This is, for many people, the Big One as far as Westerns go. Others may argue for The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West, but Sergio Leone’s spectacular conclusion to the Dollars Trilogy, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, invariably comes at or near the top of Western best of lists. And it’s not hard to see why. Everything that was lacking in the previous two films has been removed, everything good has been improved, and it has a scale and scope previously unseen in spaghetti Westerns; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly transcends its spaghetti B-movie roots to become a genuine epic, and one of the best Westerns ever made.
Clint Eastwood plays Blondie (The Good), who has teamed up with Eli Wallach’s Tuco (The Ugly) to make money by cashing in the bounty on Tuco’s head, then freeing him and restarting the process. Meanwhile, Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes (The Bad) is on the trail of a hidden cache of $200,000 in Confederate gold. Later on, Blondie and Tuco also learn of the gold, and the three of them all want to get their hands on it, even if it means passing through the front lines of the American Civil War.
The Civil War had often been a part of Westerns prior to this film, but had rarely been depicted as it is here. Gone is the glorifying of the Union at the expense of the Confederacy: Leone shows us both sides fairly and equally, emphasising neither the good nor the bad about them. The perspective of the Confederacy had been almost unheard of in Westerns before this, and the horrors of war as seen from their side are an extremely harrowing and sobering take on the conflict. The Confederates’ point of view would go on to become important in a great many revisionist Westerns which were keen to debunk the heroic myth of the Union: the overtly positive view of the Confederacy in The Outlaw Josey Wales, contrasted with the murderous Unionists, likely would not have been possible without The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’s grim, morally ambiguous take on the Civil War.
Said moral ambiguity naturally extends to the characters as well. Gone are the vaguely noble potential motivations of the previous two films: here, no one wants to free a town from gangs or kill a notorious bandit; instead, the three main characters simply want to get rich. Even Blondie is only The Good because he’s somewhat less horrible than the other two, and because he comforts a dying Confederate soldier towards the end; he’s first identified as The Good shortly after abandoning The Ugly in the desert to die. The performances from all three principals are outstanding, Lee Van Cleef ably demonstrating why he was cast as the villain in so many Westerns before this, Eli Wallach’s boisterous, larger than life Tuco providing most of the laughs, and Clint having perfected the steely coolness that would make his character, and himself, so legendary.
However, I shouldn’t overstate the grimness of the war or the moral ambiguity of the characters, since it’s important not to forget that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is also terrific entertainment. With the increased emphasis on character, it’s the funniest of the Dollars Trilogy, and with twice the budget of For a Few Dollars More, it has all the spectacle and action you could hope for from an epic Western. The pacing problems that plagued its immediate predecessor are gone, and the film zips along at the same pace as A Fistful of Dollars: it may be twice as long, but it never feels like it. Add to this some of Ennio Morricone’s absolute best work, including a main theme every bit as iconic as James Bond’s, and an almost unbearably tense finale, and you have a Western that entertains every bit as much as it makes you think about the horrors of the Civil War.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is a film that no one should go without seeing. It confirmed both Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone as major talents as actor and director, and is without doubt one of the greatest Westerns, and indeed one of the greatest films, ever made.