The Muddled Morality Of Sergio Leone

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

TGTB&TU soundtrack a

Better known to American audiences as The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, this iconic Italian Western frequently scores high on “best of” lists: Sergio Leone’s best film[1], the best of the Dollar a.k.a. “Man With No Name”[2] series, the best spaghetti Western, and (more rarely) the best Western ever.

It is a grand, entertaining epic, a significant notch up in scale from the previous films in the series[3]. It is almost a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story, set in a landscape of bleak lifeless deserts and abandoned blasted and burned out cities destroyed by war.

The restored version is currently streaming on Netflix, returning about 14 minutes of previously deleted footage[4] but only serving to make an already meandering story even more meandering. No new or vital story points are revealed, though Eli Wallach’s Tuco character certainly benefits the most from the fleshing out.

And that’s what makes The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly so fascinating…and muddled.[5]

It’s been observed that American Westerns are Protestant and Italian Westerns are Catholic. Perhaps no film better illustrates this point than The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.

TGTB&TU Angel Eyes

There’s no question Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes is The Bad; rarely has a more relentlessly evil and murderous character disgraced the screen. He has a few moments of apparent kindness, but they are spare and can be interpreted as just keeping up his end of a bargain, not genuine concern and charity. His only redeeming feature is a dedication to see any job through to the end, but he is either incapable or unwilling to question whether that end is justified or worthwhile.

TGTB&TU clint 2 kinds

Clint Eastwood is The Good a.k.a. Blondie. He is clearly meant to be the heroic character of the story, but for someone identified as “good” he’s pretty despicable. He starts his portion of the film by provoking three rival bounty hunters into a gunfight in which he kills them; he follows this with a series of deliberate frauds to collect double on his wanted partner’s head. He terminates his partnership by abandoning Tuco in the desert to almost (but not quite) certain death: Even though leaving Tuco without water, food, or shade from the sun, Blondie tells him he can make it seventy miles to the next town if he conserves his energy.

Sooooooo…technically he wasn’t actually trying to kill him…

Blondie’s one claim to goodness comes at the end: Leaving Tuco in a situation where he is absolutely certain to die eventually, Blondie fires a single shot that saves his life (ignore the fact he’s the one who deliberately put Tuco in that situation).

On the one hand, he’s showing mercy.

On the other, he’s saving Tuco from the very fate he set up for him.

On yet another hand, Tuco richly deserved death; not only he had double crossed and nearly killed Blondie on several occasions but he had been condemned to death by numerous jurisdictions, so in sparing him Blondie is actually thwarting justice.[6]

TGTB&TU Tuco

Eli Wallach’s Tuco is The Ugly. While Blondie is the hero, Tuco is the protagonist: An Everyman character beset by fate and furies on all sides, a living embodiment of raw appetite (his first appearance is with a turkey drumstick in his hand). Unlike Angel Eyes, he is not evil, simply amoral. He is a thief and a murderer, but he lacks Angel Eyes’ sadism and Blondie’s savage sense of self-preservation; both of those men make sure there are no loose ends left behind to become untangled and trip them up. Tuco is pursued by the law because he leaves witnesses. Blondie kills three bounty hunters after provoking them; Angel Eyes invades a rancher’s home at meal time, kills the rancher, then shoots the man’s eldest son when the boy show up with a rifle to avenge his father’s death.[7]

Conversely, Tuco’s robbery of a gunsmith does not end with his victim dead but simply shamed, intimidated, and humiliated: Tuco leaves him alive to see another day.

And yet in a scene deleted by Leone after the premiere, Tuco is shown rejoining with his old gang; he deliberately leads this men into a situation where he knows Blondie will kill them so he in turn can get the drop on his former partner.[8]

Despite this (or in a perverse way, perhaps because of it) we are drawn to identify with and root for Tuco far more than we are with Blondie.[9] Yes, he lacks a moral core, but then there’s nobody in the film who genuinely seems to possess one.[10] Tuco is not regarded as an equal by Blondie or Angel Eyes (both of whom are near Randian rarified archetypes) but as a petty annoyance to be brushed aside, tolerated at best.

And this is what separates the cut and dried Calvinist morality of American Westerns from the complex messiness of Italian Westerns. An American Western trying to tell this story would require Blondie to be forced into the quest for gold; the tale would end with Angel Eyes and Tuco both dead (though if the Tuco character did survive, he would escape with nothing yet somehow without ever actually desiring it Blondie would end up with all the gold).[11]

Blondie works as a Calvinist protagonist only if one accepts the idea that his success is the result of predestination; that he is one of the elect without having to make a choice about it or not. He and Angel Eyes are virtually identical in their modus operandi yet he is blessed to succeed while Angel Eyes is damned and doomed to fail. If that is the case then it is pointless to regard Blondie as a heroic character; in essence he won the invisible coin toss before the picture even began. He is admirable as a character only in an existential sense because like a shark he does what he does with ruthless efficiency and is superficially nicer than Angel Eyes.

