'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'

Throughout the history of American cinema, the genre of the Western film has romanticized the mythos of the American frontier. At the heart of its mythology of cowboys and Indians, horses and six-guns, the Western can be read as a potent allegory for American society. All the hopes, triumphs, failures and anxieties of American cultural identity are subtly written into the Western’s landscape, and it seems that the themes of the Western, of all popular film genres, best describe the values of America as a whole. Each film offers sharp insight into how completely the Western and its heroes have shaped the popular appreciation of America’s past. But over the course of the last century, the portrayal of the west in film has changed dramatically.

In his article “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films,” writer John G. Cawelti discusses the ways in which the typical genres of American film were transformed by many films of the 1960’s and 1970’s. He contends that there are four main ways in which filmmakers achieve “generic transformation,” as he calls it.

The first method is called burlesque, or parody, where the conventional elements of a genre are “situated in contexts so incongruous or exaggerated that the result is laughter.” This can be achieved in two principal ways – the intrusion of reality (thereby de-romanticizing the chosen conventions) and the inversion of the expected consequences. The second mode of generic transformation, according to Cawelti, is the promotion of nostalgia. Traditional elements of the genre such as plot, characters, setting and style are used to evoke a sense of the past while also making us aware of the relationship between past and present. Sometimes it can be used to simply recreate earlier forms of the genre, or it may serve to undercut or comment ironically upon the genre itself. The third way that genres may be transformed is through the demythologization of the myth. Often a film utilizes the basic characteristics of a genre in order to show the audience that that genre embodies an inadequate, and even – according to Cawelti – destructive myth. The fourth and final method of generic transformation involves the affirmation of that myth. The genre and its myth may be explored in a way that reveals them to be unreal or untrue, but the myth is reaffirmed as a reflection of human wants and needs. The myth is therefore strengthened because even though it may be shown in a cynical manner, its presence is deemed more necessary than its complete destruction.

The films of Sergio Leone offer perhaps the best example of transformation within the genre of the Western. Leone is the most celebrated director of the subgenre of the “Spaghetti Western,” so called for its Italian production, which rejuvenated a genre that had become fairly exhausted in American hands. His films manage to be both a classic example of the genre, and also introduce many techniques that would change the Western from then on. Therefore, Leone uses the modes of destruction and reaffirmation of the Western myth, in concordance with nostalgia and demythologization, to create films that at once celebrate the colorful history of the Old West while also radically changing the genre. There are many ways in which the films achieve this dichotomy, as will be shown in the following analyis.

Perhaps the most significant of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966). Although it was not the first of Leone’s films to explore the genre – A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) and For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in piu, 1965) preceded it – and it would also not be the last, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was the most successful both critically and financially, and therefore should be examined as a direct influence over those that would follow, both in Italy and America.

The story follows the progress of three men racing to find $200,000 in stolen gold. Over the course of the film Tuco (the Ugly), Angel Eyes (the Bad), and “Blondie,” or the Man With No Name (the Good), form and break alliances in search of the hidden treasure. While all three men are after the fortune, however, the exact details of its location are parceled out among them. This guarantees that they will make it alive to the grave in which it is hidden, but it is also likely that each of them will try to kill the others once it is found.

However, a short summation of plot cannot begin to describe the unique style that Leone infuses into every frame of his film. In fact, the story seems to be based more on images than words, and so this essay will begin with a closer look at Leone’s majestic visual style.

One of the most important aspects of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and of all spaghetti westerns in general, is the fact that it is a film about the American west, but made in Europe. This offers a new perspective on the classic myth and replaces the American landscape with the broad vistas of Spain and Italy. Leone invests his western scenes with an obviously distorted and frenetic perspective. Forgoing the stagy studio sets of B-grade Hollywood Westerns, with his frequent use of long shots Leone expands simple adobe huts and barren deserts into vast, exaggerated empty spaces populated with seemingly insignificant yet deadly specks of humanity.

The epic design of Leone’s landscapes redefined the film image of the American West, while the subtly foreign flavor of the film suggests that it comes from a different universe than traditional Westerns. Leone’s more menacing Spanish locales offer a heightened version of the Old West, where everything is bigger, starker, and more dramatic than life. John Ford and John Wayne have clearly never been here, and the resultant freshness of the scenery is palpable in every shot. In addition, the film is filled with local Spanish and Italian extras who add a sense of reality absent from Hollywood central casting, and they appear weathered by work and long years spent in the sun.

