* Note: This review was written nearly 10 years ago by an eager film lover and writer. I decided not to touch it up as a means of preserving the vitality of that younger me. That and I'm natually lazy.
It isn't difficult to see why westerns were one of the most popular genres in cinema history. It has a historical approach, which automatically have an epic feel. There's colorful characters and archtypes, which can be swapped out and retold over and over again (which it has been). Hence, the limitation of the genre. There's only so many times you can play cowboys before you start walking on treaded ground.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly doesn't so much find a new path, but re-examine the old paths and find the moral and social fibers of these characters, then burns the trails to a crisp with style and fury beyond anything we've seen before. Sure, this is epic, but not so much because of the scope of the film, but the scope of the three lead characters.
Interesting we meet Tucco (Eli Wallach in his finest hour), aka The Ugly, first. Tucco is a man of vice and greed, but has a compassionate side that he hides with bravado and wit. Tucco has had a life that leads him to this time and this place. One of the best scenes in the film involves Tucco and his brother, a missionary priest involving how he came to be an outlaw.
Then we meet Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), The Bad, next. This character is first seen killing a man for money, the man's sons almost for sport. Greed and violence are what he lives for. When he is paid by the man he kills to kill the man who placed the hit in the first place, he has qualms doing so, but not before knowing of a small fortune that said man is trying to hunt down.
And the last one we meet is "Blondie" (Clint Eastwood), obviously The Good, as a bounty hunter who brings Tucco to justice, then sets Tucco free with some fancy shooting. What makes him good? He isn't a law-abiding citizen as much as he's fair to Tucco and Angel Eyes.
These three are in constant war with each other whether it's open war or not. But all three are bound in ways that appeal to their moral strengths. Bad cannot survive without Good and vice-versa. On a metaphysical level, perhaps Angel and "Blondie" represent the devil and the angel, with poor Tucco representing mankind in constant battle between the two forces. Wanting to allow himself to give in to his greed, but being pulled out of evil's hands by his limited conscience.
Of course there's gold involved. Each character wants it for themselves. And to make matters interesting, Tucco knows the graveyard the gold is buried, "Blondie" knows the grave. This is put our characters into play as we follow them through the backgrounds of the end of The Civil War, where Angel hides under the disguise of good. The closer these three characters get to the gold, the more their choices start showing their true natures. One of the more fantastic displays concerns a bridge that Tucco and "Blondie" take upon themselves to blow up to fulfill a Colonel's dying wish. And then there's the graveyard....
Performance-wise, this film is all about Eli Wallach's Tucco, who tries to be bad, but isn't too good at it, but cannot seem to be good enough to be righteous. Wallach is able to get underneath this character and understand what makes him this way with only a handful of scenes that expose his character. Eastwood has the easiest job in playing "Blondie" because he's supposed to be mysterious. Knowing more than that would ruin his character's interest. With Van Cleef, his performance is solid, playing a man that we know just as much about as we do "Blondie", since the few exposition scenes he's portraying an image and not himself, but he slides into scenes with ease, making his evil not so much mustache twirling, but something deeper, more organic.
For Sergio Leone, this is his finest film, taking elements of the mythological western genre, adding his blend of brutal, stone-carved features with faces just as polished. The plains of Italy make for a great environment for his westerns because of their barren feel, almost desperate isolation. There is very little comfort made for these locations where we go. And of course, his camera work for this film is legendary. He uses long, panning shots using the full palate of the screen to isolate and unite characters. Scenes play out longer in his films than others because he allows his characters to feel into their situations rather than make decisions, and understands how to film it so well that you don't even know that much time has passed.
And then there is the matter of composer Ennio Morricone, whose theme for this film is legendary. But that theme is not the most impressive music in the film. During the film's final climax with all three characters about to showdown, the music sets up additional tension as the characters stare each other down for nearly three minues. Not to mention the guitar solos used in lesser scenes which apply a haunting feel to these scenes.
Perhaps if you take away all the metaphors and ideas that come with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, all you would have is another western. But sometimes that's all that's needed to turn something good into something excellent. Even Arch Stanton would agree with me.