I took a night off last night and watched Sergio Leone’s melodramatic western masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly on my new wide screen TV. Even though it was released in 1966, and did not reach the US until a year later, it still holds up pretty well. It was the third of the so-called Clint Eastwood “Spaghetti Westerns” that were instumental in propelling him to international stardom. The plot centers around three adventurers, Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) who attempt to steal a cache of Confederate gold during Gen. Henry Sibley’s incursion into New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
Leone’s film was in some ways a commentary on the shopworn western genre and extremely violent: “the killings in my films are exaggerated,” he said, “because I wanted to make a tongue-in-cheek satire on run-of-the-mill westerns… The west was made by violent, uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.” It was also a sort of postmodern social commentary—war is brutal and senseless and there are no “good” causes. The movie’s three principals at times wear the uniforms of both sides but owe allegience to none but themselves, and their motive is simply personal enrichment—a theme that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted since.
Although ostensibly about the American Southwest, the movie was shot in Spain and most of the military extras are Spanish Army soldiers. The cast was an international one, and all the actors spoke in their native tongue. Many of the minor characters had no idea what the whole thing was about. Since Leone was planning to dub it into a dozen different languages anyway, it didn’t matter. Consequently, the lip synching is poor.
The Civil War costumes are really bad, although there are some good moments, especially the one where what appears to to be a Confederate cavalry patrol turns out to be Union when they slap all the dust off their uniforms. Eastwood uses what appears to be an 1873 Winchester rifle with a funky side-mounted (and apparently removable) scope, which which he parts the rope used to hang Tuco. For a sidearm he uses a Remington Model 1858 pistol, which is accurate enough, except that he’s using the cartridge conversion that was not introduced until 1868. He probably could have gotten enough money from selling these two futuristic weapons in 1862 to have made him rich right then.
History isn’t the movie’s strong point. The major battle takes place across an unnamed river for a bridge. A Union captain tells them:
soon you can join the gallant heroes of Branston Bridge.
– We have two attacks a day. – Two attacks a day?
The Reb’s have decided that damn bridge is the key to this whole area.
Stupid, useless bridge.
A flyspeck on headquarters’ maps.
And headquarters has declared that we must take that ridiculous flyspeck…
…even if all of us are killed.
After which Eastwood obligingly blows it up.
Of course this never happened. The Confederates prevailed at Valverde and Glorieta Pass, but the destruction of their supply trains forced them to retreat back to Texas. Enjoy the movie for the cinematography, the memorable Ennio Morricone score, and the sheer mayhem, but not as something that will increase your understanding of the Civil War.
Leave a Reply