#6 in my ranking of Sergio Leone’s films.
This is one of those movies that you simply don’t dislike. Everyone who loves movies loves Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Well, my opinion of the film has honestly just degraded with time to the point where I throw this in, ready to rediscover the love for the film I saw in my youth, and instead I discover a bloated, aimless mess of a film.
I swear I’m not trolling. I genuinely think this.
I felt like For a Few Dollars More was a nearly ideal meld of style and somewhat minimal substance to create a high-quality entertainment. Leone had discovered that his style required small, focused storytelling, allowing him to spend large amounts of time on heightened moments that really drove the film’s enjoyment. For the first half of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I had similar thoughts to the earlier parts of his previous two films. Leone was taking his time to introduce his characters and his world. It was more self-indulgent than previously, but it was still pretty consistently entertaining.
We have our three characters, the Ugly (Tuco, played by Eli Wallach), the Bad (Angel Eyes, played by Lee Van Cleef), and the Good (Blondie, played by Clint Eastwood). Tuco is introduced in the opening sequence where he shoots several men out to kill him before jumping out of a window and racing off into the wilderness. Angel Eyes’ first scene introduces the actual plot when he shows up to a remote house with orders to kill a man after he extracts some information from him, the pseudonym of a man along with some extra bits about a cash box. Blondie executes a con with Tuco in his first scene where he drops Tuco off in a town for a cash reward and shoots out the rope that’s to hang him before Tuco actually strangles, dropping him onto the horse below and letting him bolt off to freedom where the two will share the money. However, Blondie decides that Tuco really isn’t worth it, robs him blind, and leaves Tuco in the desert alone.
This is all fine, solid, cinematic storytelling from Leone. It continues, if a bit self-indulgently, with Tuco crawling back to civilization and robbing a gun shop before heading towards Blondie. Eventually catching up, Tuco takes Blondie hostage and forces him to walk into the desert without water, enjoying every second of it, until they come across a seemingly abandoned Confederate stagecoach with a dying man who promises Tuco $200,000 for a drink of water. Fate makes it so that Tuco receives one piece of information about the money (the name of the cemetery) and Blondie receives the other (the name of the grave), with neither willing to give up the information to the other. However, they both need each other if they want that cash. This is also, of course, the man that Angel Eyes was looking for information on in his early scene.
Tuco helps Blondie convalesce in a monastery that will treat soldiers on either side of the American Civil War, and this is pretty much the exact point where I feel like the movie ends its promise. A quality scene between Tuco and his monk brother leads to Tuco and Blondie leaving the monastery to head towards the cemetery. And immediately they’re sidetracked when they get captured by a random Union patrol because the pair are wearing the Confederate uniforms they picked up. The story was just about to move forward, and suddenly we have to watch the two go into the Union’s answer to Andersonville, complete with a subplot that goes nowhere about the commandant deciding to investigate Angel Eyes (who is now a sergeant in the Union Army? whatever) for stealing from the prisoners as well as mistreating them. We literally never see the commandant after the scene he declares that he’s going to investigate, so what’s the point?
What this prison setting is supposed to do narratively is to tell Angel Eyes that Tuco and Blondie have the information he seeks (the coincidences around this are rather large), and for Angel Eyes to learn enough that he just needs Blondie instead of Tuco when Tuco gives up the cemetery name. So, then they’re off with Tuco set to be executed…somewhere else. Tuco manages to jump off a train with his large guard chained to him without anyone noticing, cutting the chains with the next train on the tracks. Yes, our story is moving forward again.
In a town being evacuated, Blondie and Angel Eyes, along with Angel Eyes’ five men, rest for a bit until Tuco shows up. Blondie decides team up with Tuco, presumably because Angel Eyes can’t be trusted and he needs to whittle down Angel Eyes’ men (an echo of For a Few Dollars More). The scene where they take out the five men is…curious. Saved by luck several times including a man with a rifle having worse aim than Tuco with a pistol (while also having the jump on him) and a shell landing right next to two of the men right before they are going to fire into the backs of Blondie and Tuco, they eliminate Angel Eyes’ men, and then we’re off to the cemetery.
Except, that bridge sequence comes up. I still maintain that this sequence can be hard cut out of the film (though you’d need some ADR to get Blondie to give Tuco the name of the grave). It’s a pointless sequence in terms of the actual story. Stopping the film completely so that we can get some obvious metaphor for the quagmire of Vietnam is bad enough, but then it stops making literal sense after a certain bit. Recalling The Bridge on the River Kwai, but without even trying to explain how two men could tie explosives to a bridge in broad daylight without being seen by the army looking straight at them, Blondie and Tuco blow up the bridge, ending the conflict, and letting them move onto the cemetery! Well, after Blondie has a tender moment with a dying soldier he’s never seen before and expertly shoots a cannon at Tuco (twice!).
And then we get our famous ending of Tuco, Blondie, and Angel Eyes at Sad Hill Cemetery. Yes, this ending is great. It’s peak Leone in an individual sequence with a fantastic use of a fantastic score by Ennio Morricone, but it took us a meandering three hours to get here.
I do not question the many, many people who hold up this film as one of their favorites and even their opinions of it being one of the greatest films ever made. I simply do not agree. There is no focus to this story. This is Leone going epic and having no idea how to do it. This is Leone wanting to say something about Vietnam but not really understanding how to actually integrate that message into the story at hand. This is Leone being given a huge budget based on the wild success of his previous two films and not really knowing what to do with all the resources.
There’s definitely entertainment to be had, but it’s all mired in the middle of a story that never comes close to gelling, especially in its second half. Robbing itself of any narrative drive or even a basic point, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly becomes a tedious struggle.