Chapter III: 'A Document of Barbarism'1
From the moment the abstract credit sequence fills the screen, complete with cannon fire and spurred on by Morricone`s iconoclastic score, this is categorically a Leone film. Yet another windswept desert is this time obscured by the pock-marked visage of Al Muloch - another lone gunman. Leone`s 'West' has been firmly established by the previous two films, and he is at last free to work within his own parameters. Parodic reversal of Hollywood expectation is now the accepted Leone norm, but he was never a director to make it easy for his audience. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in displaying an epic realisation of his unforgiving universe, would therefore undercut Leone`s own conventions, while reconstructing myth on his terms.
When we discover that Al Muloch is not to be the hero, it is no longer a shock - For a Few Dollars More has similarly gunned down the anticipated Shane - and Leone knows it. He therefore presents so many lone riders emerging from, and disappearing back into, the desert as to emphasise the redundancy of the cliché. Not since A Fistful of Dollars has one of these legendary wanderers turned out to be any sort of hero, and as the 'Bad' Lee Van Cleef rides out of the landscape to murder a father and son, the reversal of his anticipated villainy in the previous film is again turned on its head. Assumptions of identity are never allowed to stand in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the adjectives in the title are merely relative: Blondie (Eastwood) rides off into the desert after leaving his partner in crime Tuco (Eli Wallach) to starve (but, of course, he too eventually emerges from the desert). Leone chooses this mean, money-grabbing double-cross as an appropriate time to emblazon 'Il buono' ('The Good') on the screen. Such capitalistic mistrust is, of course, a continuation from For a Few Dollars More, and features both stylistic and thematic that in the previous films emerged in embryonic form are now explored to a parodic extreme.
The thoroughly 'bad' Angel Eyes
The pattern of a trio of introductions to our characters echoes For a Few Dollars More (and as each of the three characters now shoots three men in his segment, we can immediately detect a further preoccupation with threes), but now these fill up a whole half hour of screen time. Indeed, the plot itself does not fully take off until an hour into the film, when Tuco and Blondie learn of the buried gold. Leone is now enjoying himself (his patterns of three all pointing towards the glorious triple shoot-out at the climax) and before he lets his story get under way clear parodies of his earlier films abound. Blondie continually shoots people`s hats off while freeing Tuco from the noose, comically referring back to Manco and Mortimer`s little game, and when Blondie later escapes Tuco`s grasp, he is found (how else?) by Tuco following a trail of cheroots! Eastwood`s endless dragging on cigars throughout the trilogy has caught up with him, and his previous personae are constantly mocked. Even his archangel does not escape Leone`s sense of humour - Van Cleef`s icy killer Angel Eyes recognises Joe waiting to free Tuco - 'a golden haired angel watches over him' (cue heavenly chorus). Eastwood`s own performance is considerably less deadpan, until he happens upon Manco`s old poncho just in time for the final corrida.
Of course, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not just self parody. Leone at last pulls together all the strands hinted at previously to present a thorough realisation of his 'West.' Again, a man`s worth is judged purely by the price on his head, so double-crosses become a way of life, and the image of Judas is constantly evoked by Tuco after Blondie has betrayed him. The Catholic emphasis on family also remains strong: Tuco may be an 'Ugly' outlaw, but he values his family, and when he hurls insults, they cast doubt on Blondie`s (seemingly non-existent) parentage: 'I hope your mother ends up in a two dollar whorehouse [ ] You want to know whose son you are? [ ] You`re a son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you!' Tuco indeed spends much of his time hurling insults, while Blondie and Angel Eyes maintain their muteness. This is far more than Latin exuberance set against American reserve, however - silence is a means of survival throughout Leone`s work. Angel Eyes says to Blondie 'You`re smart enough to know that talking won`t save you,' and it is Blondie`s very reluctance to utter his half of the secret that saves him from Tuco`s wrath in the desert. Even Tuco knows that chatter will lead to hesitation and death: 'When you have to shoot, shoot - don`t talk.'
'When Judas hanged himself there was a storm too'
Anonymity, too, is an aid to survival - Jackson and Tuco both assume the name 'Bill Carson' ('It`s not wise to use your own name,' Tuco counsels Angel Eyes) and we never discover Blondie`s or Angel Eyes`s real names. Even the grave concealing the treasure is nameless. Identity is consistently unstable (Father Ramirez - a priest - begs forgiveness of his brother Tuco - a bandit!), and we again see the boundary between life and death blurred: another wagon-load of bodies contains a living dead man with a secret, and Tuco is partially hanged when Blondie`s shot goes awry ('When that rope starts to pull tight you can feel the devil bite your ass' - so Tuco has a devil and an angel watching over him). This reintroduction of an ethereal element alongside mysteriously nameless warriors gives The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the aura of a fairy tale, and Mitchell identifies in such figures Leone`s idea of 'the living dead as automatons, as dolls or puppets that mimic the actions of living beings.'2 The stock characters of the Western have mingled with the stock characters of the pupi Siciliani.
