The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

Half a century later, cinema is still awestruck by Leone’s “fairy tale for grown-ups”

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<i>The Good, the Bad and the Ugly</i> at 50

“This is what the Western does—it releases you… And more important—it releases the characters. They can be more primitive; they can be more Greek, like Oedipus Rex or Antigone, you see, because you are dealing again in a sweeping legend.”
—Anthony Mann

“The desert settings appear to stretch at least as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune. And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel. … What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic size.”
—Stephen King, on viewingThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The beginning of Man of Steel (2013) opens on the alien planet Krypton as Russell Crowe races to be with his pregnant wife. He flies on the back of some kind of creature, I think. (It’s been three years.) Things explode all around him. Some pursuing jet fighter (or something) shoots at him. All hell is breaking loose. The world is literally coming to an end. Really, though, he’s trying to get to his pregnant wife. There is so much stuff happening, but not a whole lot going on. If there’s a reason so many cinephiles still laud Italian director Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti” Western films, we might start there in explaining it.

Because despite a lack of exploding cities or armies of computer-generated robots or stunning reveals of parentage, without a post-credit teaser tying it to the same “cinematic universe” as the Lone Ranger, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly feels grander and more mythic than contemporary movies about actual mythic characters. It’s redundant at this point to say that it’s the platonic ideal of the Spaghetti Western. It would appear to be entirely composed of silly Western tropes (ridiculously exact marksmanship, the jangly music cues that insinuate themselves into the scene, the hero in a battered poncho) if not for the fact that it fathered them.

I submit that it isn’t a film audiences today would respond well to: The pace is meandering, the plot contains a few holes that require the sort of mental fill-ins that are completely forbidden by today’s scriptwriters, and there are long stretches of seething, brooding silence where not a lot happens (but a great deal is going on). The violence seems quaint.

Yet, like the fatalistic samurai epics and acidic noir that gave birth to it, director Sergio Leone’s closing entry in the unofficial Man With No Name Trilogy remade the badass cinema landscape.

“John Wayne once wrote me a letter telling me he didn’t likeHigh Plains Drifter. He said it wasn’t about the people who really pioneered the West. I realized that there’s two different generations, and he wouldn’t understand what I was doing. High Plains Drifter was meant to be a fable.” —Clint Eastwood

The Western had fallen on hard times when Sergio Leone and other directors like Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now), and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) came along in the ’50s and ’60s to turn it into a drier, crueler genre. The cowboy B-movies of the ’30s and ’40s had become too expensive to make and yielded too little returns in an age when television was rising and cinema attendance falling.

The term “Spaghetti” Western was slapped on Leone’s three landmark films (For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars Moreand finally, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as something of an insult because of how obviously they had been produced in Europe with Italian actors. For his own part, Leone argued that it was perfectly reasonable a foreign filmmaker chose to make his mark on such an American genre.

“Several great directors of Westerns came from Europe: Ford is Irish, Zinnemann Austrian, Wyler is from Alsace; Tourneur, French. I don’t see why an Italian should not be added to the bunch,” Christopher Frayling quotes him as saying in Once Upon A Time In Italy.

Leone, the son of a film director and an actress who spent his childhood in Rome under Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, took some of his inspiration from John Ford’s films, which ranged from bygone classics like 1939’s Stagecoach to John Wayne vehicles like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. which used the actor’s aging eminence solely to add a layer of tarnish to it (much as Clint Eastwood would do in Unforgiven and Gran Torino).

In belatedly eulogizing Ford in 1973, Leone seemed aware both of where he’d diverged from Ford and what he’d kept the same. Saying that his own Westerns were less “innocent and enchanted” than Ford’s, he nevertheless wrote: “I could never have shot Once Upon a Time in the West or even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly if John Ford hadn’t shown me, when I was a boy, the Arizona desert with its baking wooden towns bathed in an intense, astonishing kind of light.”

If the mythic American West that Leone built out of sets in the Spanish desert seemed harder and harsher than the frontier spirit Ford often evoked, it might have been some of Leone’s dealings with Americans as a boy that dispelled the heroic notions those beloved films had instilled into him. As a teen in 1943, he was present as triumphant American G.I.s rolled through Rome, having defeated the fascists who had blacklisted and shunned his family. He was grateful they had liberated him, but found them to be flawed humans.

