"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" Ends Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western Trilogy

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo in Italian) – 4 Stars (Excellent)

After enjoying unexpected commercial success with “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More”, Italian Director Sergio Leone ends his trilogy of “Spaghetti Westerns” with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.

Amazingly, even at this point in his masterful direction of western movies made in Spain, Leone would not enjoy a nickel’s worth of adulation from the critics as only the Laurel Awards would give a single award to Clint Eastwood for Action Performance, and that was as runner-up.

Hollywood and its stars ignored Sergio Leone just as they have Johnny Depp. They refuse to recognize that even westerns or pirate pictures can be artfully done and have unique acting performances. Clint Eastwood is The Man With No Name, and Johnny Depp is the perfect pirate as Captain Jack Sparrow. There will never be another equal of either in these roles.

At least one film director, screenwriter and actor-Quentin Tarantino-has identified Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as “the best-directed film of all time.” It was Tarantino who gave moviegoers “Reservoir Dogs”. “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and Vol.2)” among others.

But back to Leone, who helped write the screenplay with mostly Luciano Vincenzoni. It was Vincenzoni who came up with the premise for the film-three rogues looking for some treasure at the time of the America’s Civil War-and its title.

The triangle of rogues included The Good (Clint Eastwood, a professional gunfighter referred to as “Blondie” in this film who would become The Man With No Name in subsequent western films spun off of his character), The Bad (Lee Van Cleef, a self-centered hit man referred to as “Angel Eyes”) and The Ugly (Eli Wallach, a self-centered outlaw referred to as “Tuco”).

Long story short, the plot involves first establishing the three rogues as bona fide killers. Blondie then becomes a pseudo bounty hunter in partnership with Tuco, turning him in for the bounty, rescuing him before he is hanged, and repeating the process until Blondie leaves Tuco in the desert to die. Tuco survives, and lives to find Blondie and return the favor.

As Blondie is about to die while being forced to walk across the desert by Tuco, they are interrupted by an out-of-control, driverless carriage loaded with dead bodies. Except one body, Bill Carson, lives long enough to tell Tuco where $200,000 in gold is buried in exchange for water. While Tuco goes for water, Carson tells Blondie the exact grave in a cemetery where the gold can be found. Suddenly they have a compelling reason to become partners again.

Dressed in the Confederate uniforms of the dead men, Tuco takes Blondie, who is near death, to a local Catholic mission run by Tuco’s brother, a priest. Blondie’s recovery goes well, but Tuco’s reconciliation with his brother does not.

Blondie and Tuco leave the mission and end up being captured by Union soldiers, and taken to a prison camp where Angel Eyes (now a Union sergeant) takes personal charge of torturing the captives. Angle Eyes is aware of the gold, has his enforcer beat Tuco senseless, and learns the name of the cemetery. He then turns Tuco in for the bounty, frees Blondie (who knows the exact location) and he and his gang of 5 thugs head for the cemetery with Blondie.

Tuco manages to escape on the way to his hanging, turns up in a town the Union forces have bombed silly, and runs smack into Blondie, Angel Eyes and his band of 5. Blondie and Tuco manage to kill all 5 thugs as Angel Eyes escapes, and now all three are headed for the cemetery.

On their way to the cemetery, Blondie and Tuco run into a full blown Civil War battle over a bridge crossing a river to the cemetery. They witness the continual carnage, blow up the bridge, and then the soldiers from both sides-as well as Blondie and Tuco-move on.

Once in the cemetery, it is inevitable that the three rogues face off in one of the greatest western showdowns ever filmed. The confrontation is full of Leone’s masterful panoramic shots, extreme close-ups and clever sequence of final events. If you have not seen this film, you must, it may be the greatest western film ever made. If you have seen it, you should see it again to better appreciate Sergio Leone’s masterful direction.

There are many great moments in this film. Two of my favorites involved Tuco. In the first, while Tuco is in the bombed-out town, he manages to find a bathtub and take a bath. While doing so, a bounty hunter (remember than Tuco still has a price on his head) confronts him buck naked in the tub.

