Poncho-wearing, cigar-chewing, nameless Clint Eastwood is one of the most iconic film characters – I was going to say, of the 1960’s, but that doesn’t quite cover it – the Man With No Name is one of the most iconic film characters of all time. (He’s pictured to the below, in case you forgot just how iconic he is.) Certainly one of the greatest film cowboys, and certainly the best known of Clint Eastwood’s roles. Other than perhaps James Bond and Han Solo, no movie hero has proven to be as badass or uniquely masculine as the Dollars’ trilogy protagonist. However, if we are to look at the trilogy’s most famous installment, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, there is something very interesting to be noted about our hero; namely, that he isn’t a hero at all.
The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly, unlike the vast majority of films, actually suggests who the viewer ought to root for. The film tells us that the Man With No Name – we’ll call him Blondie, as Tuco does – is “The Good,” and even has those words come across the screen after allotting the viewers a few minutes getting to know the character. The movie does the same for the ironically-named Angel Eyes, deeming him “The Bad” after showing him in a slew of murders. The opening sequence is well known for establishing the film’s characters, but creates problems for the films as it gives labels to the characters corresponding to their supposed morality.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, labels its characters in a seemingly wrong way; The Good is not so morally good, the Bad is only slightly more liberal about killing, and the Ugly isn’t that ugly.
Let’s think about our first encounter with Blondie the Good. He shoots down all the people trying to take Tuco for bounty money… and takes Tuco for bounty money. Now, to be fair, we don’t necessarily know if those people are or are not evil. We never get the full story with them. But Blondie seems to kill them because they beat him to the punch. And then what does Blondie do? He brings Tuco to the authorities, collects the bounty, and frees him just before the criminal hangs. Nothing we have seen before this point indicates that Tuco is innocent, or a good guy by any means. Blondie frees him so that crime can continue.
But things don’t stop there. Blondie takes Tuco out into the desert, their apparently usual de-briefing spot, and decides to let him go, because their partnership isn’t ever going to be worth much money. And then Blondie begins to ride off, leaving Tuco to die. When Tuco starts cursing him out, which I would also do to anyone who dropped me in the middle of the desert with no water, Blondie simply quips: “My, my. Such ingratitude after all this time.” It is then that the words “The Good” appear on-screen, thus creating one of the most ironic scenes in film.
Now whatever merits this being labeled as “Good” beats the hell out of me.
If it might seem like I’m aggressively bashing one of the greatest films and film heroes of all time, then I promise, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just pointing out the complexity and irony of a story that gives viewers a specific moral compass and then shows characters that don’t act accordingly. Intentionally or accidentally, it subverts the viewers’ expectations, and creates a pleasantly complex world.
Early on in the film, watching the pairing of Blondie and Tuco, I was caught by something that Blondie said: if they found the treasure, he would only take half. Since Tuco would take all of it, this struck me as a somewhat honest thing to do. Later in the film, when Blondie and Angel Eyes discuss the treasure, he says he would not be greedy, and only take half. Now, we never get to see Angel Eyes get the treasure, as we do with Blondie, but there’s nothing that makes his claim seem non-genuine… Other than, you know, his penchant for murder. But Angel Eyes’ most cold-blooded kills come at the beginning of the film, when he makes a contracted agreement with someone who wants these people dead.
Money does seem to be the driving motivation for all the characters in the film, which I suppose makes sense, seeing as the first two installments of the movie were titled A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Money is not in the title, but it is what all the characters are after; Angel Eyes kills for money, Blondie chases money, and Tuco even attends his own hanging for a slice of the bounty money. They’re all desperate for massive sums of money; namely, they’re greedy. The film labels Blondie as Good, but he still kills and cheats to get money. Really, the primary reasons that viewers even have to root for Blondie is because he is less greedy than Tuco and less violent than Angel Eyes.
For a notable contrast, viewers can look to the fantastic Korean re-working of the film: The Good The Bad The Weird. The story is similar, with a treasure hunt, three men pursuing it, as well as a civil war in the background (and notably absent from the original, one of the most thrilling and entertaining chases I’ve seen in a while). The trio in this film is rather different from their 60’s counterparts, with noticeably easier characterization.
In this one, Blondie is replaced by Park Do-won, a law-abiding bounty-hunter, not one who comes up with a scheme for cheating the law out of bounty money. Rather than Angel Eyes, just a wandering killer, we have an intimidating killer who works with the Machurian mafia, which helps to automatically designate him as the villain. And then there’s the re-branded third character – no longer Ugly, but Weird – (played by Song Kang-Ho whom you might recognize from Snowpiercer) an eccentric thief, who brings the comic relief. The film also does simple visual things to characterize the characters – the Bad wears black and looks perpetually pouty, the Weird has a goofy hat, and the Good dresses like Clint Eastwood.
Now of course, these differences do just what they’re supposed to: create different fictional worlds. In Weird, things are clearly defined; the Good guys have the law on their side, and the Bad guys wear black. In Ugly, there are no heroes, and greed is the thing that propels every individual.
(In this argument, it is necessary to note that the Man With No Name begins A Fistful of Dollars by exploiting both sides of a local conflict for money, but eventually helps the innocent and brings the villains to justice. In For a Few Dollars More, he is a bounty hunter, which is still more just than where he is at the beginning of the third installment. This progression shows a moral decay throughout the course of the films.)
Blondie, of course, came towards the end of the western film’s golden age. After years and years of Hollywood sheriffs and noble cowboys, the Man with No Name arrived on the screen. Here was a subversion of the traditional hero after viewers had seen scores of them in films.
And just in case this article hasn’t been as fun to read as it has been to write, here’s a picture of The Man With No Name at the Battle of Hoth.