The casting of the film’s major players, on the other hand, would have supported its position as a classic Western even when it was originally released. Clint Eastwood, whose character remains nameless in the film, began his career on the American Western television series Rawhide before leaving the states to act in Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Lee Van Cleef is Angel Eyes, but he had already played parts in over 50 films, as well as several television series, prior to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – beginning with High Noon and including the previous year’s For a Few Dollars More, another film by Sergio Leone which featured Clint Eastwood reprising his role as the Man With No Name. Similarly, Eli Wallach had had a long career in the genre prior to playing Tuco in this film, notably featured as the villain in The Magnificent Seven, among others. The presence of such veterans of the genre reinforces in audiences the idea that this film belongs in the canon of the classic Westerns, even while at the same time Leone alters the genre in other ways.

Although some of America’s classic western films, such as High Noon and The Searchers, had featured protagonists with checkered pasts or questionable motives, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly takes it one step further. Clint Eastwood plays the Man With No Name, an amoral, gunslinging bounty hunter who is ironically labeled “good” in comparison with the film’s two other leading low-life criminals. In many classical Hollywood Westerns of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Eastwood’s “Blondie” would have been a bad guy, albeit a likable one. But the world Leone has created is so lush and stunningly picturesque, so full of riddles and ravaged with amorality and death, that we can accept his fantastic parameters, and in fact prefer Blondie’s brand of violence to that of Tuco or Angel Eyes.

'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'

The final showdown between Tuco, Angel Eyes, and the Man with No Name, is one of the most memorable scenes in the film, possibly because it is also one that most overtly plays with generic conventions and audience expectations. Once the three principals have arrived in the massive graveyard that hides a buried treasure, they face off in a duel that is reminiscent of countless gun battles featured in nearly every American western, but with one crucial difference: instead of the traditional duel between two quick draws, Leone has crafted a scene in which all three men face off against each other. Roger Ebert explains in a recent retrospective review of the film,

Each man points a pistol at the other. If one shoots, they all shoot, and all die. Unless two decide to shoot the third man before he can shoot either one of them. But which two, and which third?

This brief description of the tension within the scene does not do complete justice, however. Leone draws out this scene beyond all reason, beginning with a long shot of the three men and gradually working in to close ups of firearms, faces and eyes. It tests the viewer’s patience while also demonstrating the director’s deliberate control of style in the mise-en-scene. The length of the scene even seems to parody the conventional ways in which gunfighters of the Old West had been portrayed in film. In the end, Angel Eyes is dead (having conveniently fallen into an open grave upon being shot), Tuco is left with a noose around his neck, and the Man With No Name rides off into the sunset with the money.

Violence is prevalent throughout The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, in a much more graphic and brutal form than was traditionally expected of a Western at that time. Influenced by other films of the Italian cinema, and feeling the need to satisfy a growing popular demand for minimalist tales of blood and revenge, Leone infuses his spaghetti westerns with unromantic, corpse-strewn, amoral scenes of forceful brutality. Many critics cite this film, along with other spaghetti westerns, as the main reason for the increased violence in the American Western immediately following its release, notably in such films as Sam Peckinpah’s hyper-violent The Wild Bunch (1969), among others.

Lastly, Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable musical score cannot be overlooked when analyzing the ways in which this film has affected the genre of the Western. Morricone is the composer for nearly all of Leone’s films, but the unforgettable score of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly remains one of the most instantly recognizable in film history. The composer has created a campy accompaniment that deconstructs the typical clichés of the western soundtrack to create a distinctively catchy theme of shriek-propelled, psychedelic yodeling that became almost as popular as Eastwood’s nameless hero. With all its crazed energy, Morricone’s score thematically accentuates key moments of Leone’s narrative through its invocation of familiar western harmonies. Morricone has said that the music was meant in part to recreate the sound of coyotes in the distance, as if by including this element he is adding to the mythos of the West himself.

In spite of their fairy-tale titles and their superficial simplicity, Sergio Leone’s films are powerful and intense explorations of the mythic America he had created in his own mind. He manages to reaffirm the myth of the Western, strengthening its ideals in order to make the genre more relateable to a wide contemporary audience. While the director celebrates the conventions of the historical Western, such as traditional forms of plot, character, setting and sound, he has also added significantly to the ways in which the major elements of the genre are presented onscreen. By combining a foreign world view with a decidedly American myth, Leone has created something new but whose origins still remain clearly and lovingly recognizable.

Works Cited:

Cawelti, John G. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Ebert, Roger. “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” 3 August 2003.

This essay was written Dec. 2005 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “History of Italian Cinema.”