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The Unstoppable Good of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly
The Unstoppable Good of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly
On the face of it, The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly (GBU), the ultimate “spaghetti western,” by writer/director Sergio Leone, seems … face — tight facial shots of sweaty men, garish gunfight scenes, and a tableau of forbidding desert. The 1966 epic has won grudging approval as the ultimate “anti-western” and “post-modernist” send-up of the classic western’s black-and-white portrayals of good guys versus bad guys.
Indeed, GBU seems to relativize good and evil. Tuco, the bandit protagonist (masterfully and comically rendered by Eli Wallach) prays only to gain a fortune in gold. Setenza, or “Angel-Eyes,” (the shorn-fingered Lee Van Cleef) is indeed a Satanic murderer. The only thing that seems to differentiate the laconic Blondie (Clint Eastwood) from the Luciferian bad guy is that Blondie is quicker on the draw.
So why does Leone literally label each of the three leads as “The Ugly,” “the Bad,” and “the Good”? Is he sardonically lampooning the vain attempt to discern truth in a meaningless world?
Crazily, this cinematic parable has more in common with Medieval morality plays and a Shakespearian sense of comic relief than it does with a post-modernist/deconstructionist abolition of moral categories. Sergio Leone sends up the wasteland of modern attempts at storytelling and returns us to the foundations of our condition — namely that a comic grace rains on our desert journey in this world.
The movie starts with Tuco’s glass-smashing, murderous escape from three demon-visage bounty hunters and ends with him in a hang rope. Tuco scrapes whatever he can from cunning, vengeance, lying, larceny, and sheer desperate effort.
Despite his outlaw ways, Tuco is our hero — in fact, he is us — using his wits to scratch out pleasures and hope from a forbidding landscape of marauders, frontier justice, and warring Union and Confederate armies.
The real conflict in this Wasteland tableau is not a war between North and South, nor even a race for $200,000 in gold, but the contest for Tuco’s identity — and our own — between the vulpine Angel-Eyes and the enigmatic Blondie.
So why the perniciously blatant labeling of the lead characters? The wasteland setting provides the key. Leone filmed his masterpiece in the Spanish high desert as a cinematic homage to the setting of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland and “The Hollow Men.” Tuco is a hollow man, searching for water and a Fisher-King’s ransom. Just as Tuco can’t fathom Angel-Eyes and Blondie, so we in our era have little capacity to discern our own hearts. Thus, we viewers need the labels, as Tuco needs Blondie to guide him through the wasteland.
That Blondie bests Angel-Eyes because Blondie’s better with a gun isn’t relativism but rather a commentary on Tuco’s weaponed utilitarianism. So the force for good in GBU meets Tuco and us on our own terms, providing the minimalist persona we’re equipped to handle. What ultimately differentiates Blondie from Angel-Eyes is the difference between the two gunmen’s interactions with the hapless Tuco.
Angel-Eyes kills not merely for money but for pleasure (he repeatedly notes his determination to “see the job” through right before he needlessly murders his victims) and views Tuco as grist for gain. He savors watching Tuco nearly beaten to death (by Angel-Eyes’ henchman). Having extracted what he wants from the torture, Angel-Eyes sells Tuco for a bounty.
Although Blondie teams with Tuco in a bounty-hunting scam in which he “captures” the outlaw and turns him in for the bounty, only to shoot away his hang rope at the last instant, Blondie splits the bounty with Tuco. When Blondie severs the relationship, letting Tuco loose in the desert, he notes that “A man of your strength could manage” the journey back to town. Blondie’s cruel valedictory is descriptive.
Before we categorize Blondie with Angel-Eyes, remember — we see the situation from Tuco’s point of view.
To him, the world is filled with Angel-Eyed marauders who buy and sell his life. But, true to Blondie’s word, Tuco does survive, and his being shanghaied in the desert motivates him to hunt down Blondie with a Job-like tenacity, tracking the perceived author of our woes to make him pay …
… which Tuco does, forcibly marching Blondie through the desert, only to see Blondie rescued by what Leone (and composer Morricone) label the “Carriage of the Spirits.” In the carriage is a dying man Angel-Eyes has been hunting, who knows the cemetery and grave filled with $200,000 in gold. Tuco wrests the the cemetery name from the man, but while he retrieves a canteen to loose the parched man’s tongue, Blondie secures the grave name with the man’s last breath. Tuco now desperately tries to save Blondie’s life, taking him to the Franciscan mission/hospital where Tuco’s brother is the Superior.