At the start of the film, the bounty hunter is one of three gunmen who confront Tuco and Tuco shoots all three. The one that confronts Tuco lost his right arm but lived and now shoots with his left arm. He reminds Tuco of his distress and, while doing so, Tuco kills him with his gun that is hidden beneath the bubble bath water. Tuco then utters this memorable line: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.”

The other scene I love is when Tuco walks miles and miles out of the desert and into a town with a gun shop in front of him. After dousing himself in a water trough, he confronts the proprietor, remakes a pistol out of parts from three other pistols, and then steps outside to test the weapon.

He hits three standing figures downrange, turning them sideways, and then fires three shots to cut each in half. Two figures fall immediately and the third remains standing. Tuco takes a mouthful of whiskey, and then jumps and as he lands, the third target falls. This is a guy film, and you really need to be a guy to fully appreciate what I am sharing here. Tuco’s role in this scene helped invent the word cool.

Moviegoers watching this film at the time were not aware that Eli Wallach (Tuco) was nearly killed three times while playing his part.

He was almost poisoned on the set after drinking acid used to burn the bags filled with gold coin so they would rip open easier when struck with a spade. A film technician had poured the acid into a lemon soda bottle and Wallach didn’t know it. He drank a lot of milk and finished the scene with a mouth full of sores.

In another scene where Wallach was about to be hanged while on a horse, the rope was severed by a pistol shot but the frightened horse galloped for almost a mile with Wallach’s hands tied behind him and the noose still taut around his neck.

In a third scene, in order to cut off his handcuffs from his captor, Wallach places his captor on the railroad tracks and waits for a train to come by and break the chain attached to the cuffs. He was within a foot of track and ducks his head to the ground as the train rolls by. The entire film crew and Wallach were unaware that heavy iron steps jutted out from each box car and any of the numerous box cars with iron steps would have decapitated Wallach had he lifted up his head.

Wallach would later acknowledge and complain in his autobiography that safety on the set was not one of Leone’s primary concerns in directing the picture.

For the record, Tuco’s full name in the film script was Tuco Benedito Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez.

Because Sergio Leone spoke barely any English and Eli Wallach spoke barely any Italian, the two communicated in French. Because an international cast was employed, only Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach spoke in English, and were dubbed in Italian for the debut release in Rome. All other international cast members spoke mostly French or Spanish and were dubbed later. This accounts for the fact that none of the dialogue in the film was completely in sync.

Here are three interesting facts from the film for guys:

1) The cache of gold in the film was $200,000, which does not seem like a lot of money today. However, gold was $20+ an ounce in 1862 and was $628 an ounce in 2006, so the gold was really worth more than $6 million in today’s money.

2) In the film, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) used a Colt 1851 cartridge conversion revolver with silver snake grips, and a Winchester 1866 “yellow boy” with ladder elevated sights. Angle Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) used a Remington 1858 Army percussion revolver. Tuco (Eli Wallach) used a Colt 1851 Navy percussion revolver with a lanyard. The soldiers used Gatling guns with drum magazines and Howitzer cannons.

3) Clint Eastwood wore the same poncho without replacement or cleaning during all three of Leone’s spaghetti westerns. In the second film (For a Few Dollars More) you can visibly see that his poncho was mended after being pierced by 7 bullet holes from Ramon’s Winchester in A Fistful of Dollars. The mended area, originally on the left breast, is worn over Eastwood’s right shoulder blade in For a Few Dollars More.

From virtually no acclaim at the time, Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is now regarded as a classic by many critics. It was part of Time’s “100 Greatest Movies” of the last century, and it is one of the few films which enjoy a 100% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (rottentomatoes.com). The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is currently ranked no less than 5th among the Internet Movie Database Top 250, all of which is not too shabby for an Italian guy directing an American Western.

Even master movie critic Roger Exert gives Leone his just due as an excellent director, and acknowledges two other Sergio Leone films as unquestioned masterpieces-“Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) and “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984).

