinematic Century