I still remember the first time hearing Ennio Morricone’s swelling score building the tension in the last fifteen minutes of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” It was one of the first CDs I ever purchased, listening again and again to the “Whaahaawhaahaawhaa!” and that haunting whistle. In my mind, the movie encapsulated a perfect Western–an slightly moral good guy, an absolute bad guy, and one crazy sonofabitch. The sweeping scenes of southern Spain (standing in for the American West), the desert, the cigars, the serape, and–of course–the final showdown.
Years later, I saw the counterpoint to the Man with No Name as Clint Eastwood rehashed the old gunslinger, tired with the wounds of a life of death, in “Unforgiven.” Wrestling with questions of redemption and vengeance, the lines still sear in my memory: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” This movie wrestled with ideas, while deconstructing myths about the way of the gun.
As I grew older, I began to want more from my movies. More critique, more thought, more of the messiness of morals that matches the real world. And as social justice began to influence my thinking, I started seeing these movies in brighter lights. Westerns based on an open America, where battles fought between the good and bad happened in a somehow empty landscape as Hollywood sought to obscure the genocides that made this landscape “home on the range.” Movies as well-crafted as “Dances with Wolves,” injected a white savior to elicit empathy from audiences. Carefully constructed narratives that began showing the Other fell apart, such as the penultimate episode of “Godless.” The brutality of our history evaporates in the morality tale of the Western. As audiences have become savvier, Holloywood has moved the Western to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, shaping tales of American heroism against backdrops of similar black and white morals, while showcasing bigger guns and bigger explosions. The larger questions of good and bad are scripted away: “Why do you fight?” “For the guy next to me.”
In this mindset, I returned to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, ready to disappear into the simple tale of a violent search for gold. However, this was the extended director’s cut, a new way of watching the film. And, while some scenes miss the mark, it exposes a film that sought to place the Western in its reality: violence, death, cruelty. The Civil War plays out across Leone’s technicolor in gray and blue painted against the red hills. The New Mexico campaign, a footnote in history, is given its full due. Men die. Bodies rot. Cannon rain death without reason.
Tuco, Angel Eyes, and Blondie ride this landscape of horror. They breathe it in and become one with it. No longer are they simple archetypes, but burned and broken. In a world turned violent, they cannot help but live violently. The bridge scenes take on the ultimate folly of war, soldiers dying in the mud for an uncaring point on a map. The meaninglessness of war is exposed by Tuco and Blondie as the Confederate and Union soliders pack up and disappear after the two destroy the bridge. We are not to think that the war ended there, but that the two armies went to the next worthless coordinate to die.
This larger context of the war, of violence, overshadows the showdown. We side with Blondie because he seems the least “bad” of the three gunslingers, but perhaps only by contrast. The reveal of the stone is Leone’s masterpiece. For in the end, the showdown was as worthless as the bridge. Tuco and Angel Eyes would have never found the gold. The Man with No Name is simply death come for Angel Eyes, for crimes committed of which we were forced to be witness. Yet we know there will be a reckoning for Blondie, as the past always catches up. And Tuco…perhaps he is the most problematic. Only he is truly given a past–poverty, anger, lust, greed, and a denial of redemption by his own brother. He is propelled by the idea of change, the “Ecstasy of Gold,” with the misguided notion that these coins will seismically alter his fate. Angel Eyes and Blondie are simply flip sides of this same coin: Good (ambiguously so) and Bad (with a form of code, however despicable), men of violence existing in a violent world. Tuco then may be the most sympathetic character, albeit still cruel and unlikely to move past his past.
Leone sought to make a movie exploring the horror of destruction, and how it shapes us. The Western for too long existed outside of context, depicting a black and white world, breeding revisionist history into legend. Leone’s uncut epic challenges that, delivering us into a world baptized in blood. It is a world both good and bad, and–ultimately–ugly.