Sergio Leone was born into the cinema. His father was Roberto Roberti (aka Vincenzo Leone), one of Italy’s cinema pioneers, and his mother was actress Bice Valerian. Sergio Leone was born in Rome in 1929 and died in Rome in 1989 from a heart attack. He remains one of the great directors in film history.

Copyright © 2008 Ed Bagley

What Makes a Good Western Good?

It is an interesting question. I believe there are certain essential elements that comprise a good western. They must all come together in a smooth and seamless blend to create an effective and entertaining western story.

We Americans are particular about our westerns. It is a genre of entertainment we invented and we own. It is part of our national consciousness. We guard it carefully. We are protective of it. We hold it to high standards, for it is a reflection of us, our society and our very nature as a people.

These essential elements I point out are applicable to other genres of fiction. They just seem more important in a western.

A good western must contain the following elements, listed in order of importance.

· Good Characters – The characters are the most important element in a good western. They drive the story. They must be strong, likable and believable. Since a western usually cannot dazzle the audience with special effects it relies on its characters to grab and hold the audience. This imposes a burden on film westerns that does not exist for those in the written format. The reader forms a picture in his or her mind of a character and sees that character a certain way. In a film western casting is crucial, particularly for the hero’s role. To illustrate the point, can you imagine going back in time and filming “The Magnificent Seven” with Woody Allen in the Yul Brynner role or having Pee Wee Herman replace John Wayne in any of his westerns? I can’t either. It is vitally important for the audience to like the characters and identify with them. That is what keeps the audience interested in the story. The reader or viewer should be made to care what happens to the people in the story so he or she will continue to read on or watch on. One other factor makes good characters more important. All westerns of substance are essentially morality plays. They almost universally depict the struggle between good and evil in a visceral, personal and violent way. That’s what makes them exciting and makes us want to read and watch them. It’s probably why in the heyday of westerns on television we never had one showing a family living in total tranquility on the frontier, raising their crops and tending their animals without incident, sharing Sunday suppers with the local friendly Indians and greeting the always kind and benevolent strangers that passed their way. It sounds nice but aside from not being realistic it would be boring as heck. A show like that wouldn’t have lasted a month. The closest show to that premise I can recall was “Little House On The Prairie”. It was light on gunplay but I also recall there was always one crisis or another the Ingalls family had to deal with. That’s the point. We want to see good and evil fight it out in our westerns and while good does not always triumph, we enjoy rooting for it anyway. Strong characters make this easy.

· Action – A good western needs plenty of action. It doesn’t have to be a gunfight or a saloon brawl every other minute. That would be ridiculous and almost as bad as no action at all. Random and pointless action just for the sake of having action is a cheap trick and a quick way to lose your audience. Think about some recent films that try to overwhelm the audience with pyrotechnics. These films usually have bad acting and no discernible plot. I believe most people find this style of film making offensive and insulting. I know I do. The action in a good western must flow and fit seamlessly into the plot of the story. It must be integral to the story and never gratuitous. Let’s face it violence is almost always inherent in a western. This is with good reason, of course, since these are stories of a very violent era in our history. The violence in a western must fit the events of the story and never be overdone. If the story is well crafted the audience will be caught up in it and embrace the action as it occurs instead of wondering where it is or, worse, wishing for it to appear.

· A Clearly Defined Villain – The western is all about the struggle to tame a wild land. It pays homage to the brave men and women that ventured forth and contributed their blood, sweat and lives to settling the American frontier. In a good western the villain the good folks are struggling against must be clearly defined. It need not be a rogue sheriff or a band of outlaws. The villain need not even be human. Nature has made a very effective villain in more than a few good westerns. It doesn’t matter who or what the villain is as long as it is made clear to the reader or viewer. This is best done in the early part of the story for the sake of clarity. Few things are more frustrating than sinking your teeth into a western then trying to figure out who or what the main characters are struggling against. This should never happen.

Well, there you have my essentials for a good western. I hope I’ve made my case.