A number of movies have changed my views on life, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly changed my views on movies. Before it unspooled (or more precisely, was broadcast) before my eyes during my senior year of high school, I had a pretty firm idea that a “good” movie had naturalistic acting, carefully crafted dialogue, and a socially important theme. Its visual and editing effects remained invisible and set the tone for the audience to follow. I also knew what a cult and/or “art film” was, based on having seen some Bergman, Fellini and various late ‘60s psychedelic black comedies on the Z Channel, but these were “eccentricities” rather than “mainstream” films. Spaghetti Westerns, of which Leone’s pictures were the most prominent example, were neither good nor arty, exulting in gratuitous violence and meaningless sensationalism, according to the writers of TV Guide and a few books on Westerns that I’d read, and were not to be taken seriously.*
My senior year English teacher turned me on to Leone as he introduced my classmates and I to the auteur theory. He said a lot of positive things about the director’s editing style, but since film criticism wasn’t on the curriculum (and ‘80s classroom technology didn’t allow him to run clips to augment movie lectures) he couldn’t explain his points. My friends and I found the instructor’s tastes endearingly weird, and we didn’t take his recommendations all that seriously. (Ironically, one of these skeptics dubbed a lot of the added scenes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s English language extended edition). Come the spring of 1982, while recovering from chicken pox shortly before graduation, I noticed that the “infamous” Eastwood opus was coming on TV, so I set the time aside to watch it for shits and giggles.
Maybe liberal dousings of calamine lotion and endless gallons of ice cream opened hitherto unknown receptors in my brain, but the friggin’ movie blew my mind. Leone’s aggressive cutting between masters and extreme close-ups poetically enhanced the impending violence of the film’s set pieces. For all of the movie’s grit, the extremity with which its characters’ points of view smashed against each other in contracting and expanding visual space produced a surrealistic effect. The film’s mixture of humor, suspense, and operatic intensity wasn’t manipulated by camera effects or editing room trickery designed to mimic drug-induced altered states of consciousness; rather, it employed the standard language of movies themselves as mind bending; as if the secure sense of naturalism that you took for granted was alien all along.
Leone’s hard-boiled frontier surrealism, which also included laconic performances, extremely prolonged set-ups for moments of violence, and huge dollops of gallows humor, also appealed to my burgeoning sense of masculinity. The film’s abstract, brutalized fetishization of powerful men “doing things for themselves” unbounded by the hypocrisy of social convention felt liberating in my late teens and early twenties. Unlike John Ford, Leone saw no point of moral progress in the taming of the West, just monetary fulfillment, relegating the value of human life to a financial abstraction. Upon reflection, perhaps Leone’s ascension into the pantheon of Great White Male Directors since the ‘80s reveals a masculine toxicity within certain aspects of the poptimist film commentariat. While I can’t recall personally re-affirming patriarchal tyranny in championing this movie, I’m sure I did. Probably not my finest moment.
In my twenties, I began appreciating the film’s formalist take on the Civil War, particularly its mimicry of the journalistic photography of the period, which emphasized a materialist aspect of the conflict while marginalizing its ideological origins. The movie self-reflexively correlates the myth of the American frontier to the birth of photojournalism, a point worthy of greater scholarly interest than I have time to present here. While Leone doesn’t adress the political thrust of the war itself, be it over slavery or states’ rights, the comparison between the dehumanizing mechanisms of modern warfare and the cynical libertarian ethos of the individualistic antihero was bracing. The destructive scale of socially sanctioned violence, both on a large and small scale occludes any of the romantic notions of liberty and freedom that initiated the war in the first place.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly posits that historical notions of “progress” are built upon the commodification of human life. Bounty hunting and slavery appear as inherent qualities in the evolution of American colonialism. Leone racializes this theme by having Tuco (Eli Wallach), a Mexican peasant, become the object of Blondie (Clint Eastwood)’s professional pursuit. The equivalence of flesh and currency is playfully dramatized in the scam by which Blondie repeatedly captures Tuco, collects a reward, then liberates him by shooting the hangman’s rope during his “executions.” The hierarchical authority in racial classification that produces criminal responses can be easily subverted when private interest comes into play. Yet this allows the film to eliminate the role of slavery from the narrative and to erase African Americans from a movie set in Texas, of all places. To contemporary audiences this elision might seem skittish and exclusive.