We are asked to identify with Tuco precisely because of his myriad sins and shortcomings. He is superstitiously religious, yet fails to adhere to even the simplest of rules or most basic codes of conduct (one of the many crimes he is to be hanged for is playing cards with a marked deck). He is cunning without being smart, selfish and self-pitying without ever showing true compassion. He demands and takes without ever having to pay back, yet despite all this he knows deep down inside this is not the way it was meant to be. In his conversation with his priest brother he chides the other for running to the safe confines of the church while Tuco took the bandit’s path to make his way in the world -- but by doing so Tuco at least acknowledges an alternate path exists!

Neither Blondie nor Angel Eyes possess that self-knowledge: They are relentless killing machines who do not recognize the morality of the world. Like Tuco, they willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want; unlike Tuco there is no recognition by them that there may exist some other way of living. Blondie is capable of pity, but only the same pity he would show a dog run over by a wagon or some other dumb animal caught in a trap. Tuco, instead, demands pity, and he demands it because he knows he is in dire need of forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

Blondie and Angel Eyes would never beg for mercy, because they inhabit a moral universe where mercy does not exist. This makes Blondie’s final act somewhat ambiguous: Did he always intend to come back and thus just meant to throw a scare into Tuco, or did he intend for Tuco to die then had a change of heart?[12]

There is no one size fits all answer to the complex moral questions posed by The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. All the characters are ugly, all are bad.

But perhaps the one who is the ugliest is also the only one who can truly perceive the good, even if he has no way of using that to help himself.

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[1] Most people remember he directed C'era una volta il West (Once Upon A Time In The West) and some Giù la testa (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker, A Fistful Of Dynamite, and Once Upon A Time In The Revolution) and maybe even Once Upon A Time In America but few recall he also directed Il colosso di Rodi (The Colossus Of Rhodes) nor does this include various films where he stepped in as a film doctor and directed key scenes without credit.

[2] “The Man With No Name” was a marketing gimmick conjured up by United Artists; Eastwood’s character most certainly does have a name in A Fistful Of Dollars (Joe), For A Few Dollars More (Monco), and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Blondie). In fact, according to Leone -- who should know -- they are not the same person but three different characters!

[3] And by “series” I mean “Leone / Eastwood collaborations”. From internal evidence in the three films, they were made in reverse historical order: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly should be first as it takes place during the Civil War, followed by For A Few Dollars More which occurs during reconstruction then A Fistful Of Dollars which is around the turn of the century. Conversely, it can also be noted that if Once Upon A Time In The West is included (Leone originally wanted Charles Bronson for A Fistful Of Dollars and had to settle for Clint Eastwood), the films show Leone expanding his films’ focus with each outing: A Fistful Of Dollars is about one character, For A Few Dollars More is about two characters’ interaction, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is about three characters, and in Once Upon A Time In The West the circle expands to four equally important characters (and for the first and only time for Leone, one is female).

[4] Some by Leone after the premiere in Rome, other by American and British distributors.

[5] It also probably explains Eastwood’s growing dissatisfaction with Leone, going from the star of the first film to the co-star of the second, and then one of three principle performers in the third. Leone wanted Eastwood, Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef to reprise their roles for the opening scene of Once Upon A Time In The West, but while Wallach and Van Cleef were amiable to getting gunned down by Charles Bronson, Eastwood balked and the doomed trio was played by Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Paolo Stoppa in the final film.

[6] I would argue that Terrence Hill would have been a better choice for Blondie than Clint Eastwood: Hill would have brought a sly, knowing tongue-in-cheek quality to the character and treated life and death as a joke. Hill, soon to co-star with Bud Spencer in the Trinity films, eventually did appear with Eli Wallach in I quattro dell'Ave Maria a.k.a. Ace High, an unofficial follow-up to The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly that followed a Tuco-like character’s various criminal misadventures. Hill also appeared in the Leone produced Il mio nome è Nessuno (My Name Is Nobody) and its unofficial follow-up Un genio, due compari, un pollo (A Genius, Two Friends, And An Idiot), so curious readers can see how he would have approached the role.

Il_mio_nome_è_Nessuno_Hill

[7] It could be argued that in a certain sense the man’s younger son grows up to be Charles Bronson’s Harmonica character in Once Upon A Time In The West; certainly Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes and Henry Fonda’s Frank are cut from the same funeral shroud.

[8] With the restored scene. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly paints a far uglier and decidedly more evil image of Tuco than without; without the scene the trio are just three gunmen he has recruited to help him. He’s still sending them to certain death, but there’s a difference between sacrificing minions and sacrificing partners even if those partners did nothing to save one from the noose when they had a chance.

[9] If you’re rooting for Angel Eyes you are one sick little fnck.

[10] The quest is for gold stolen from the Confederacy, Blondie and Angel Eyes both make their living by selling death (Blondie to local law enforcement as a bounty hunter, Angel Eyes as an independent sub-contractor for private citizens). Nobody they encounter has a clean history: They are either thieves, sadists, or contemptuously pathetic victims. Tuco’s own brother, a priest, rejects him and sends him away (albeit he has regrets upon doing so) and the most admirable person in the story is an alcoholic Union captain who weeps over the men he repeatedly sends to needless deaths (and atones for his sin by dying).

[11] Which pretty much synopsizes the suckalicious Mackenna’s Gold, another film for readers to compare and contrast.

[12] I’d argue for the former: If he really intended Tuco to die there is no reason he would have left his share of the gold with him.

And As The Snake Whips Around…

Addendum to "Lauren's Choice"