There are several great reasons to look at this particular Western movie for a Western theme month. One, Clint Eastwood. Two, it’s got the most iconic Western soundtrack of all-time. Three, and I didn’t know this ahead of time, but it’s actually a Spaghetti Western.
The simplest way to describe a Spaghetti Western is, it’s a Western with a mostly Italian crew. That said, many of these productions are international, and also involving Spain, France, Germany or Britain. They often still use at least a couple American cast and crew. Western movies tend to be very popular in Italy, and not just in North America, to the point where the Spaghetti Western is a straight up broad subgenre. There are often differences between traditional Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns. They generally vary in storytelling and tone from North American made Westerns, some of it due to cultural differences, but a lot of it is intentional. Sometimes they criticize, eschew, or even “demythologize” normal Western movie conventions. They’re also generally known for being low-budget, but for its time, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is anything but low-budget.
It’s also not unusual for Spaghetti Westerns to have multilingual casts, so you’ll often see a mix of characters’ lips lining up with what they’re saying, and characters who are clearly dubbed over in a different language. Last but not least, most Spaghetti Westerns were produced sometime between the mid-60s and the late 70s, even if they went as far back as the 20s.
The first major successful Spaghetti Western is generally credited as A Fistful of Dollars, which happens to be the first of a trilogy. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is the third movie of said trilogy. It’s also worth mentioning that A Fistful of Dollars was Eastwood’s first starring role, even if today’s subject is generally considered his breakout performance. Long story short, A Fistful of Dollars made just shy of $20 million, on a budget of $200,000. Yeah, the movie made back nearly 100x its original budget, and that’s not counting decades of home video sales and TV showings.
Back when The Good, The Bad and the Ugly released, most critics looked down on the Spaghetti Western, so it received mixed reviews. It’s since gained critical acclaim, often being described as the “definitive Spaghetti Western”. It doesn’t hurt that it made nearly $40 million in theatres, on a $1.2 million budget, nor does it hurt that it’s also worth calling an Epic Western.
For the rest of this blog post, I’ll simply refer to this movie as GBU. GBU takes place during the American Civil War, and even uses the war as a major part of the setting and tone of the movie. It mainly follows three characters as they’re seeking 200,000 dollars, but all three of them get caught up in the war one way or another. Eastwood plays “The Good”, also known as “The Man With No Name”, but is generally referred to as Blondie. He’s an anti-hero bounty hunter. Lee Van Cleef plays “The Bad”, or “Angel Eyes”. He’s a ruthless mercenary who enjoys killing people, torturing for money, and no matter how much his target pays him to off someone else instead, he still follows through with his original job. Eli Wallach plays Tuco, or “The Ugly”. He’s a fast-talking Mexican bandit who is wanted for a long list of crimes.
GBU is directed by Sergio Leone, an Italian filmmaker, who not only pioneered the Spaghetti Western, but is generally considered to be among the most influential directors in cinematic history. He was known for being efficient with film budgets, able to make low-budget movies look like big budget Hollywood productions. He directed Once Upon a Time in America, a movie that is considered to be much better if you watch the Director’s Cut over the North American theatrical cut. He’s also the director behind Once Upon a Time in the West, and he helped finish The Last Days of Pompeii after its original director fell ill during production.
Most of GBU’s filming took place in Italy and Spain, and although the three main cast members were American, most of the supporting cast originated from Europe. Many of the gang members working with “The Bad” were Italian actors, while some other minor actors were either Spanish or Hungarian. There was also a one-armed bounty hunter portrayed by a Canadian actor. Every actor spoke their native tongue on set. Leone and Wallach (The Ugly) reportedly got along very well during filming, often joking with each other between shots. Eastwood on the other hand had enough of Leone’s perfectionist style by the end of the shoot, and never worked with him again. Not even after Leone personally flew to Los Angeles and handed him the script for Once Upon a Time in America directly.
As much as Wallach and Leone got along fairly well, Wallach did criticize Leone’s lax safety standards. During one shot, he was supposed to be hanged while sitting on a horse. While the rope did break as planned, the horse was too scared of the pistol shot, and ran much further than planned, with Wallach’s hands tied behind his back. That was one of three times his life was threatened on set. The second was when he was almost poisoned when he drank from a bottle of acid that was sitting right beside his soda bottle. The third was a shot where he severed a handcuff chain by using a moving train … a shot that they didn’t fake. Because of the iron steps hanging from every car, if Wallach stood up at the wrong time, it would have decapitated him. They didn’t consider that in advance of filming the shot.
As for the movie itself, it’s considered a legendary Western for many reasons. It’s an intentional satire of the classic Western movie, but one that still works as a straight Western. All three main characters are introduced in some sort of violent sequence. The movie directly highlights all three main characters’ greed, as well as their tendencies to commit unnecessary violence. The movie is filled with strong anti-war themes, showing the Civil War from the perspective of civilians who suffer their homes and businesses destroyed by cannon fire. In the extended cut, which I watched for this review, there’s even a scene where “The Bad” arrives at the aftermath of one battle, and shows some rare compassion towards a suffering soldier. Even the cold-hearted assassin is shocked by the horrors of war. It’s a great scene, and is alone worth watching the extended cut for.
The most noteworthy sequence affected by the war is a scene where “The Good” and “The Ugly” must cross a bridge that is currently being fought over. The officer in charge of the Union side of the fight would much rather see the bridge destroyed than to see the endless fighting continue, but would be court martialed and probably executed if he made such a call. Since the main characters aren’t involved in the war, they decide to do just that, in what is the movie’s most emotional moment. It’s also worth mentioning that the film’s climax takes place in a large cemetery.
There’s a lot that works well in this movie. The main characters are all charismatic and entertaining in their own way. The anti-war themes give this movie an overall dark story, yet the awesomeness of Eastwood, “The Bad” showing off his hardcore murderous nature, and “The Ugly” giving us a very entertaining character, helps balance the movie out. GBU knows when to take itself seriously, and when to lighten up and have some fun. And of course, that soundtrack by composer Tonio Delli Colli.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is an easy recommendation for fans of Westerns in general. Even though it’s the third chapter in a trilogy, it’s easy to watch this as a one-off. I would know, speaking as someone who’s never seen the first two movies.
Next up, I’ll be looking at a more modern movie again, but it’s also not a straight Western. Shanghai Noon, mixing Western with Martial Arts. It was my first ever live-action Western movie, and my first Jackie Chan movie, and it remains my favourite of both. Next month, I’ll be looking at the Back to the Future trilogy, and probably a side essay for the fourth week. In March, I’ll be doing my second Hilariously Bad Movie month, which I think is worth making an annual thing as long as I’m doing this blog.
The Good the Bad and the Ugly is my favourite Western. It’s a pure classic, everything about it just works, and the iconic music is the icing on the cake. Brilliant film!
I watched it once before, probably at least 20 years ago. Back then I liked it, but felt it was a bit too long for its own good. Now I fully get why it’s long and drawn out. A lot of the dramatically intense moments wouldn’t work if they were rushed. Great movie, and it makes me want to watch the first two.
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A brilliant classic! I’m planning on rewatching this soon myself, especially after a documentary we saw about Ennio Morricone and his score. Ever sin, I’ve been meaning to watch more movies by Sergio Leone and to better appreciate them critically today. By the way, thanks to you, now I know that they coined these movies as “spaghetti westerns”. I never heard of the term before till now hahaha
I heard of the term Spaghetti Western before, but before researching this movie, I didn’t know they meant Italian made westerns. I just thought that meant they were made dirt cheap, and pumped out for quick money. There were a lot of westerns like that in the 50s as well.
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