By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
Summary: Violent, epic, touching, and even comical at times, this film is quite the ride.
Review: Somewhere in the West lies buried an enormous sum in gold, and three men know about it. Three violent, self-centered men, each of whom would just as soon kill the others if he had the chance. The only problem is that no one quite knows exactly where this treasure is. Each man knows only a piece of the puzzle, forcing him to work with the others. Thus begins a rampant odyssey as these men fight both the elements and each other in their search for gold. Not only that, but the American Civil War is unfolding all around them, and more than once, they get caught in the crossfire.
This is the setting of one of the oddest, yet most well done westerns in existence. Director Sergio Leone and crew take all the tropes about spaghetti westerns, twist them sideways, and stick them smack-dab in the middle of what should be a much more grandiose film. So, yes, all those showdowns and shootouts and morally ambiguous characters are here; yes, Clint Eastwood is back as the Man with No Name one last time; and yes, all that crazy music and camera work is here. It’s all been seen before, right? Well, sort of, but when you throw large-scale Civil War battles and treasure hunts into the mix, this truly becomes a horse of a different color.
It’s a film that thrives on contrast and hyperbole, a western with a backdrop of war, and that’s what makes it so effective. In the western, everything is comically exaggerated. Gunslingers aren’t just good with their weapons, they’re gods literally capable of hitting targets a half-mile away. Standoff’s aren’t just paced out, they’re dragged out for a full five minutes as tension sky-rockets. The score isn’t just exciting and energetic, it’s an over-the-top bombastic joy ride, as composer Ennio Morricone mixes howls, yells, and screams along with his usual and diverse array of instruments in this iconic film score.
In the backdrop of the war, however, a near polar opposite is found. Soldiers are shown realistically wounded, and a true sense of loss is felt as you see multitudes of dieing Union and Confederate men. Rather than catering to one side or the other, the film shows the good and bad aspects of both factions, making it all the more saddening to see them fight. Morricone provides his most touching pieces yet for these moments, combining trumpets, violins, and even human moans into truly moving music.
Complementing the story and music is the casting. Clint Eastwood, in his final spaghetti western, delivers as the fast drawin’ and cigar chomping Man with No Name. But in this movie, he’s known as The Good. Lee Van Cleef returns this time as a most sinister and reprehensible killer (The Bad) and, in my opinion, one of the best screen villains of all time. Newcomer Eli Wallach gives quite the performance as the sometimes-idiotic-sometimes-deadly outlaw, Tuco, (The Ugly). Interestingly enough, it’s Tuco who steals the show. He gets the most screen-time, the most lines, and the most back-story; and is arguably the most human of the three. However, it’s Eastwood who is the most remembered of the three. Something about the silent toughness that permeates his character wedged its way into the public consciousness, and to this day, he continues to influence the anti-heroes of film and television.
Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are great spaghetti westerns, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is different. Sure, it too is a fantastic Italian-made western. Sure, it’s a great western in general. But first and foremost, it is an outstanding film. It transcends any and all classifications or genres and delivers one unique story, the effect, of which, would influence countless pictures to come. Combining tragedy with action and comedy, it’s the sort of film a man like Quentin Tarantino would have made had he been making films in the sixties. The film itself, vastly more than its prequels, has become a true classic. Even people who’ve never seen the film know the name. In short, it’s the best spaghetti western, it contends for the best western period, and it is without a doubt, one of the most entertaining movies ever made. Even to people who are not fans of these kinds of movies, I encourage them to give it a watch. I give this film my highest recommendation.