Pretty much all Western heroes, and arguably all movie heroes, fall into one of two categories: they’re either a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood. Will Kane from High Noon? He’s a John Wayne. Shane from Shane? He’s a Clint. Indiana Jones is a John Wayne, but Han Solo’s definitely a Clint. Ethan Edwards from The Searchers is a John Wayne, and The Man With No Name is the archetypal Clint Eastwood. (Ironically enough, Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne’s character from True Grit, is a little bit more of a Clint.)
In this way, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and the other two movies in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy are incredibly iconic, influential, and important. Quentin Tarantino called it “the best directed film of all time,” and Roger Ebert gave it four stars, praising its understanding of the Western genre in a time when Westerns were becoming increasingly unpopular.
The movie has surpassed its own reach and defined much of the western genre in its wake. The characters, the music, the direction, all of it has influenced every great cowboy movie since then.
Let’s talk about the score. Writing this is a little timely, in regards to score. Ennio Morriccone composed the score for the Dollars trilogy, as well as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Hateful Eight, and various others. He’s like John Williams of Westerns. It’s worth mentioning that despite all of those iconic soundtrackw, he only just won Academy recognition this year for his (awesome) work on The Hateful Eight.
My main point about Ennio Morricone is this: when you think about two cowboys throwing down and getting ready for a duel, what music is playing? Presumably, you’re thinking of his theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. You hear the theme and you’d think “this is the perfect music for a shootout!” That is, until you heard “The Trio” from later in the film.
But my favorite music from the film, and probably any film, is “The Ecstasy of Gold” from when Tuco is running through the graveyard, looking for the treasure.
But let’s move on. Across the three Dollars films, and their spiritual sequel Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone’s American West feels like a violent and vibrant world. All four movies are united by themes of greed and revenge, teeming with villainous characters, who are only occasionally motivated by just ambitions.
The battle for the bridge, offers a poignant commentary on violence; the irony of having the A-storyline which involves people just kind of murdering until they find their treasure, contrasted with the Confederates and the Union soldiers dying for causes other than themselves. And the Union Captain is an excellent minor character. Seeing his arc completed as Tuco and Blondie blow up the bridge? There’s such a powerful relief on his face.
And he’s not the only great minor character. To speak again of Leone’s West, it is a ruthless and ironic place. Look to the One-Armed Man, who has a subtle background arc throughout the film. He’s shot by Tuco in the first scene, causing him to lose his shooting arm. Then, for eight months, he learns to shoot with his other arm, and can be seen trying to hunt down Tuco as they go through the abandoned town. Finding Tuco in the bathtub, the One-Armed Man thinks he’s got the upper hand, so he begins monologing, only to have Tuco shoot him with a gun he was hiding in the bubbles of his bath. For that darkly hilarious scene, click here.
It’s a fascinating adventure. Three men, fueled by greed, treasure hunting through the American West, against the backdrop of the Civil War? Beyond all the great cinematography, commentary about greed, or the amazing score, this movie excels at being a fun adventure, which worked to define westerns and adventure films in its wake.
Favorite Scene: The first two and a half hours are almost nothing compared to the final duel (also referred to as the Mexican Standoff) between the trio. The group agrees to the duel, and thus begins six of the most tense minutes in cinema. Ennio Morricone’s score swells and screams as the three eye each other and strategize. The camera moves from wide shots, eventually to tighter shots, and ultimately reaches a climax with a close-close-up of only the eyes of the trio.
When Tarantino said that this as the best-directed film of all time, he was likely thinking of this scene.
Favorite Performance: I’m inclined to say Clint Eastwood, but what he does throughout the movie is pretty consistently the same. He’s just his silent-strong archetype, rather than showing any actual range. The same can pretty much be said for Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes/the Bad, whose whole performance is just him being menacing. With this in mind, I would argue, the film’s strongest performance is Eli Wallach, as Tuco. Incidentally, Tuco has the most screentime, but the performance strength goes deeper than that. Wallach conveys Tuco’s genuine fear when a noose is around his neck, or his drive for revenge, or his swagger in the gun shop, or his satisfaction when he’s bested his enemies. Not to mention the scene where he confronts his estranged brother, and after finding out that his parents are dead, laments his life of crime, making Tuco probably the most sympathetic of the three main characters.
Favorite Quote: “There are two kinds of people in this world, my friend. Those with guns, and those who dig. You dig,” is a definite favorite, but for a more poignant selection, I’m inclined to look to the scene with the Civil War battle. Blondie quietly condemns the war, saying “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.”
Fun Fact: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is technically a prequel to the other two films in the Dollars Trilogy, despite the fact that it was the latest installment in the series. There are minor indicators that show this – In For a Few Dollars More, Lee Van Cleef plays a down-on-his-luck Civil War colonel turned bounty hunter, a completely unrelated character to Angel Eyes. In A Fistful of Dollars, a grave dated 1873 is visible – showing that it takes place at least eight years after the end of the Civil War.
If you like this movie, also check out: Any Leone Western, like Once Upon a Time in the West, or Eastwood’s other greatest cowboy in Unforgiven. There’s also a great Korean remake titled The Good the Bad the Weird.
In summary, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a movie you have to be patient with. The final duel is six minutes of amazing and tense buildup, but those six minutes are nothing without the almost three hours that come before them. The impact of this movie cannot be understated; it changed Westerns and made Clint Eastwood a household name. It’s not crazy to argue that this is the best work that Leone and Morriccone would do, together or separate. In terms of cultural influence, and most things that make a movie great, this is the best Western film to grace the screen. If anyone disagrees, they’d better have a good explanation why.