Should I Watch..? 'The Good, The Bad And The Ugly'
What's the big deal?
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is an epic spaghetti western film released in 1966 and is the conclusion to director Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy. The film acts as a prequel to both A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More and follows three gunslingers in a quest to locate a cache of Confederate gold hidden across enemy lines during the American Civil War in 1862. The film stars Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in the three central roles while the film's legendary score was composed by Ennio Morricone. Despite a mixed reception when the film was released, it was a big hit with audiences in the US with domestic earnings of more than $25 million and catapulted Eastwood in superstardom. Nowadays, the film is regarded as an all-time classic and one of the greatest westerns ever made.
What's it about?
During the American Civil War, Mexican bandit Tuco Ramirez strikes up a partnership with an enigmatic sharp-shooter known as Blondie. Tuco is a wanted fugitive and Blondie apprehends Tuco and claims the reward - however, he then rescues Tuco from the hangman's noose before splitting the reward between them. While their uneasy partnership threatens to come off the rails, ruthless bounty hunter Sentenza (known as "Angel Eyes") hears talk about a stolen cache of Confederate gold buried in a cemetery somewhere. His only lead is a runaway Confederate soldier now going by the name of Bill Carson.
As Tuco and Blondie fall out, Tuco discovers a wagon full of dead or dying soldiers including Carson who tells him about the gold. While Tuco is fetching water for Carson, Blondie is told the name of the grave where the gold is buried but not the location. Realising that they need to work together, the pair of them set off towards the front line between Confederate and Union forces with Sentenza never too far behind and Tuco's cruelty threatening the life of his former partner...
Lee Van Cleef
Sentenza / "Angel Eyes"
Father Pablo Ramirez
Elam, the one-armed bounty hunter
Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone*
179 minutes (extended English version)
Release Date (UK)
8th September, 1968
Drama, War, Western
What's to like?
Like many classic films before and since, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly can conjure many cinematic memories from Eastwood in his timeless poncho to that unforgettable score by Morricone. The film feels much more grandiose and epic than before with vast sweeping landscapes, towns blasted apart by mortar fire and the sombre majesty of Sad Hill Cemetery, its endless rows of wooden crosses feeling reminiscent of an actual war cemetery. In the midst of such stunning cinematography, Leone brings the action between the characters to the foreground with uncomfortably close camera shots and an eye for some truly breath-taking stunt work, especially those involved a steam train.
Eastwood is the same confident gunslinger we saw in the earlier films but Van Cleef is a total contrast to his vengeful father role in For A Few Dollars More, happily engaging in wanton violence partly (you suspect) to satisfy his own cravings and desires. But the film belongs to Wallach whose comical and occasionally ruthless bandito has the majority of the screen time as well as the narrative benefit of having his character more fleshed out than the others as well as most of the dialogue. He's a rogue but not in the lovable sense, becoming more obsessed with the gold than any of them and getting seemingly corrupted by it. But the reason why this film stands atop of the mountain when it comes to westerns is its influence over other examples. It breaks many of the traditions established by earlier films and sets up new clichés for those to follow - the Mexican stand-off, the noisy and chaotic battle scenes, the close-ups on nervous eyes and itchy trigger fingers, the framing of the action. It's a remarkably dynamic watch even today and it never feels overlong despite the almost 3-hour running time.
- This would mark the last collaboration between Eastwood and Leone after the actor fell out with the director's perfectionist approach to directing, often shooting the same scene from multiple angles. Eastwood was offered Charles Bronson's role in Once Upon A Time In The West but he refused. Incidentally, Bronson was offered the role of Tuco or Angel Eyes but had to decline as he was shooting The Dirty Dozen at the time.
- Wallach complained in his autobiography about two incidents on set that nearly killed him. During a scene where Tuco is due to be hung, the rope is severed by a trick shot and Tuco escapes on a horse. But it bolted and ran for almost a mile with Wallach clinging on with his knees (his hands were bound behind him). The second involved the steam train breaking the chain between him and his former guard. Wallach and the crew were oblivious to heavy iron steps on each of the carriages that would have decapitated Wallach if he raised his head by mere inches!
- Sad Hill Cemetery was built by 250 members of the Spanish army in just two days and has since become a tourist attraction in Carazo near Salas de los Infantes. It was restored by a group of fans in 2015.
What's not to like?
Narratively, there isn't enough to justify such a long running time and the film does have a trick up its sleeve with a lengthy and brilliantly shot war sequence featuring hundreds of extras charging into battle on a narrow bridge spanning a mighty river. It's as stark and brutal as any war film I've seen and is encapsulated by Aldo Giuffrè's performance as the alcoholic captain of the entrenched Union forces, resigned to the same fate as that of his men and drinking to absolve himself of the responsibility. It's an unexpectedly poignant moment but I'm not sure the film needed such a sequence in it.
The film's other big issue is the dialogue which was all recorded post-production and gives it the sort of hokey feel you get in dubbed Chinese martial arts pictures like Fist Of Fury. It is obvious that the cast, most of whom spoke their own native language instead of English, aren't really speaking the words we hear as the audience and it does take you out of the illusion of the film for a while. But after a bit, you're having too much fun to notice or care very much.
Should I watch it?
Anyone looking for a decent western should start with a Sergio Leone picture and they don't come much better than this. Absorbing and entertaining, the film feels like the genuine article with tighter production and more expansive story-telling than almost any other Leone film bar Once Upon A Time In The West. I prefer For A Few Dollars More but there is little to separate these films. Forget Hollywood's romanticised vision of the Old West - Leone's timeless spaghetti western wears its derision like a badge of honour and remains possibly the greatest western in history.
Great For: fans of westerns, Eastwood's career, Morricone's reputation as a composer of film scores
Not So Great For: bladders, young children, American westerns
What else should I watch?
There has been no shortage of westerns produced over the years although their appeal and the frequency of their release has slowed since the 1960s. There are also no shortage of films that could be proclaimed the best western - Stagecoach is perhaps the earliest film to claim that honour as well as proving to be John Wayne's breakthrough performance but other films like Once Upon A Time In The West, Eastwood's own Unforgiven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all score higher enough on IMDb to warrant watching at least once.
These days, westerns might not appear as often as they used to but they are usually blended with other genres or deliberately made in a style that clashes with that seen in traditional pictures. Take Django Unchained as an example or even the Oscar-winning The Revenant which sees Leonardo DiCaprio brave bears, the elements and former colleagues in a grim tale of survival against the odds. And it would be remiss of me not to mention Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid with its late-Sixties take on the Old West and The Magnificent Seven with its top-drawer cast and explosive action.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox