Radix malorum est cupidités (Greed is the Root of All Evil)
(May contain spoilers)
We get two perspectives on the characters in The Good the Bad and the Ugly. We get what seems like distant, two-dimensional, long shots of each. And we get extreme close-ups. On the one hand we find out very little about the background (Tuco is the only character provided with any sort of a back story) of the trio and on the other we get so close to them that we can feel the heartbeat and motivation of the moment. We don’t only see the beads of sweat forming on brows and cheeks, we see the pores from whence they emerge.
This duel viewpoint is mirrored in the cinematography of the film. Leone loved alternating extreme wide angle shots of forbidding landscape with extraordinarily penetrating close ups of people (particularly faces) who are as weathered and worn as the land they exist in. Like many directors, Leone was an art lover and it shows in his work. For George Stevens’ Shane, the template were the western paintings of Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington. For Leone it is unsurprisingly, more European, older, odder. These films are painted with the colour palette of Goya and informed by the truth seeking absurdities of the Surrealists with more than a touch of the famished world of Gustave Doré.
Many westerns inhabit the world of the epic, few take it to such operatic extremes as The Good the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a forbidding genre not least because of the literary giants who have used it. A writer must have extraordinary ability or extreme self-confidence to enter a world populated by Homer and Milton. Some do. James Joyce transformed our approach to literature by finding epic qualities in Dublin on a June day in 1904. The western lends itself more readily than the urban novel to the epic. The greatness of the finest works of Cormac McCarthy is due to his ability to combine the immensity of landscape with an inner immensity of character that has something fundamental to say about the human condition. Of the recent film versions of his works, No Country For Old Men and The Road work better than All the Pretty Horses (which is in my opinion a superior novel) because the film makers have sought to embrace this epic nature.
The two biggest influences on Leone both came from the world of films. John Ford’s discovery of Monument Valley and his decision to use it as location for many of his westerns was perhaps the single most important decision made in the history of the western. At the same time Akira Kurosawa’s (an admirer of Ford’s work) incorporation of the medieval, in his deconstruction of calendar time in his films, gave film-makers a way of echoing the story-tellers of past civilisations. Historic time gives way to story-teller’s time. You can put a date on The Odyssey but it would be meaningless. Devoted, pre-Darwinian students of the Bible may even be able to put a date to the events of Paradise Lost. You can certainly put a date to The Good the Bad and the Ugly (it is set during the campaign of General Henry Hopkins Sibley into New Mexico in 1862) but it defies historical time as much as it embraces it. Homer based his work on real events but he isn’t a reliable historian. The same can be said for Leone.
The action may be set in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque regions in the 1860s but the protagonists are from the storytelling tradition. Clint Eastwood’s character originated in medieval Japan, Lee Van Cleef’s (having undergone a greater transformation than Eastwood’s from For a Few Dollars More) is out of the darkest pages of villainy. Eli Wallach is playing a native Mexican in the film but the roots of his character are European. You can find him in popular German folk tales of the 14th and 15th century as Till Eulenspiegel (the original merry prankster), in England as Till Owlyglass. You can find variations of the storyline from the film in legends from many countries. Three men set out on a quest that requires them to work together. If they do then they will all be enriched. But each has a chance of increasing their riches by disposing of one or both of the others. I find a delightful parallel in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale.
Summary of The Good The Bad and The Ugly
Three men, who are comfortable with breaking both legal and moral laws for personal gain, each discover that a huge horde of gold has been stashed away by a man called Carson. Two of the men (Blondie and Tuco…the Good and the Ugly) had previously worked together on a long-running scam where one handed the other into the law in return for Bounty money and then freed his partner, often at the point where he was going to be hung. They have fallen out and take it in turns (power and status alternates in stories even more than in real life) to try to kill each other by the unusual tactic of making them walk an unendurable distance across a burning desert without water. By fortune they meet the dying Carson and each receives a vital but incomplete piece of information as to where the gold is buried. Suddenly they need each other again. Without the information that the other possesses, they have no chance of finding the gold. (One is told of the cemetery where the gold is buried and the other the name of the grave). The third man (Angel Eyes … The Bad) is independently on the same trail when he finds himself in a position of power over the other two. He tortures one and extracts that person’s information and makes a contract with the other. It leads them all to the cemetery and the possibility of them all becoming rich. Or it leads to the possibility of betrayal, double dealing and the best Mexican stand-off in the history of film. For more than a moment it seems quite likely that, in search of riches they are all about to kill each other.
Summary of The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
Three dissolute friends spend their days leading a life of perceived pleasure which involves breaking a good number of the deadly sins of the church. They drink, they swear, gamble, flirt, feast and generally enjoy an existence of uncaring debauchery. They hear a funeral bell and discover that the man being buried is a friend of theirs. They want to know how he came to die and are told that the killer is someone called Death. They vow to avenge their friend and to kill Death. First they must discover where death is and are told by an old man they will find him under the tallest oak tree in the forest. When they reach this there is no sign of Death but as they dig into the roots (a valuable metaphor for all storytellers) they discover a huge horde of gold: enough to make them all rich for the rest of their lives. True to character they decide that before transporting the gold they must celebrate and draw lots for who is to go into town to get the wine, food and provisions necessary for a suitable feast. The youngest is chosen and reluctantly leaves his erstwhile partners. He buys all the provisions required and returns loaded with all the necessaries for a party. Meanwhile the other two have had a conversation along the lines of why split the horde between three when they will get much more by dividing it two ways. They decide to kill the other when he returns from town. And indeed they do so. Unknown to them their partner had had the same idea and has laced the wine with rat poison. After killing the young man they drink the wine and die most horribly. And thus enact the old man’s prophesy that they will find Death under the oak tree.
Death is never far away in The Good the Bad and the Ugly and neither is the entire storytelling tradition of a dozen cultures. The great storytellers give us something new or re-tell something marvellous from the past. The greatest storytellers do both and Sergio Leone was one of the greatest storytellers of our time and The Good the Bad and the Ugly is his greatest work. Mind you his other films are pretty good.