film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

For years I’ve said I dislike Westerns. To be fair, my only exposure to them was the hoary, tropey stuff that would run on syndicated TV in the afternoons during the 1970s and 80s; the lower-budget stuff that was more cliché than script. That plus some consciousness-raising about The Damage Done To Native Americans in college left me with a bit of a prejudice about the genre. ….But – while I’ve still seen some stinkers on this list – I’ve now been exposed to too many other good Westerns and I can’t say I dislike the genre any more.

This film is even from a sub-genre – the “spaghetti Western”, a nickname for the flurry of Westerns made in Spain, Italy, and other parts of Europe in the mid-1960s. Budget-conscious American and British directors started things off, filming in studios in England but then going to Spain or Italy for the outdoor shots instead of packing up and heading to Utah or Texas or the like. Spanish and Italian directors took note – particularly budding Italian director Sergio Leone – and started making their own films there, luring over up-and-coming American actors for the leading roles and casting locals for the smaller parts. The non-American perspective they brought to the genre turned things on its head – instead of a square-jawed hero bravely and nobly facing off against a wicked mob, the morality in the spaghetti Westerns is a lot murkier, with an anti-hero instead of a hero or a pair of main characters who double-cross each other at every opportunity.

Like with “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), the nickname bestowed on The Man With No Name who’d already appeared in two of Leone’s other films. He’s teamed up with a bandit named Tuco (Eli Wallach) for the first part of the film; “Blondie” poses as a bounty hunter turning the fugitive Tuco in for the money, but then he lingers in town until the day of Tuco’s inevitable execution. Then at just the right moment, “Blondie” rescues him and both make their escape, splitting the money when they’ve gotten to safety.

At one such execution, the mercenary “Angel Eyes” (Lee Van Cleef) sees “Blondie” in the act, and figures out their con. But he doesn’t do anything – “Angel Eyes” has bigger fish to fry. He’s heard about a Confederate deserter who stole a cache of gold before escaping, and is hunting for the deserter – or, even better, just the gold. As luck would have it, Tuco and “Blondie” each meet the fugitive shortly after a quarrel; he tells Tuco half of what he needs to know to find the gold, and “Blondie” learns the other half. “Angel Eyes” learns that they know the secret, and now starts chasing them both through deserts, Civil War prison camps and meeting up with them both in a cemetery for a three-way standoff.

Roommate Russ passed through the room while I was watching and remarked it’s one of his favorite films. And I can see why – it’s nearly three hours long, but the twists and turns definitely held my attention. I was especially taken with a sequence set at a Civil War battle; Tuco and Blondie stumble into the Union side during a standoff fight for control of a bridge. And far from being the noble leader one would expect a Civil War Union lieutenant to be, the lieutenant they meet is perpetually drunk (and makes sure his men are as well) and confides to Blondie that he secretly wishes someone would just blow the damn bridge up so everyone could go home. There’s a reason we learn about the bridge, but meeting the lieutenant gives some fun “local color” that I hadn’t seen in other Westerns. Heck, other Westerns rarely even acknowledge the Civil War even though the western frontier was the site of some major battles.

So I think it’s more that I dislike bad Westerns. And while the spaghetti Western would soon spawn cliches of its own, I think I appreciate the clearer-eyed look at the West they brought us for a while.

3 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)”

  1. As good as this film is, and as much as it is held up as the paragon of spaghetti Westerns and Leone’s filmography alike, I’m of the opinion that Once Upon a Time in the West is even better. This is a great film in just about every way, but comparing it to Leone’s follow-up, even the greatness here feels like a practice run; I was completely unprepared for how finely-wrought and, frankly, dazzling the filmmaking on display in West is, and it does even more than this film in elevating the story it’s telling above mere actions and people into something akin to myth or legend. This film is a masterpiece; West is, somehow, even more than that.


  2. Well, I will agree that Once Upon a Time in the West is technically superior, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is my favourite western of all time. I think your reasons sum it up pretty well, but I could add the coolness to the mix. It blows me over every time I watch it.


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