Directed by Sergio Leone, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is one of the most famous of the Italian Spaghetti Westerns, filmed almost entirely in Europe. The Spaghetti Western plays a large role in Quentin Tarantino's film, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" which takes a nostalgic look at the Western. Over the past few weeks, I have been enjoying seeing various way the Old West has been represented in the movies, including the best of the Spaghetti Westerns such as this film.
"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is a lengthy epic set in 1862 in New Mexico during the Civil War. Many people are unaware of the Civil War history depicted in this film, which is a valuable reason in itself to see it. The Union Army turned back a serious Confederate push through the Southwest to reach California at the 1862 Battle of Glorietta Pass, a battle regarded by historians as one of the key engagements of the Civil War. This film is set in the aftermath of the battle, during the Confederate retreat following the destruction of its supply trains.
The film turns on an effort by three outlaws to recover $200,000 in Confederate gold buried in a cemetery. The outlaws, each out for himself. form shifting alliances and fight with each other to recover the stash. Clint Eastwood plays a taciturn bounty hunter known as Blondie. Lee Van Cleef, the most vicious of the three, plays a sadistic killer, Angel Eyes. The third outlaw, Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, is a comic figure yet also ruthless and unrelenting in killing and in his quest for the gold. These three outlaws at times team up and work together, especially Blondie and Tuco, when it seems advantageous to do so. But they also will abandon, double-cross, and kill each other without compunction, when given the need and the opportunity.
The film is meant to capture the American Southwest with its desolation and small settlements during the Civil War years. The early parts of the film show a great deal of violence, killings and hangings against the background of the Confederate retreat. The three outlaws function separately but are gradually brought together. Some of the most memorable parts of this film take place in a Union prisoner of war camp and on a battlefield. This film portrays convincing the folly and anguish of the Civil War as the outlaws use it to pursue their own private ends. Of the three outlaws, only Blondie shows a degree of sympathy with the soldiers and their unfortunate fate. The final part of the movie shows what has become an iconic gunfight between the three outlaws, spaced triangularly from each other in a cemetery where the gold is to be found. The scene builds slowly and with high dramatic tension.
This film builds deliberately with music and long shots of the characters' facial expressions and of the surroundings adding a great deal to the story. The film is presented almost like an Italian opera with its music, gestures, and passion. Even so, there is a gritty realism in this film, with the ever-present dirt, the random, senseless violence, and the war. The main themes of the film are greed and ignorance, set against the West and with some religious symbolism in the background.
The Spaghetti Western was heavily critiqued at first, but films such as "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" have deservedly come to be recognized as among the best of the western genre. This film offers a different, harsher portrayal of the West, showing the consequences of rampant individualism and violence, than do the earlier American Westerns and a different way of understanding the history of the West. Westerns of a variety of types offer fascinating insight into American history and character. It is valuable during this time of pandemic to see different portrayals and interpretations of the American West and to think about the West, its history, and the character of its people.