“I found them very energetic, but very deceptive,” Leone recalled. “They were soldiers like any others … I could see nothing, or almost nothing, of the great prairies and demigods of my childhood.”

GB&Uwas released in 1966 and found its way to America in 1968, where it debuted to the same astounding success as it had around the world and saw United Artists scrambling to re-dub and release the other two films Eastwood and Leone had made together. A year later, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch hammered a nail in the coffin of the idealistic singing cowboy forever, and the American West became a bleak place for violent men.

Blondie: “You see, there are two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig. —Blondie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A group of gunmen strides down the dirt street of an abandoned town, waiting for some unseen cue before charging into a building—only to be completely gunned down by Tuco (Eli Wallach), a bandito with a rap-sheet to match the size of his vengeful temper. A hired killer called Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) rides out of the desert like some kind of apparition, coolly sits down at the table of a family man, eats his food, takes his money, and then guns him down. And Tuco enters into a proposition with a (not actually blond…) gunman named Blondie (Clint Eastwood), whose rasping voice and lightning-fast pistol enter the frame before his face ever does.

The film follows each of these protagonists in their quest for $200,000 in buried Confederate gold as they wander from one apocalyptic tableau to the next: A vast and lifeless desert, a Catholic church filled with war casualties, a prison camp ruled by thugs, a blasted-out town caught in the middle of Union and Confederate shelling that seems to be aimed at nobody in particular, a pointless battle over a meaningless bridge, and finally, a graveyard of war dead that fills the horizon.

The gold is hidden in a coffin, but only Tuco knows which cemetery (until Angel Eyes beats it out of him, that is) and only Blondie knows the name on the grave. The sprawling film that follows them has a lot of plot points—betrayals, reversals of fortune, reunions and abortive attempts at revenge—but they aren’t as important as the tone the film sets as the characters wander through deserts and stride alongside one another into gunfights where they’re seemingly hopelessly outnumbered.

Through it all, Leone captures the proceedings with a combination of wide landscape shots and close-ups so extreme that viewers can count the pores on the actors’ faces. As if to signal that this is exactly what he’ll do for the entire film, the movie’s first shot opens on a wide desert vista before a grizzled gunman’s face darts in from the side to dominate the frame.

The blaring score by Ennio Morricone ramps up every emotion. Eastwood would later describe the films as “operatic,” as he explained how his own films usually took the opposite tack. But, as his comment on his letter from John Wayne attests, he was still operating in the realm of fancy and legend when he made films like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider.

“Told you… call me ‘Bronco.’” —Bill Murray, in a poncho, in Groundhog Day

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly launched a thousand cheap Italian Westerns, redefined the Western genre just as America was about to slip into the deeply cynical Watergate and Vietnam years, and turned Clint Eastwood into every conservative’s favorite action hero (and one of Hollywood’s most no-bullshit directors). The title itself has worked its way into the English language—things are constantly sorted re: goodness, badness and ugliness. Every parody or joke about Westerns seems to be taking aim at it. The one in Groundhog Day adopts Morricone-like music and, if you really watch it, even uses some of the same kind of camera movement.

The films of some of today’s most acclaimed directors reference it: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology and Django Unchained in particular owe it a debt, and contemporary Westerns like the remake of 3:10 To Yuma and Appaloosa borrow some of its methods. The lessons Eastwood took from it have served him in every one of his roles as actor and director since. Stephen King’s entire sprawling body of work seems to be tied in with his Dark Tower series, a work directly inspired by the majestic desolation of Leone’s film.

Leone stated that his Westerns were meant to be “fairy tales for grown-ups.” His masterpiece focuses on three men with antique pistols sweating in the heat as they quietly and motionless stare one another down in a petty fight over some money. But the editing shows us their thrill and fear, their weathered hands hovering over their guns, the great space between them that their aim must overcome quickly enough to gun down not one, but two adversaries. The score rises.

This is a moment in which nothing is happening. But there is so much going on.

Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.