The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; It’s the most beautifully bleak, humourous, well written, well directed film I’ve ever seen, a classic western that not only deals with the morality of the time, but also explores the American Civil War through a brilliant adventure story (the fact that Clint Eastwood plays one of the central characters helps an awful lot too).
The film was released in 1966, and directed by Sergio Leone, the Italian director who brought the world A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Two films that changed the face of cinema forever, and the effects of which are still felt today in modern cinema. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the last film in the “Dollars” trilogy, but it is in fact a prequel to both the previous films, making For a Few Dollars More the last film in the Man With No Name’s timeline. By the time it was released, the previous two films had taken America by storm, and had changed the way westerns (and films in general) were written and filmed forever. Quentin Tarantino has stated on numerous occasions that this is his favourite film, and you can clearly see the influence of it upon his writing and directing style, which may be a reason as to why Tarantino is one of my favourite directors.
Ever since The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was released, its influence upon popular culture and cinema has grown year after year, and whatever walk of life you may be from, you will have heard the title used as an idiom, or be aware that its theme song is the go-to western music, AY-YI-AHHH. As well as these influences, it’s now widely regarded to be one of the best films ever made and possibly the most iconic film of its genre, for its technical achievements, cinematic scope and great storytelling. The film is about three men and their journey across the west of America to find 200,000 dollars in gold buried in a graveyard (a hefty sum of money back then). The Ugly (portrayed by the superb method actor, Eli Wallach) is a criminal constantly hounded by bounty hunters, The Good (played by the tough but genial, laconic Clint Eastwood) is an opportunist who earns a living however he can, and The Bad (played by an unusually menacing Lee Van Cleef) is a viscous mercenary/gun for hire who, once he’s paid, always finishes the job. They fight their way across the war-torn landscape of America, suffering set-back after set-back, double-cross after double-cross, always motivated by the one thing they all have in common, greed. The Characters do actually have names, but they are always remember by the nicknames the title gives them, even though they can be very ironic in some cases…
The first thing that strikes you about this film is the bleak beauty of the landscape. It was actually filmed on the plains of Spain, but the dry, barren hills and deserts can easily convince you of an American setting. Leone doesn’t waste this picturesque landscape, he uses the wise open spaces to his full advantage, giving you a clear image of just how expansive and deserted these lands really are. My favourite scene for the landscape would have to be finale, where the rolling hills and coliseum-like set are almost always in frame, making you feel like you’re watching from a stadium seat, both in the dizzying heights of Wembley’s upper tiers and in the low, close-to-the-action courtside seats of a basketball game. This flowery description may sound like there’s too much distance between the viewer and the film, but these wide-angles are interlaced with shots so up close and personal that you can see every emotion of the characters in Eastwood’s squint, Van-Cleef’s shrewd leer, and Wallach’s panicked, wide-eyed stare.
While you’re transfixed on the landscape for a lot of the film, it doesn’t detract from the fact that the main characters are incredibly engaging, and you find yourself even liking The Bad thanks to the great dialogue and acting (besides, who doesn’t like a good villain?). But it’s not just Lee Van Cleef’s portrayal of him that connects you to the character, it’s the fact that when you get to the base of it, all the characters are motivated by the same thing, greed. It’s just that their methods of reaching their goal are different. So when you look at the title again, it’s you can see that it’s not a definite statement about the characters’ morality, but a statement about how morality is viewed in that harsh, violent world. For example, in order to find information on the location of the money, The Bad visits a captured military fort crowded with wounded men from both sides of the war. He chats to one of the men charged with holding it, and, whether it’s through pity or simple business, leaves him a bottle of alcohol. This little gesture says a lot about the character, and you can see it in his eyes that he really does feel something when he sees all these young men bed ridden or missing limbs. That’s a key aspect of the film that draws me into it, everybody has a sense of humanity about them, and there are no two-dimensional characters here, my friends.
The Ugly is a very ambiguous and complicated character, but easily one of the most likeable I’ve ever come across, mostly due to Eli Wallach’s brilliant acting. He has been forced to grow up in a harsh environment, pushed into crime by his surroundings and society- “Where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit! You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder.” He truly regrets not being able to live a normal life, but he has embraced a life of crime as well as he can. There is a key difference between him and The Bad though, because while he does do awful things, and while he can’t be labelled as “good”, he isn’t a stranger to good deeds. He’s the ugly truth of that society, a man pressured into a life of crime in order to survive.
And then we come to The Good. Good old Clint, returning for the third time as “The Man with No Name”, but this time he’s playing him from his origins, rather than during his travels. I think The Good would be best described as an opportunist, or a con-man. He doesn’t do anything to actively harm people, and the crimes he does choose to commit don’t result in innocent people being harmed, but he does frequently break the law for his own gain, which is usually to do with money. Like The Ugly, he’s somewhat forced to act outside of the law in order to survive, but he is definitely the most morally sound of the three, stopping for a few minutes to comfort a dying soldier while The Ugly runs ahead to the gold, for instance. As with most of Eastwood’s film characters, is hard not to like such a laid back, semi-decent guy, and when the climax arrives you find yourself rooting for him all the way (and what a climax it is… I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tense during a film).
As for the soundtrack… I don’t even have the words to describe how amazing it really is. Written by Ennio Morricone, one of the most respected composers of the 20th Century, it defies description. Instead, here’s a link to the most beautiful song you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing, The Ecstacy of Gold.
Finally, I just want to mention the script. Apart from Tarantino’s movies, I don’t think I’ve seen a film where the dialogue is almost completely true to life. Everything the characters say feels completely natural and organic, it’s like you’re watching a conversation from the sidelines, with characters firing off quick one liners and making small-talk that is in fact heavily loaded with implications. The sheer amount of quotable lines that come from this film is enormous, and even the title is now an idiom in the English language. Perhaps the best thing about it is that there’s little to no exposition, and that can only be a good thing in my books. Everything you need to know about the characters’ actions and emotions can be seen, and doesn’t have to be explained in clumsy, clunky dialogue, which seems to be becoming more and more frequent in modern cinema, the only problem is that you have to actually watch the film.
Anyway, I could ramble on for a very long time about this film and the different reasons why it’s perfect to me in almost every way, but I don’t want to bore you too much (well, any more than I already have). I guess all I can say is that if there’s one film you should write down on a list of movies you want to see, it should be this one (and if you do watch it, I highly recommend the extended 3 hour edition, because it has a number of extra scenes that add even more to this already superb film), I literally cannot recommend it enough.
Thanks for reading, and if you have anything to say about this fanboy-ish post, please leave a comment!