As a young boy, Leone had become fascinated by the picaresque adventures of the pupi Siciliani - rod puppets performing both stories of heroism dating back to the First Crusade and morality tales of the Commedia dell` arte. Leone recalled of his first encounter with these: 'I had just grasped my first lesson in the meaning of the word "spectacle." And it happened before I went to the cinema for the first time.'3 He viewed himself as 'a puppeteer with his puppets'4 throughout his career, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with its labyrinthine, episodic plots and its tricksters lifted straight out of the pupi, demonstrates this like no other film. 'I discovered a strange fraternity between the Puparri and my friends of the Wild West'5 he declared. So, he merged them - Frayling identifies6 Tuco as the vulgar, comic clown Nofriù, and Blondie as the worldly wise trickster Arlecchino, and certainly our two adventurers seem to inhabit a separate world from everyone else. They go about their business while all the time American history creeps ever nearer. Through a series of preposterous coincidences they find themselves in the midst of the Civil War which, until the battle for the bridge, they have used mostly to their advantage (towns being shelled have saved Blondie from hanging and provided a smoke screen for them to gun down Angel Eyes`s gang). Once the War provides a barrier between them and their treasure, Tuco declares that if they blow up the bridge 'these idiots will go somewhere else to fight.' So a pair of Sicilian puppets walk through the middle of the American Civil War and sweep it aside once it becomes too inconvenient. Leone`s two worlds merge for the last time as the bridge explodes since, sure enough, when Tuco and Blondie awake, the battlefield is deserted.
Once again, Leone is clearing the scenario of all outside interference (as he had at Agua Caliente in the previous film) to set up the construction of myth, and the film`s Holy Grail - Sad Hill Cemetery - magically appears as they leave the battlefield. Raymond Durgnat writes that the film is entertaining because, since all the characters are essentially 'baddies,' the viewer does not know who will die in the final triangular shoot-out.7 I feel he misses the point - as the three men step into the arena to fulfil the ritual once more, each has had their fate pre-ordained. Eastwood has once again assumed the role of guardian of the moment of death - granting the Union Captain`s last wish by blowing up the bridge, comforting a dying young Confederate while picking up his poncho ready to referee another corrida and 'dying' himself in the desert before being saved by a miraculous wagon of death. Angel Eyes`s quip about a 'golden haired angel' must now come back to haunt him. As Cumbow puts it: 'The question "What would they have done if things had turned out differently?" doesn`t arise in watching a Leone film.'8
The climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is audio-visual poetry at its most stunning. The circular graveyard provides an obvious symbol for an amphitheatre, but this time the corrida has an audience - the dead. The massive body count of Leone`s trilogy has turned up to observe the final dance of death and to receive its latest recruit - Angel Eyes, whose open grave lies awaiting his inevitable demise. The three men stand anticipating the ritual gunfire for one hundred and fifty seconds, while Morricone`s opera reaches a triumphant climax (in the tradition of the grand finale death scenes of stage opera). If Leone`s characters seem mute, he protests 'it is the music of Ennio which has made them talk.'9 Leone has elevated his myth to the level of high poetry here, and his 'West' has veered radically from its origins in Hollywood. If he has ceased parodying Hollywood`s clichés by now, however, it is only so he may engage its ideologies on a far deeper level, for the Civil War is not just an historical backdrop here.
Traditionally, Hollywood had dealt with the Civil War as a backdrop to melodrama (as in Gone With the Wind, 1939), or as a traumatic yet ennobling step towards the progress of the United States (as in John Ford`s segment of How the West was Won (1962) and the reconciliation implicit in his Rio Grande (1950)). Once America has purged itself of internal strife, the Hollywood myth machine has it, a united nation of pioneers push ever Westwards to build the greatest nation on earth, and this is where Leone most radically differs with the American Western.
The battle for the bridge was filmed with both Matthew Brady`s period photos and the trenches of the First World War in mind, and Blondie makes the film`s stance on the War explicit: 'I`ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.' It is not that this film takes a pacifist stance - more, it portrays the War as utterly, irredeemably cretinous, and this is Leone`s biggest heresy against Hollywood. The bridge for which the two armies are engaging in wholesale slaughter is not only 'a fly speck on headquarters` maps,' as the Union Captain points out - it is pointless. Once it is destroyed, Blondie and Tuco wade across the river, which is only waist deep. There is no hint of a greater cause for which either side may be fighting, and the War presents itself in images of mutilation, disease and alcoholism in Angel Eyes`s 'half soldier' informant, in the San Antonio Mission full of amputees, in the Union camp Commander dying of gangrene and, most potently, in the Union Captain`s comment on whiskey: 'This is the most potent weapon in war. The fighting spirit`s in this bottle.' Tuco is judged to be of colonel calibre because he can drink the most, and the War comes down to a confused skirmish for a bridge nobody needs.
