Directed by Sergio Leone
This is probably the most famous of Leone’s films, and the final Mexican standoff is likely the most famous scene of any of his films. And then you have Ennio Morricone’s famous score, which is meant to sound like coyotes howling. It comes in at some of the least expected moments, and, maybe because you know the showdown this is all headed to, it creates a feeling of inevitability.
Leone’s western, like his others, is tough, violent and gritty. There are shots of wide open, beautiful vistas, and then sudden close ups to the faces of the people who dot those vistas. We see the natural beauty of the world, and then the scowls of the people who pose a threat to that beauty. In this case that wide open vista is often attacked and bombed out by the people who have nothing to do but fight. In one long sequence depicting a Civil War battle, the beautiful landscape is torn apart by bombs, and soldiers on both sides charge forward, towards death, in another battle that they’ve endured for god knows how long. As the captain tells Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach), the charges happen twice a day, like it’s a reminder to take your insulin. These are scheduled, routine charges into death. They’ve lost their meaning. The captain drinks in the meantime, knowing death is near, then he goes into battle and Blondie describes how he has never seen so many people die in vain at once. Then the Captain returns, gutted and barely alive, Blondie offers him alcohol, and then presumably he dies shortly after.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly takes place during the Civil War. At various times our three leads, Blondie and Tuco as well as Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) aka ‘The Bad,’ take pose as soldiers or tangentially come into contact with the war. But they have no sides. Their battle is one for money, specifically $200,000 buried in a cemetary. This journey is selfish, you might say, but I believe Leone compares their own bloody quest to the Civil War and suggests that neither means anything. Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes and bound to their Civil War contemporaries because everything is pointless.
The only important thing, it seems, is to survive. That’s from Blondie’s perspective. He’s that famous, hardened cowboy hero who rides into town, does what needs to be done, and leaves, as he did in A Fistful of Dollars. This film, though, starts with each of the titular characters, giving us a short sequence that demonstrates their defining qualities.
Tuco, ‘the ugly,’ has no morals. He’s greedy and selfish, but that’s what you need to survive in this world. He’s a ‘me first’ guy who doesn’t play by any rules because the rules mean nothing. Later we will see him team up with Blondie, ‘the good,’ suggesting an overlap between the two character such that being “good” in this world serves little purpose. They team up on several occasions as Blondie turns Tuco in for a reward, between $2,000 and $3,000, and when Tuco, wanted for murder, is strung up to be hund, Blondie merely shoots him down so he can escape. Then they meet up, split the profits, and move on to the next town to do it all over again. The rules mean nothing and are barely enforced, and Tuco and Blondie reap the rewards. Everything is a game for them, even if it is occasionally violent and deadly.
Angel Eyes is not much different. We just happen to meet him at his most vile, which sets him up as the villain. He shows up to kill a man, having been paid to do so, and he explains that it’s nothing personal, he just follows through on a promise. When the man he kills offers him $1,000 to kill the man who has paid Angel eyes for the current hit, he still kills him, takes the money, then kills the other man too. He’s evil, but he’s not lawless.
The three hour runtime arranges these characters like pieces on a chess board, all leading up to the final showdown, the famous one, as they shoot to see who will get the money. Before we get there, they cross paths on several occasions, both fighting each other and then teaming up with one another.
Even after Tuco nearly kills Blondie, revenge for the way Blondie cut off their business arrangement earlier, they form some strange kind of bond, one that always feels temporary considering Blondie’s icy demeanor and constant scowl, but one that ultimately proves somewhat genuine. This comes after a scene in which Tuco meets with his brother, a priest, and expresses some sadness about their strained relationship. The moment gives us sympathy for Tuco, and even he says that his way of life is merely a form of survival, nothing malicious.
Tuco’s way of life, you might say, is the biggest symbol of life in this time period, at least as Leone depicts it. Tuco is neither heroic nor evil. He’s violent, certainly capable, and he’s greedy. He laughs at the rules because they’re weak attempts to restrain the reckless masculinity and tribal nature of the groups of people who make up this world. And the heroic character, Clint Eastwood, is as close with Tuco as with anyone else. He aligns himself with “the ugly,” because that’s all there is to work with.
The film ends with Blondie killing Angel Eyes relatively easily in their shootout. The “bad,” never lives up to the threat he seems to represent. Instead, the focus is on Blondie’s final interaction with Tuco. He commands him to put his head in a noose, paying off an earlier moment in which Tuco did the same to Blondie, preparing to kill him.
Blondie, though, rides away, leaving behind half the money for Tuco, and shoots him down as he’s done a dozen times before. There is nothing personal, it’s just a game. Blondie might be as ugly as Tuco, but that’s because the world allows it, even encourages it.