It was always going to be tough for Sergio Leone to finish his spaghetti trilogy with something immense enough to top A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. 1964’s Fistful had shown how the western could be redefined using the script from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and an unknown American TV actor called Clint Eastwood. 1965’s For A Few Dollars More, meanwhile, proved that sequels could actually improve on the original. But even with an enhanced budget, it was hard to see how Leone could push the envelope any further.
With The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Leone didn’t so much push the envelope as ram it down the film world’s throat. Tapping into his experience as a director of sword and sandal flicks like The Colossus Of Rhodes, Leone took the real-life story of the Reynolds Gang (a band of Confederate sympathizers who buried their loot in a Colorado cemetery) and blew it up to the scale of a Biblical epic. A superbly overproduced score, a cast of thousands, epic fight scenes, bloodshed, honour, betrayal – it was like the bastard child of Cecil Be De Mile and Sam Peckinpah had decided to make a movie.
And besides throwing in everything bar the kitchen sink, Leone also came up trumps with his casting. With Eastwood continuing as the enigmatic Man With No Name, this third outing set the seal on the tight-lipped anti-hero becoming a staple of action cinema. The director also rehired Lee Van Cleef, who’d been superb as the avenging Colonel Mortimer in For A Few Dollars More, only this time he cast him as the satanic Angel Eyes Setenza. Leone also forked out for the services of the Jewish stage actor Eli Wallach, whose malevolent influence he’d enjoyed in The Magnificent Seven and How The West Was Won, giving him the plumb part of ‘ugly’ Mexican gangster Tuco.
Co-written by Leone, the script contains some of his sharpest and funniest dialogue: while trying to read a letter, Tuco stammers, “Dear id-id…” Eastwood simply glares. “Idiots,” he hisses. “It’s for you”. And as for its twists and turns, the story offers the sort of coincidence even Jeffrey Archer would raise an eyebrow at. For example, it’s a good job for No Name that the runaway carriage arrives when it does, and it’s even more convenient for both him and Tuco that it contains the very well informed Bill Carson. But while the narrative has its flaws, Leone could extract magic from the mundane.
He could be surprisingly subtle too – sometimes using spectacular set-pieces in throwaway moments. The picture’s biggest actions sequence, a Civil War battle for a bridge, only exists to show exactly how ‘good’ Eastwood is (he blows up the bridge to please a dying general) and to feed him the setup for one of the film’s best lines, “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so bad.” Actually this sequence nearly wasn’t caught on camera at all – a communications breakdown led to the bridge being demolished before the cameras were rolling. Fortunately, the Spanish army was on hand to rebuild the structure which Leone took out a week later than planned. As for the rest of the shoot, the director spent it finding increasingly elaborate ways to kill Eli Wallach, who came within a whisker of being decapitated by a train as he lay next to the track trying to sever his handcuffs. In other painful incidents, Wallach was almost emasculated when a horse he was bound to bolted, and he nearly lost his tongue when he accidentally swigged for a bottle of acid.
A sweaty, shifty, genre-redefining experience, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly doesn’t fully open its bag of tricks until the final 15 minutes. First off, it’s only as Eastwood arrives at the cemetery wearing his poncho that we realize The Good, The Bad & The Ugly isn’t a sequel but a prequel – Clint assembles his famous uniform during the course of the movie. Secondly, as spectacular as the closing shoot-out is, you should bear in mind that after the extreme close-ups and the even more extreme Ennio Morricone music subside, only one bullet is fired and only one man lies dead. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly might be a too-much-is-never-enough kind of movie, but when it came to the key scenes, Sergio Leone realized that sometimes less really is more.