Matthew Brady's photograph of the Gettysburg Battlefield, 1863
Leone cited Charlie Chaplin`s Monsieur Verdoux, in which a murderer pleads innocence in a world where Stalin and Roosevelt make him seem an amateur, as an influence. Indeed, the world through which Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes journey makes their petty acts of violence seem insignificant, even 'lovable'10 (Raymond Durgnat). The vast graveyard is for War dead, and the War displays such wanton cruelty throughout (a thief is summarily executed by his own side, a 'Confederate spy' manacled to the cow-catcher of a train) that an immortal line from a Vietnam film springs to mind: 'Charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500' (Apocalypse Now (1979)). Cumbow writes that Leone uses the Civil War 'to fly in the face of critics offended by the violence in his films. He`s saying: How can you oppose the one and endorse the other?'11 By defying the pseudo-historical deceptions inherent in Hollywood`s ideology, Leone is laying bare sacred WASP myths of progressive violence. His version of history is far from 'real,' however, and it is significantly coloured by his Marxist tendencies.
The common stereotypes of the rugged, rural Confederate and the pen-pushing urbanised Yankee are conspicuously absent from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The political causes of the War, literally, merge into one brutal mass in a cloud of dust when grey soldiers turn out to be blue soldiers riding through the desert`s dust storms. Leone does not even present the two sides as being as bad as each other, however - heresy enough. The Union is seen to be the sadistic and brutal army at the Betterville Concentration Camp, and this reveals a line of thinking connecting Leone, apparently unwittingly, with the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).
Both Leone and Benjamin experienced subjugation to Fascism (one in Rome, the other in Berlin, then Paris), and both held resultant mistrust in official versions of 'truth.' Benjamin`s essay 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1940) sets out a manifesto for 'historical materialism,' whereby the proletariat will re-assess the conformist vision of history as 'natural' progression. Benjamin`s immediate aim was to fight social democratic complacency treating the onset of Nazism as an evolutionary process, but his theories resonate throughout revisionist historiography. In his treatise, all cultural and artistic traditions are ideologically-laden artefacts representing the dominant ideology (the victors of past strife): 'There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism [ ] A historical materialist [ ] regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.'12
I know of no evidence to suggest Leone was familiar with Benjamin`s work, but the following statement suggests a strong affinity with such avant-garde 1930`s thinking: 'You always get to hear about the shameful behaviour of the losers, never the winners. So I decided to show extermination in a Northern camp.'13 Leone, a true 'historical materialist,' strives to emphasise aspects of history that may have been neglected in the progressive myths churned out of California. So, the conscientious Union Commander of Betterville Camp (an explicit reversal of the famous brutality at Andersonville in Confederate Georgia) warns Angel Eyes: 'I pray I can manage to have enough time to amass evidence, and bring to a court martial all those who discredit and dishonour the uniform of the Union.' One feels his gangrene overtook his efforts. To make his point even more emphatic, and disturbing, Leone throws in a reference to the Jewish orchestras famously forced to play to drown out the cries of their inmates in Nazi camps. The message is clear - had the Nazis triumphed, their atrocities would not have been allowed to become 'official' history. Leone`s depiction is not so much accusing the Union of exterminations, as highlighting Benjamin`s point - neither man will let himself be 'drained by the whore called "Once upon a time" in historicism`s bordello'14 (Benjamin).
Leone`s Marxist approach extends to showing that Tuco, ultimately the only sympathetic character in the film, has socio-economic causes for his ruthlessness: 'Where we came from if one did not want to die of poverty one became a priest or a bandit. You chose your way. I chose mine. Mine was harder.' A cruel world produces more cruelty, and a recurring image in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is of a world divided into victims and victors. 'There are two kinds of people in this world,' we are continually told - those with ropes around their necks and those who do the cutting, those who come in by the door and those who come in by the window and those with loaded guns and those who dig. The 'little people' have been trampled underfoot all through the trilogy - Silvanito and Marisol in A Fistful of Dollars, the Prophet and the telegraph man in For a Few Dollars More, and now the gun shop owner. Such 'salt of the earth' types are the victims of Leone`s world of thoroughly ignoble violence: ' the true history of the United States was constructed on a violence which neither literature nor the cinema had ever properly shown'15 (Leone). His next project would explore this cynical take on American 'progress' in greater depth.
Meanwhile, United Artists released the whole trilogy in America, marketing them as a single package surrounding 'The Man With No Name,' and with staggered release dates of February 1967, July 1967 and January 1968. The three films grossed over $14 million but, predictably, most critics despised them. How dare this Italian upstart meddle with the sacred myths of the West, so removed from his culture, and snip away 'the strands of myth and honest recreation which connect the American Western to the real American West'16 (Parkinson and Jeavons) with gratuitous violence and poor dubbing? Leone`s peculiar brand of cynicism was at best seen as an unsuccessful attempt to imitate Hollywood (by John Francis Lane and Lino Miccichè). Walter Clapham goes a step further:
So, European Westerns per
se will always be inferior! Needless to say, producers acted on
box office takings instead of critical response. Leone was called on
to direct an even bigger project, and we must consider this next film
before adequately replying to the above critics.
1. Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy
of History,' in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry
Zorn, (London: Pimlico, 1999), p.248.