Monday, March 16, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly posterThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is the final installment of director Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, following A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). The film centers on the mutually distrustful partnership between bounty-hunter Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Mexican outlaw Tuco (Eli Wallach) as they compete against the mercenary Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) to find a buried fortune in Confederate gold.

Angel Eyes is fully deserving of his moniker “the Bad” for his ruthless efficiency in mercenary killings and his penchant for torture. The film opens with Angel Eyes interrogating a former soldier for the alias of a man named Jackson. Upon finding out that the name is Bill Carson, he shoots the man and his son. Angel Eyes is later told that a Confederate unit escorting a box of gold coins was ambushed by Yankees and though three men were saved the box was not; Jackson was among them and disappeared after the hearing, reenlisting in the Confederate army as Bill Carson and living with a prostitute named Maria. Angel Eyes locates Maria and smacks her until she informs him that Jackson recently left with his cavalry unit for Santa Fe.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the slit-eyed, cigar-chewing Blondie (a.ka. the Good) and the loud-mouthed, hot-tempered Tuco (a.k.a the Ugly). They set up a scam to repeatedly collect the bounty on Tuco’s head by having Blondie turn Tuco in, and then shoot him from the noose at his public hanging. However, Tuco’s agitation from a near-death experience and Blondie’s realization that Tuco’s worth is capped at $3000 prompts Blondie to terminate the partnership, which he unwisely does by abandoning his ex-partner seventy miles from town in the blazing hot desert. Tuco survives this and becomes hell-bent on revenge, tracking down Blondie and forcing him to endure a similar ordeal. Suddenly, in the middle of the desert, Tuco discovers a runaway carriage filled with dead Confederate soldiers and a barely alive Jackson who croaks that $200,000 in gold coins is stashed in Sand Hill Cemetery. While Tuco, with a greedy gleam in his eyes, dashes to get water for Jackson, Blondie hears the exact grave where the coins are buried before Jackson dies. Because Tuco has only half of the necessary information, he disguises himself and Blondie, who has lost consciousness from severe sunstroke, in Confederate garb and takes him to be revived in his estranged brother’s monastery.

After leaving the monastery, they are apprehended by a Union cavalry unit and sent to the prisoner-of-war camp where Angel Eyes has claimed de facto leadership. Angel Eyes sadistically orders his henchman torture Tuco to the sound of a patriotic melody played by a military band. Tuco surrenders the cemetery name, but Angel Eyes knows that torturing Blondie will be futile so he leaves with him for Sand Hill. Both men escape from their captors, reconvene in a war-torn town, and win a shootout against men working for Angel Eyes. With Sand Hill just over the horizon, Tuco and Blondie stumble upon a Yankee encampment and pretend to be volunteers. The commanding officer is drunk in a desperate attempt to forget the tragedy of his mission; he must defend an insignificant bridge from the Confederates across the river by sending hundreds of troops to be slaughtered. Blondie wants the Confederates to leave so that he can reach the cemetery, but he is also moved by the pointless loss of life, so in an anarchic act of protest he detonates the bridge. Subsequently, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly arrive at the gold-bearing grave, and Blondie suggests that its ownership be determined by shootout. Blondie secretly unloaded Tuco’s gun the night before, so his attention is undivided when he shoots Angel Eyes dead. The film closes with Blondie hanging Tuco from a tree for old time’s sake and shooting him down when he is at a safe distance with half of the loot, and then rides away with Tuco bellowing curses after him.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of the most celebrated Western movies, due in no small part to the profound images it projects of the tragedy of war. This is unexpected for a genre that generally glorifies United States history and justifies violence by the heroes. Taking an explicitly anti-war stance, the film portrays war as a failure by state institutions to work for the common good, creating situations that facilitate extreme cruelty (such as the prisoner-of-war camps) and allowing individuals to be collateral damage for dubious military gain (such as the battle at the bridge). This message, which has endured in importance long after the anti-war 1960s when the film was made, is important to the change in its critical perception. Time magazine critics, for instance, considered The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to be a “hokey” bloodbath flick in 1968, but today consider it among the 100 best films.

The development of the Mexican character Tuco is another interesting facet of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Even though he plays the sidekick to Blondie, he does not fit the sidekick archetype in the way that Angel Eyes fits the villain archetype, in that Angel Eyes is purely evil. His character has far more depth than Blondie, the stoic “Man with No Name” who has no relationships or history. Although, typical for a sidekick, Tuco is less intelligent and brave than Blondie and provides comic relief with his rambunctious behaviour, he is also far more accessible to the audience than the hero. Tuco is the only character with a personal life the audience can glimpse into (when Tuco argues with his brother at the monastery) and understand what motivated his criminal behaviour (out of dire financial need). As The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a European film imitating an American genre, there is certainly more room for the reinterpretation of cinematic conventions, including imbuing the crude-talking Mexican sidekick with greater pathos than the noble American hero.

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