If anyone in my generation has seen a western (aside from throwback pieces like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma or Appaloosa) there are pretty good odds it has starred Clint Eastwood. The squinting green eyes, the reluctant gravel voice, the bursts of extreme and shocking violence; if John Wayne typified the western in the forties and fifties, Eastwood’s shadow lies long on the westerns of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Wayne’s heroes embodied the quintessential American virtues of independence, loyalty, toughness and fair play – Eastwood’s were morally ambiguous, vengeful, anti-social, and opaque. If westerns are, as I’ve been trying suggest, a barometer of American self-image, the movement from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to the Man With No Name is telling.
While Shane and Liberty Valance work withing the same categories – the frontier as battle ground between feudal, free-enterprise cattle barons and the settled proponents of the nation state – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly annihilates them and in so doing opens up a space for something which the earlier westerns were almost completely silent on: the divine. It also annihilates just about everything else, including any notion that personal loyalty can remain uncorrupted by wealth or that the nation state is anything but the most powerful gang in town. In Liberty Valance the violence at the heart of the nation state is cause for much agony and isn’t fully accepted until the film’s denoument; The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (henceforth TGTBATU) starts with the assumption that that is the case.
With the first two installments in this series I spent a good deal of time sketching out the plots of both films and then diving into the criticism; this was rather tedious. Also, with TGTBATU, it would be somewhat pointless. It is, quite simply, a film about three men – The Good (Clint Eastwood), refered to as “Blondie”; The Bad (Lee Van Cleef), refered to as Angel Eyes; and the Ugly (Eli Wallach), refered to as Tuco – who are all after a stash of Confederate gold hidden by a soldier named Jackson. The film meanders through the dusty, mythical landscape of a Civil War-era west torn apart not by ideals but by the apocalyptic madness of a world driven only by personal greed, and in the darkly comic last scene instead of resolution we are given only a return to the beginning. What I’d like to do is point out how this film is a decisive break from the established tradition (though I should probably clarify that this film is the final installment in Italian director Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, all of which are thematically similar and all of which star Eastwood as his famous “Man With No Name” character, so by this film I really mean this type of film) by destorying any remaining faith in the state and regrounding the western in a sort of cynical post-modern individualism.
While Liberty Valance assumes that the American project of civilizing the west and establishing order is good but revolves around the impossibility of doing these by any means which are not themselves fundamentally feudal, TGTBATU gleefully shows up the very idea that the American project is based in anything but naivety on one side and ruthless self-interest on the other. In the bombed-out west it portrays neither the feudal values of a cattle men like Ryker or the idealistic nationalism of Rance Stoddard hold any water. In the first few scenes of the film we are introduced to Angel Eyes, a charismatic but evil gunman who arrives at the home of a former soldier named Stevens (Antonio Casas) to ask about a cache of Confederate gold on behalf of a man named Baker. Stevens, attempting to buy his own life, offers Angel Eyes $1000 to kill Baker. Angel Eyes accepts, but then grins, saying “when I’m paid, I always see the job through” and shoots him dead anyway. He returns to Baker, and the whole scene is played out again – he has taken Stevens’ money and so is morally obligated to kill Baker, which he does gleefully. This darkly comic inversion of hired gun loyalty which is completely faithful to the contract rather than the person behind the contract signals a seismic shift from the John Ford western, in which even a character like Liberty Valance is loyal to somebody.
This is not, however, that surprising – Angel Eyes is, after all, the Bad. What is rather more upsetting is that the Good gives us hardly anything to celebrate either. His only act which can really described as “good” comes at the end of the film when he decides to shoot through the noose he himself fastened around Tuco’s neck. Which is nice, but let’s not get carried away here; Blondie is an anti-hero only marginally better than anyone else in the film. In fact, the only character we can start to feel any sustained sympathy for is the irascible Tuco, but his behaviour constantly reminds us that he is a man wanted for “murder, armed robbery of citizens, state banks, and post offices, the theft of sacred objects, arson of a state prison, perjury, bigamy, deserting his wife and children, selling prostitution, kidnapping, extortion, receiving stolen goods, selling stolen goods, passing counterfeit money, and using marked cards and loaded dice.”
What’s more, though Tuco and Blondie develop an interesting relationship throughout the film, it is one constantly punctuated with double-crossings, outrageous betrayals and general brutality. The idea that the world free of the nation state could be one defined by personal loyalty, mutual respect for human dignity or even a benign competitiveness is shown up in the increasingly elaborate vengeance and alliances forced by necessity. Most of the later half of the film unfolds as a Mexican standoff, with differences respected only because each man holds a piece of information the other needs. It is part of Leone’s complete mastery of his medium that he can both make this reality both chilling and at times howlingly comedic.
But of course, Leone does not show up the impossibility of virtuous human relationships in the face of anarchy as a way of arguing for the nation, as Ford does even in his most cynical moments. Leone’s Civil War provides an unending source of grim and almost carnivalesque horror-comedy. There is a delightful scene halfway through the film in which Blondie and Tuco, dressed as Confederates, watch an approaching detachment of cavalry with some trepidation until Blondie recognizes the grey uniforms and tells Tuco to relax. Tuco starts hailing them joyfully in the name of the Confederate States of America, only too late realizing that the uniforms are only grey because of the dust and that these soldiers are actually wearing Union blue. The joke of course is that there is really no difference at all between soldiers of the Confederacy and the Union, only a surface illusion no more substantial than dust. The ridiculous nature of the Union/Confederate conflict is shown in even sharper contrast towards the end of the film, when Blondie and Tuco come across a battle being fought over a bridge which both sides want intact but which neither can take. Even the Union officer in charge has no idea why this bridge is important, and admits to dreaming of seeing it destroyed. The ensuing combat sees both sides rush down to the bridge, and then retreat just as quickly leaving hundreds of dead behind. The duo, who posed as Confederates earlier in the film, are perfectly happy pretending to be Union recruits for just long enough to destroy the bridge “so these idiots will go somewhere else to fight.” The tragedicomedy becomes absurd in the face of such unending human stupidity.
There are dozens of other examples throughout the film of failed human systems – feudal, capitalistic, nationalistic. But in the face of these failures the viewer is offered a glimmer of something. When he realizes that Blondie has information he needs, Tuco brings him to a monastery. This is the only scene in the entire film that we see wounded men being properly tended to; and it is while at the monastery that we meet Pablo Ramirez, Tuco’s older brother, a priest who manages to bring out in Tuco the semblance of a conscience. The scene ends with Tuco storming out of Pablo’s cell, but the camera lingers on Pablo’s face as he asks his brother for forgiveness.
There is, I think, something quite profound here. In John Ford’s world religion is largely limited to neverending repetitions of “Shall We Gather At The River”. This makes a kind of sense; in a world where faith is put entirely in human institutions, Christian concepts of failure, brokenness, and sin become embarrassing because they interrupt and subvert the glorious narrative of progress. It is only a world made bitter by corruption and collapse that is open to the possibility of a Church which locates itself not in strength but in vulnerability. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly ends with a moment of mercy that at once reestablishes Tuco and Blondie in a neverending cycle of vengeance but also reminds us that even in the hell of their own making these characters inhabit, there is room for the not-altogether-human movements of grace.