The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1968) Could be the Greatest Movie Ever?
Quentin Tarantino has said on many occasions that his favorite film is The Good, the bad, and the Ugly (1968), a movie so well-regarded and so influencing that it could be the best film of all-time. The godfather of westerns, director Sergio Leone, crafted this film into a stylistic adventure, despite using a MacGuffin to move the plot. Leone has made it into an Italo-Western, an Italian style spaghetti western that incorporates all the popular Italian film tropes, such as a betrayal story, the use of bounty hunters, and characters with conflicting motives. I would also add that there are elements of Italian neorealism in this movie, where an unknown man and a poor man seek money, making the characters match the popular style. This movie is good, but is it the greatest of all-time?
When Leone made his stylized westerns, they contrasted the cliché westerns of the day. This was one of the reasons it was considered so different and succeeded at the box office. In fact, Roger Ebert called this movie “art” in a 2002 review and a stylized masterpiece of the western genre. The movie isn’t camp like The Lone Ranger riding to the rescue and it doesn’t have the gloss of a typical John Wayne western, but instead shows weathered landscapes and even more weathered men. Leone’s characters just look like they are straight out of the period, tanned men and gruff fighters.
The casting of Clint Eastwood as the hero is perfect. He seems to embody what Leone wants to do with his western; he doesn’t talk much and he looks gruff enough, ticked off enough, to take down anybody. His whole character sucks in the attention of the audience as he guns down his opposition with supernatural precision, as if that alone was enough explanation to tell us all we need to know about this guy. If that’s true, he must be the most developed Man With No Name ever. It could be said that his actions are what make his character, quite the opposite of his competition.
Eli Wallach’s character Tuco just can’t stop yapping. He’ll fumble over his words, he’ll plot and even beg when necessary, but none of it seems out-of-place. Even when he trips or falls in the dirt, Tuco makes it seem like he meant to do it. He twists the situation with his words and his actions are secondary. He certainly contrasts Clint Eastwood’s character and it all works so well.
Lee Van Cleef plays Angel Eyes, an aristocrat amongst thieves. That’s what his character seems like, anyway. Angel Eyes seems educated, calculated, as if his occupation was a lawman at one time, or a veteran, military man. He does stand in at a Civil War post as an authority there, so perhaps Leone was trying to paint Angel Eyes with a broader brush, to demonstrate his authority over his skill or his words. It is no mistake he wears black and a tie most often, because he represents a cultured gunfighter. In this way, all three of these main characters contrast each other, and are comfortable with their place in the world, except when they are around each other.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a very structured film with an immoral western subject. It has a prologue, like a stage play, and a rousing ending. The beginning and the ending both have montages, and character moments are sprinkled within. The movie has character development, a climax, and a huge action set piece. It also has a number of themes, such as the use cryptic dialogue with bigger meanings, grey morality, symbolism, and the American Civil War.
Words and Myths
The words used in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sometimes have a cryptic emphasis and are as explicit as Aesop’s fables. These phrases are often left unexplained, but mostly have context about what the characters are doing or what they will do. I would suggest that even the title of this movie is also a clever juxtaposition against the grey morals featured in this movie. The three main characters are not simply good, bad, and ugly, as the title suggests, but have deeper flaws and foibles that Leone gives us gradually. Eventually, these men do fall into their roles, but it is morality that is the true subject, not a black and white competition.
Black and Grey Morality
The subject of morality in this film is suggested at by the title, but Leone deconstructs the typical one-dimensional western characters and creates moral ambiguity. You’d think it’d be a simple method to judge the morals of characters described as “good”, “bad”, and “ugly”, but it isn’t. Leone introduces flaws or nuances in each of the “heroes”, and even in the villains. This complicates matters in the movie, creating an ambiguity that makes protagonist and antagonist almost indistinguishable. We can though, mostly because the main characters fight against even more reprehensible men. These three men have identifiable themes in the score: blondie has the whistle, Angel Eyes has an ocarina, and Tuco has a scream, “AHHHH!”
Trading Sides, Nationalities, and Allegiances
This theme can be seen throughout the plot. Backstabbing is typical of our main characters and it supports the grey morality of the film. There are numerous times when Tuco, Blondie, and Angel-Eyes betray someone, and they even backstab each other. Hilariously, Tuco trades sides four times during the course of the film.
I don’t want to get into a religious discussion, but it is obvious the movie uses religion to contrast our heroes. Also, much of the dialogue has religious undertones.
Religious symbolism is most obvious while Tuco visits his brother, who is a priest. In this way, Leone makes direct comparisons between the two men in the dialogue, all while having Tuco run down his brother for being a coward, an indirect criticism of religion in his family. However, despite these insults, his brother still helps Tuco and Blondie, which may be the opposite commentary, so I’m not sure what this movie’s stance on religion is, if any. In one way, religion is silent, resilient, and helpful, like Tuco’s brother, but in other ways, religion is subverted and forgotten.
The nickname Angel Eyes is also a curious, religious nickname. Based on the introduction, we know Lee Van Cleef’s character is The Bad, an evil man who always follows his job through to the end. In this way, he is a dependable assassin, but also malicious at the same time. He tortures with no remorse, as the worst character of all three, but his nickname contrasts his actions. His black attire suggests the Grim Reaper, who comes for his victims, no matter the occasion. His nickname may simply be a reference to his good looks, but it also creates a romantic notion of the character, who hides his true morals behind all appearances.
Although Tuco doesn’t exactly resurrect himself, he comes close enough that he may as well be tempting death. It is not a coincidence that Tuco’s dance with death ends at a cemetary, where he begs for forgiveness and tries to convince Blondie to help him. This may be the movie’s way of criticizing Tuco’s actions. No temptation goes unpunished in this film.
I wonder what Leone wanted to reference in the use of the cemetery at the end. It may be a very literal reference to death and the expected death of the characters at the end of the movie. The tension of the scene makes it one of the most memorable showdowns on film. The presence of the cemetery also reinforces the catastrophic nature of the American Civil War, therefore it is not really a religious metaphor, but a comment on the Civil War itself.
American Civil War
This movie uses the Civil War as a backdrop and a symbol for death and destruction. This comment on war is painted as even more morally evil than any of the three main characters, who are themselves, really despicable men. While around soldiers and battlefields, each of the main characters are inhibited, overshadowed by the grand scale of the war. In fact, the characters disguise themselves when around soldiers, so as to not be overcome by the incongruous war, because even Tuco, Blondie, and Angel-Eyes have principles by comparison.
The movie uses examples to show purposeless destruction, in a fruitless battle over a bridge that costs thousands of lives, and in whippings and the mistreatment of men at an internment camp. Leone shows that there are no “good” causes in war, and no heroes.
This movie is a great film, only hampered by its budget, but it doesn’t show, in my opinion. I’ve read that the lack of funds inspired Leone to find new ways to address the absence of dialogue and to show action. Yes, it is a little old-fashioned and slow-paced, but this doesn’t hamper its actors from delivering great performances.
To answer my own question, I think this film is definitely up there as one of the greatest of all time. Time Magazine and Roger Ebert have gone on record praising this film, but it has never been honored as historically or culturally significant, despite its influence as a great western, which is a shame. However, I think many people today do still have a high opinion of it. I’ve never read a true criticism of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, because I think most people have respect for what was accomplished on a large-scale in the movie, but also because the movie does so many things right.