The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Three Men and a Grave

They formed an alliance of hate to steal a fortune in dead man’s gold.

 

When Clint Eastwood was offered the lead in the third part of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western trilogy, he had to be talked into it. In the end, money sealed the deal, but it’s clear that Eastwood was beginning to see a future as a star in American movies. Also, it’s been reported that he wasn’t terribly happy about sharing the screen with Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef to such a great extent. Eastwood and Leone would never make another movie together, but their final collaboration still stands as one of the greatest films in both men’s careers.

During the American Civil War, three men’s paths cross. The ugly one is Tuco (Eli Wallach) and the good one Blondie (Eastwood). After running into each other, they agree on a scam where Blondie first delivers Tuco, a wanted man, to the authorities, collects the reward money and then frees his partner at the very moment he’s about to be hanged. After a while, Blondie decides that the agreement is not rewarding enough, tells Tuco that he’s keeping all the money and abandons him in the desert. Tuco gets his revenge after a while though, capturing Blondie and forcing him to march through a desert without any water or protection. When they come across a wagon carrying dying Confederate soldiers, Tuco hears from one of them that he’s buried $200,000 in a grave in a cemetery called Sad Hill… but luck has it that only Blondie is told in which grave, before the soldier dies. A furious Tuco realizes that if they are to lay their hands on the fortune, they have to work together because Blondie never heard the name of the cemetery. However, they are about to be challenged by the bad one, Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef), who’s called Angel Eyes.

Majestic epic in the shadow of the Civil War
Following Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), this chapter in the franchise is the most impressive. Eastwood may have gotten a little tired, but it was as if Leone spent the two other films preparing for this moment, a majestic epic set in the shadow of the Civil War. The cynicism is obvious among the soldiers as well as the three men whose journey we follow. The fact that Blondie is labeled a good guy mirrors a relativity; he’s good only if Tuco is ugly and Sentenza is bad. Eastwood plays more or less the same character as in the other movies; Van Cleef gets to be a little more evil than the bounty hunter he played in For a Few Dollars More. Both definitely had reason to worry about being upstaged by Wallach, because they are. This was his greatest performance, an immensely entertaining effort where he plays an unattractive little rat and still manages to win our hearts because of his unexpected smarts and resourcefulness. Watching these men take turns collaborating with and battling each other is part of what makes this admittedly long movie funny and exciting. The filmmakers have chosen appropriate Spanish locations for the shoot and staged impressive battles between North and South, as well as created a perfect cemetery for the final encounter between the three scoundrels. Ennio Morricone wrote one of his finest scores, one that is fully in line with his previous work for Leone but adds beauty and sorrow to several sequences, such as the one that takes place in a Union POW camp.

Considering the fact that Leone’s approach was very earnest as he wanted to portray the harsh realities of the war and its prison camps, it’s hard to grasp why the film attracted negative reviews on its release. Snobbishness is likely one reason, but those critics should be pleased to note that this film has matured like a fine wine.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1966-Italy-Spain. 161 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Alberto Grimaldi. Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni. Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli. Music: Ennio Morricone. Cast: Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Sentenza), Eli Wallach (Tuco), Rada Rassimov, Mario Brega, Chelo Alonso.

Trivia: Original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. Also available in a 180 min. cut. Charles Bronson was allegedly considered for a role.

Last word: “They would care if you were doing a story about Spaniards and about Spain. Then they’d scrutinize you very tough, but the fact that you’re doing a western that’s supposed to be laid in southwest America or Mexico, they couldn’t care less what your story or subject is.” (Eastwood on filming in Spain, “Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death”)

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