Although The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly often runs afoul of modern norms, it reflects some key notions of Western history worth considering. Its mise-en-scene recognizes that 1860s Texas was, as historian Richard White would put it, a “zone of transition” representing the co-existence of Spanish and North American conquests in the same space and time. The use of crumbling missions and forts as places of healing and refuge shows that the absorption of the territory into the U.S. in the 1840s did not completely erase the imperial remnants of earlier eras, or their systems of racial categorization. Tuco’s rant to his brother about how it’s harder to be a bandit than a priest or farmer indicts the subordinated position that the mixed-race peasantry was encouraged to accept under the paternalism of the Catholic Church and the ranching elite. Likewise, cheating at cards, robbing banks and stagecoaches, and “assaulting women of the white race,” signifies resistance and assimilation to a society that values material acquisition and “whiteness” as defined by Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Tuco comprises a sense of ambiguity in the cultural environment: he can achieve material success through his talent for outlawry, bu, the accident of his birth prevents him from achieving racial supremacy
Leone’s significance, in fact, lies in his movies’ denotation of the differences between Mexican and Anglo-American cultures without invoking a territorial border to demarcate them. As Richard Slotkin notes, the emergence of the mercenary-in-Mexico subgenre, exemplified in U.S. films like Vera Cruz, The Magnificent Seven, and Major Dundee, expressed the internationalist concerns of the U.S. led anti-communist coalition when Europe was dismantling its old empires. These films, depicting Mexico as a metaphor for the developing world, depict how the lack of self-reliant economic and political institutions weakened peoples’ backbones, and how a “killer elite,” unburdened by or acting outside the imperative of the U.S. Government, modernize these emergent nations towards autonomy and democracy. These films integrate imperialism and neoliberal paternalism as the traditional administrative models of colonial management were transferred to new governments. Subsequently, these narratives were exported all over the world, serving as “soft” propaganda for international global interests.
By integrating Mexican imagery into an American space, Leone’s Westerns depict imperialism as an established fact of the 19th-century U.S. frontier. He frames Tuco and Blondie’s relationship with a power dynamic shaped by historical circumstance. The world is defined by “those with a rope around their neck, and the people who do the cutting,” or more tellingly, “Those with loaded guns, and those who dig.” Blondie has no desire to edify Tuco but, after suffering dearly at his partner’s hands for betraying his trust, he gains a begrudging, if weary respect for him. Tuco’s mendacity, persistence, and perseverance remain unreformed at the films end. It is in this dynamic where the movie once again exhibits an inconvenient paradox in terms of modern progressivism; toxic masculinity functioning as a form of anti-imperialist resistance.
Romanticizing Third World proletarian defiance may have been the Spaghetti Westerns’ most significant contribution to movie culture. References to iconic characters like Django and Navajo Joe abound in Jamaican dance songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Western clothing and the romantic outlaw icon prominently appear in The Harder They Come, perhaps the most celebrated cinematic record of ‘70s reggae culture. Central African youth gangs in the mining regions are known to don cow skulls and large-brimmed hats as totems appropriated from Italian oaters. On the surface, Spaghetti Westerns seem like an escapist retreat from the neorealist traditions of Italian art house cinema, but artists often reclaimed their imagery as a reflection of youthful masculine rebellion in their respective countries.
Thus, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly retains, on a personal level, a strong hold on my evolving critical faculties. As I first encountered it, the movie shaped my understanding of the politics of “auteur” cinema, where a focus on individual style and innovation was paramount. Over time it has evolved to reflect a professional concern in understanding movies as a force of cultural change. To borrow an overused analogy, Leone’s epic reminds us that movies are like rivers of time. While they retain their form, they never retain the same essence upon each new encounter.
*Hating The Good, the Bad and the Ugly might have been the only thing that Bosley Crowther and Pauline Kael agreed on. Offhand, I can’t think of a review published in 1966 that would have anticipated its elevated stature in recent times. Last I checked 12 years ago, the handbook (and curriculum) for UCLA’s Italian cinema course (taught through the language department) doesn’t mention Spaghetti Westerns, gialli, Macistes, or sword and sandals epics.