Blondie’s rough-shod participation with Tuco in Tuco’s own suffering (Blondie undergoes the same desert ordeal as Tuco) and his enabling Tuco to save his (Blondie’s) life (as Blondie once saved Tuco from the hang rope) leads Tuco towards the gold.
Leone punctuates Blondie’s interventions with deus ex machina plot twists — misfired cannon balls, runaway carriages, parched secret sharers — as if to say that these are as close as we get to miracles in Tuco’s wasteland.
In contrast to Angel Eyes’ preying on Tuco, Blondie comforts the desperado. After eavesdropping on Tuco’s heartbreaking encounter with his Prior brother (who informs Tuco that both their parents are dead and accuses Tuco of being on a road to damnation), Blondie goes along with Tuco’s lie about his brother (“He’s crazy about me! No matter what happens to a rat like me, I always know there’s a brother who’ll give me a bowl of soup”). Blondie replies, “After a good meal, there’s nothing like a good smoke” and shares his cigar with Tuco, granting Tuco the fellowship that Tuco’s own brother refused — an embrace that is astounding, given that, a few days earlier, Tuco had nearly killed him.
Despite Blondie’s guidance, Tuco blunders in this landscape. Tuco’s mistaking Union troops for Confederates lands the pair in Angel-Eyes’ POW camp (where Tuco is beaten). Later, Tuco’s sure-fire sense of direction plunges the two into Union and Confederate forces’ Sisyphean battle for a bridge. Blondie’s compassion pulls them out of these fixes. Plotting to use Union dynamite to blow up the bridge during a lull in the battle, Blondie gives a bottle of whiskey to the dying Union commander (who has drunk himself into alcoholic anguish over the waste of lives caused by the bridge) — one of three instances in which Blondie administers “last rites” to a character.
Next, Blondie exchanges secrets with Tuco — who provides Blondie with the name of the cemetery in return for the name of the grave. Blondie also surreptitiously unloads Tuco’s gun as the two sleep after the obliteration of the bridge. Though Blondie seems to be just as cunning with Tuco as Angel-Eyes is, Tuco himself grudgingly agrees when, deception revealed, Blondie notes, “You think I’d trust you?”
Leone’s treatment of the viewer and Blondie’s treatment of Tuco represent what C. S. Lewis once described as a “severe mercy” — from our limited perspective, severe; from a bigger picture, a necessary mercy to guide us through the angel- and demon-filled landscape of the heart.
Tuco and Blondie emerge from the bloodstained river, Tuco racing ahead to find the grave. Blondie pauses in a shelled-out chapel to put his coat on a dying soldier and give him a last smoke of his own cigar — hauntingly recalling his earlier cigar-sharing with Tuco. While Tuco races through the thousands of graves, Blondie goes about what Blondie has done the whole story — being as angelic and ministering presence as the wasteland affords. Though Tuco misses the grace that is Blondie, even the demonic Angel-Eyes declares that Blondie is Tuco’s angel.
The movie climaxes where it began — on a stone circle in the center of Sad Hill Cemetery (recalling the paved circle at the beginning of the movie, where Angel-Eyes murders a family). Tuco clutches his empty pistol, while Blondie dispatches Angel-Eyes into an open grave. Then, after splitting the riches with Tuco, Blondie delivers one final severe mercy. Standing Tuco on the cross over the grave where the gold coins were buried, Blondie returns Tuco to where the bandit started the movie — in a noose.
This time, Tuco totters on the rickety cross to salvage what life he can hope for … until Blondie returns on camera to shoot away the rope. Tuco lands on his share of the gold, a richer man. Our suffering is hapless and often self-inflicted, and we look for when it will be no more. Yet, for now, we totter on two lashed slats of wood and hope for deus ex machina sharpshooting.
So GBU evinces a comic vision. Despite the wasteland, our ineptitude paves the way for grace. As Blondie cons with Tuco, walks the desert under Tuco’s gun, shares a cigar with Tuco, and unloads Tuco’s pistol, Blondie redirects Tuco’s blunders into a bounteous reward.
Although this world’s severity ties Tuco’s hands — and his own pursuits tie him to the occasional hang rope — the gold is Tuco’s … as is, hopefully, the realization that, ugly as life can seem, we are too good, too precious, to die at the hands of the bad.
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