by Daniel Suddes
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – Director: Sergio Leone Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Angenore Incroni, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Starring: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Leo Van Cleef OSCAR COUNT (0)
From the opening coyote yelps on the soundtrack (which are just as famous as Halloween’s opening piano notes and the Star Wars theme) to the most dramatic shoot out in history, this is the best western ever made.
Why is that? There are two reasons. The first is that it was one of the ones that managed to demystify the genre. For the longest time, the western still was stuck in the Hays Code ideals of morality. The bad guys would always receive their punishments, and the good guys were held by the moral code of everyone. This film utterly destroyed that notion. The “Good” (Clint Eastwood) is as morally ambiguous figure as the Bad (Lee Van Cleef) and the Ugly (Eli Wallach). Each man is out for money, and each man is capable of doing terrible things to each other. It is the sort of vision that made the genre more relatable to the time it was released (in which the supposed “good” guys of the world were using morally ambiguous tactics to accomplish their goals) and created an attitude that carried over to many other works.
The second reason is that director Sergio Leone managed to put into the film managed to put in just as much symbolism as any other film. I would name El Topoas the most symbolic western, but that film (despite its brilliance) is not subtle at all. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly has many layers that have to be stripped away to understand what is happening. The film has quite a bit of religious symbolism involved (The Good may very well be God, the Ugly may very well be humanity) and quite a lot of attention to the supporting characters. Anyone else think that “Shorty,” the bar patron with no legs, stepped out of a Fellini film? It helps create a tapestry of a real, living world, one that is entirely self-contained in the film. If John Ford has only one flaw, it is that he tries to make his westerns ingrained into the real world. Leone does not try, but his worlds still seem more real.
Of course, there are a lot of the basics to like as well. Clint Eastwood created one of the most iconic heroes in history by doing practically nothing. He barely talks, but when he does, he possesses a gravity that few actors do. Eli Wallach has never been more energetic as the mischievous Tucco, who manages to always talk himself in and out of trouble. It’s a supporting character that has been placed into many westerns since that time. Everything else, from the majesty of the landscape to the memorable prison sequences, triggers that emotional response. Luckily, the film has enough philosophical points to allow audiences to learn something new from it every time.
The best scene is the climatic shoot out near the end. I would not watch the scene below if you have not seen the film, but those who have do not remember the power it holds. On its basic level, the scene is one of the most suspenseful ever put to film. None of the characters move or speak (as would be a requirement today) – the film focuses solely on their body motions and their eyes. By the time the shot is fired, the tension has reached breaking point. People remember it as far more dramatic than it probably is. But on a symbolic level, the scene works even better. Some have interpreted the scene as a religious allegory (God and the Devil fighting for the soul of man) and others have tried to interpret it as a microcosm of the Civil War (The North and South Fighting with civilians caught in the middle). I think all of these interpretations are correct.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly has become the western that all other westerns try to emulate. Good thing too – the genre is far better because of it.
Did You Know? There is no dialogue for the first ten and a half minutes of the film. The first of the three to speak is “The Bad.”