The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [50 Films Older Than Me #6]

Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #6. 

Spoilers ahead.  

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Directed by Sergio Leone

Release Year:  1966 (4 years before I was born)

What it is about:  During the American Civil War, a rumor of a hidden treasure attracts the attention of three different gunfighters–a drifter known as “Blondie”, a mercenary called “Angel Eyes” and bandit named Tuco Ramirez. Though they have treated each other cruelly, Blondie and Tuco form a bond and work uneasily together to outpace Angel Eyes. Nonetheless, the the three men find themselves in a standoff together at the site of the treasure. Angel Eyes is killed, and Blondie takes the treasure, nearly leavaing Tuco to die before relenting and allowing him to live.

Starring Clint Eastwood as Blondie, Eli Wallach as Tuco and Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I was certainly aware of this movie as a quintessential Spaghetti Western, connected in some fashion with A Fistful of Dollars (which I haven’t seen) and For a Few Dollars More (which I have). Somewhere along the way I’d seen something of its final scene, when Blondie forces Tuco into a noose–so I had the general sense that only Clint Eastwood’s character was going to be alive at the end of the film.

Reality: What I didn’t know before setting out to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for this series was how long the movie is. The running time of the movie is about three hours, which is pretty long. But a quick Google search indicates for me that the film is actually four hours long. In this case, Google is wrong, and when my friend and I geared up to watch it and realized the truth, we were both grateful.

Not that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a bad movie–far from it. But it is one that takes it’s time, and is never in a hurry to get anywhere. Sometimes the action moves quickly, but only after it has moved very slooooowly beforehand. In fact, this sort of contrast is kind of the film’s trademark. Movement and story is almost painfully drawn out, as various characters methodically move into position, but then it suddenly smashes forward in an explosion of gunfire and violence. Similarly, the story is often told in extreme wide shots which linger over the vast landscapes that fill the world of the film…which suddenly slam into tight close ups of angry eyes and twitchy fingers, ready to draw their pistols.

I love especially the movie’s opening, which features what appears to be a conflict brewing between two groups approaching each other down a dusty road, until they both abruptly turn into a tavern to attack somebody else! Gunfire rings out, and then suddenly someone smashes through a window, which then freeze frames on the guy, and we are introduced to Tuco–one of our three main character–the “Ugly”.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not a movie built on character development or character arcs. In fact, I’m pretty sure that nobody actually grows or changes in any way. They arrive on screen fully formed and set in their ways, and then they get pushed slowly into a plot about hundreds of thousands of dollars of treasure, and we get to watch them clash along the way. The only one of the three to get any exploration or backstory is Tuco (the “Ugly”), making Eli Wallach in some ways the true star of the movie. The other two–Blondie (“the Good”) and Angel Eyes (“the Bad”)–are just cold, implacable figures, who are just walking through the story in pursuit of their goals.

That’s not to say that the lead actors are bad–not at all. It’s just that the script doesn’t give them really anywhere to go.

In the absence of character growth, it’s the cinematography and editing which keep one engaged with the material. Even though the characters are limited, there is something about the world that they live in which is fascinating, and consistently surprising and engrossing. In addition to the cinematography and editing, the musical soundtrack by the brilliant Ennio Morricone helps to paint the picture of a world of moral ambiguity and stylized but unromantic and abrupt violence. People don’t win because they are heroes–they win because they are smarter than their opponents, and faster with a gun. Indeed, the most heroic thing Blondie does in the movie is not let Tuco die like the miserable wretch he is. Otherwise he is only good by comparison to Angel Eyes, in that he is not a cold-blooded murderer–or at least, when he cold-bloodedly murders people, there is a sense that they deserve it.

The film is set during the American Civil war, and uses this backdrop to make some pretty definite comments about war. In the course of their journey, Blondie and Tuco come across a bridge which both Union and Confederate armies are vying for control of. The disillusioned Union officer in charge of one side of the campaign makes it clear that the bridge is useless, and that the best way to save the lives of the soldiers would be just to destroy it. And so, Blondie and Tuco do just that–although not for idealistic reasons, but for practical ones related to their treasure. But it’s clear that their ability to fulfill the dying Union commander’s greatest wish is something we’re to feel pleased about. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly war seems as meaningless as all the other gunfights that our main characters engage in, except there’s no treasure at the end of it.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? More fascinating than something I actually enjoyed, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is nonetheless a classic of its genre and its subgenre, filled with many memorable sequences and some brilliant use of cinematic language to deliver its set pieces. And that Ennio Morricore score is something else!

See here for the Master List.

2 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [50 Films Older Than Me #6]

  1. Unforgiven was the first for me to really notice and appreciate Clint Eastwood as a western star. So It’s very interesting to get to know his western legacy better after that. Thanks for your review.

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