The ultimate spaghetti western, Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly follows three gunslingers who search for a hidden cashbox while traversing the bleak American landscape and maneuvering through the violence of the Civil War.
Along with the other two films in the Dollars Trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was panned by critics after its U.S. release in 1967. But time has changed opinion and the film is now considered one of the best westerns ever made.
With long shots punctuated by extreme close-ups, exaggerated violence and Ennio Morricone's memorable score, this epic redefined the genre and helped turn a little-known actor named Clint Eastwood into an international star.
Eastwood’s laconic Blondie (The Good) runs a scam with the brutish bandit, Tuco (The Ugly), by pretending to turn him in for the reward, only to shoot the rope and try again in the next town. Meanwhile, sociopathic gun-for-hire, Angel Eyes (The Bad), hunts down a man who knows the location of a cashbox full of coins. Willing to do anything when paid, Angel Eyes makes it a point to always see the job through.
Eventually Blondie sees limited prospects with Tuco and leaves him to fend for himself in the desert. But Tuco survives and exacts like-minded revenge on Blondie. With Blondie on the verge of death, a runaway stagecoach carrying dead Confederate soldiers appears out of nowhere. One of the soldiers is actually alive and happens to be the man Angel Eyes is looking for. In exchange for water, he tells Tuco about money buried in a cemetery. With Tuco off getting the water, the soldier tells Blondie the name of the grave before he dies, forcing both into an uneasy alliance.
Dressed in rebel uniforms, Blondie and Tuco are captured by the Union and taken to a POW camp, where they’re surprised to learn that Angel Eyes is an army sergeant. Angel Eyes tortures Tuco to learn the name of the cemetery and allies himself with Blondie, knowing he won’t reveal the name of the grave with the same treatment. Amidst a hail of canon fire, Blondie finds Tuco and reforms their partnership, only to stumble upon a battle where hundreds of men are badly wasted in a fight to control a bridge.
Realizing the dream of a mortally wounded Union captain, Blondie and Tuco blow up the bridge and cross the river to the cemetery. Blondie thwarts a last attempt by Tuco to obtain the gold for himself, only to once again run into Angel Eyes. Having kept the true name of the grave secret, Blondie challenges both to earn that knowledge. What follows is the true highpoint of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a three-way graveyard standoff punctuated by extreme close-ups and Morricone’s pulsating score.
The Cast of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’
Methodical, internal and quick on the draw, Clint Eastwood’s Blondie – a.k.a. the Man with No Name – is more of an archetype than a flesh-and-blood human. Little is known about him except that he abhors the senseless violence of the war, which he expresses on more than one occasion. But it’s clear that Blondie is always one step ahead of the others, and manages to get the upper hand even when it appears the deck is stacked against him.
Lee Van Cleef plays sociopathic hit man Angel Eyes, who murders and tortures to get what he wants. Leone originally wanted Charles Bronson for the role, but the future Death Wish star was already committed to The Dirty Dozen. Van Cleef, who played a sympathetic bounty hunter in For a Few Dollars More, made the most of playing against type.
Though Eli Wallach’s Tuco is introduced as a comical oaf wanted for laundry list of crimes, he turns out to be the most dimensional character in the film. Tuco’s buffoonish nature is offset by a violent streak that makes him a formidable foe when he wants to be. We also learn that his boasts hide a lifetime of pain, which included once having a wife – we don’t find out what happened to her – and a brother who became a priest and disapproves of Tuco’s bandit lifestyle.
Eastwood was initially reluctant to film a third movie with Leone, prompting the director hop a plane to California and make a personal plea. Engaging in a game of cat-and-mouse, Eastwood eventually signed on for an inflated salary of $250,000 and 10% of the profits from the U.S. release, much to Leone’s dismay.
The clash of wills continued on the set, with Eastwood growing tired of Leone’s perfectionism and insistence on doing multiple takes. Further strain developed during the post-production dialogue dubbing, a time-consuming process that frustrated Eastwood and took him away from other roles.
Leone had better luck with Eli Wallach, whom he cast after seeing the actor’s performance in How the West Was Won (1962). While Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes were caricatures, it was Wallach’s Tuco who closely reflected Leone’s own nature.
An unrelenting perfectionist who had his start making historical epics like The Last Days of Pompeii and The Colossus of Rhodes, Sergio Leone redefined the Western at a time when the genre was in serious decline. Leone almost single-handedly resurrected the Western with his Dollars Trilogy, and later famously declined to direct The Godfather in favor of his own epic crime saga, Once Upon a Time in America.
Despite taking 16 years to make his last three films and having a public fallout with Eastwood, Leone remained a visionary director whose influence on other directors and filmmaking in general remained incalculable.
‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ – the Bottom Line
Yes, it’s longer than most westerns. And the out of sync dialogue can be distracting. But it will keep you enraptured all the way to the final three-way graveyard showdown.
Though shot in Spain by an Italian director who spoke little English, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly depicts both the Old West and the Civil War more realistically than most American Westerns.
If You Liked ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’…
You may want to see Leone’s other great epic western, Once Upon a Time in the West, or catch Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter or Hang ‘Em High.
‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ at a Glance:
Year: 1967, Color
Director: Sergio Leone
Running Time: 177 minutes
Studio: United Artists