The Western has always been a genre with one spurred boot firmly embedded in myth. Far too young to have a history littered with knights and kings and emperors, America instead elevated stories set in the old West with all the righteous heroes and nefarious villains that was necessary to populate the stories that helped forge a country. However, it’s somewhat ironic that arguably the finest example of this wasn’t even crafted by an American at all, but instead was put in place by an Italian filmmaker as he put the finishing touches on a trilogy that changed the rules of the game – I am, of course, referring to Sergio Leone’s unmatched trio of movies that featured Clint Eastwood’s unflappable gun fighter, the Man With No Name and in particular, the closing chapter, which takes the misadventures of a triangle of shifty gunslingers and embellishes it to legendary status.
As we trot our way through the dusty wastes of the old west as the American Civil War rages in our peripheral vision, we are introduced to a clutch of hardened gunslingers who make their living generally leaving other folks dead. The first guy we meet is the permanently disheveled Tuco – or “The Ugly” as the title card unflatteringly dubs him – a bandit with a running mouth and a serious impulse control problem who is introduced after shooting his way out of an ambush. Next up is the sadistic mercenary, Angel Eyes (aka. “The Bad”), a callous psycho of the highest order who shows us exactly what he’s capable of as he questions a profusely sweating man on the whereabouts of some lost Confederate gold and repays the answers he gets by shooting the him and his young son in cold blood. Finally we are introduced to “The Good”, the wandering gunslinger we’ve encountered before who this movie goes by the temporary title of Blondie who rescues Tuco from a band of bounty hunters only to hand him over to authorities himself for the $2000 reward money; but as we’ve seen in the past, “Blondie” wouldn’t be “Blondie” if he wasn’t pulling some sort of scam and during Tuco’s hanging, he shoots the rope, scatters the crowd and the two flee with the reward money, only to pop up elsewhere when the reward total goes up. However, considering that both of these guys are as fundamentally untrustworthy as a rabid prairie dog, it comes as no real surprise when “Blondie” gets tired of Tuco’s near unending stream of bullshit and strands him in the desert, however, the vocal bandit isn’t one to take a double cross lying down and eventually tracks down his former partner a whiles later and returns the favour, marching him through the arid wilderness until he drops.
However, its here that the plot thickens as the two stumble across a medical carriage filled with a bunch of Confederate soldiers who are deader than denim. However, the one guy who is barely still alive tells Tuco about some gold hidden in a grave at a cemetery and while the bandit rummages around looking for a way to prolong his life, the exact location of the treasure is whispered to an ailing Blondie. Tuco may know which cemetery it is, but only Blondie knows the name of the grave to dig up, so the two now have to keep each other alive if they want to get their hands on the loot – the same loot that (you guessed it) Angel Eyes has been killing a path toward.
As the three men spiral in and out of each others orbits, their journey will bring them dangerous close numerous times to the war that is currently dividing the very country.
There are numerous westerns that once darted rapidly out of Hollywood with the speed of a crazed rattlesnake, but there is only one The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and it remains at the peak of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westen Trilogy as his skills significantly escalated with every entry as he fully realised his style that merged the works of John Ford and David Lean with supreme confidence. Redefining the term of a sprawling epic, Leone literally has his story meander all over the place, painting a huge, interconnected canvas from a deceptively simple story that complicates its meandering tone with plot twists, coincidences and sub-plots as our various characters slowly wind their way to their ultimate goal.
It actually shouldn’t work as sometimes Leone takes the character’s rambling side missions arguably too far (Blondie and Tuco find themselves tangled up with bloodied and battered soldiers on numerous occasions) and yet The Good, The Bad And The Ugly thrives precisely because the movie stubbonly refuses to get to the point. All the misadventures these guys get into, every shootout, every detour, is a fabulously dense tapestry to turn a journey in an odyssey and build the rather ordinary matter of finding Confederate gold up into something more akin to locating promethean fire. By the time all the players are inevitably gathered at the magnificently dystopian cemetery, we are hopelessly invested the anticipation is at fever point which leads to possibly Leone’s most agonisingly tense shootout ever. In fact, the final act, from Blondie firing a cannon at a fleeing Tuco to the darkly humorous ending, may be the greatest moments the western has ever seen as the director continues to let every single moment breathe in order for composer Ennio Morricone go absolutely fucking mental on the score. Obviously, the main theme of the movie is one of the greatest ever composed for cinema (it practically is the western) and the fanfare he blares out during the seemingly endless stare down between the three participants of the final duel is beyond sublime, but it’s the Ecstacy Of Gold sequence, where Tuco clumsily jogs through the graves, overjoyed to have finally made it this far, that really sticks in the memory. Essentially two and a half minutes of pure cinema, it’s something no filmmaker would even consider trying today as technically unnecessary as a set of nipples on a fish, but for driving home the sheer adulation of these shifty bastards finally nearing the end of their gargantuan it is a genuine moment of delirious bliss you aren’t usually treated to in a genre of manly men who usually squint their emotions away.
The three leads are superlative and the movie plays to their strengths wisely, be it Lee Van Cleef’s feral smile to the fact that Eli Wallach simply won’t shut the fuck up, but its once again Clint Eastwood who radiates outwards the very epitome of the outwardly cruel gun slinger to a tee as the movie assembles his iconic poncho and garb around him as the movie progresses. They’re also all well served by Leone’s trademark sense of the impishly cool set piece as wannabe tough guys are outwitted, out maneuvered and out shot by things such diverse as a jangling spur, a bullet-severed rope and the fact that Tuco takes baths with a revolver on his person.
Unbelievably, Leone managed to get even more epic and mythic with Once Upon A Time In The West, which mournfully examined the slow death of the old ways of life as a more civilised world Rose in prominence; but with Eastwood, Cleef and Wallach representing on behalf of their director, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly may very well be the ultimate western ever made.
“In this world are two kinds of people, my friend.” calmly states Blondie at one point, “Those with loaded guns and those that dig.”
Leone’s guns are definitely loaded. You dig?