The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A Crisis of Conscience

Labels and the problem of defining the good.

C. M. Huard

Good. Bad. Ugly. Not a lick of difference between them. Everyone knows the three words are just labels Sergio Leone pinned on his characters as a joke, or at most as a comment on Hollywood casting conventions: Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” is blue-eyed and handsome, therefore he is Good; Lee Van Cleef’s “Angel Eyes” has a mustache Simon Legree would envy and a resume crowded with petty-villain roles, ergo he must be Bad; Eli Wallach’s “Tuco” is short, loud, and smelly, so of course he is Ugly. Everyone knows this. But is it true?

It would be, if not for the fact that the film itself suggests that their differences are more than skin-deep. It begins with three hired guns—one from one direction, two from another—slowly converging on an outpost of civilization so tiny it barely qualifies as a village. Their leisurely manner of falling into step with one another suggests that they are all part of the same plan. When they reach the doors leading into the local saloon, they reach for their guns just before they rush inside.

Shots ring out and suddenly a small bearded man leaves the saloon—not by the doors, but by plunging through a glass window, with a gun in one hand and a leg of chicken in the other. The frame freezes, and two words appear next to the man’s head: “The Ugly.” This is Tuco.

When the freeze-frame ends, Tuco bolts towards one of the horses tied nearby and rides away full-tilt. That is Tuco in a nutshell: impulsive, better at reacting to events than at shaping them, a creature of appetite rather than planning. When angered, he explodes into a torrent of abuse, often involving rather scandalous speculations about the genealogy of his enemies (“You’re the son of a thousand fathers, every one of them a bastard like you!” being typical). When confronted with something he wants, he takes it: later in the film, this will include taking a bath at a critical moment with hired guns on his tail, simply because the tub is already filled and looks inviting. This impulsiveness makes it hard to take Tuco seriously as a moral (or immoral) agent: Blondie seems to see him as a naughty overgrown child, and most viewers follow his lead.

Angel Eyes is a troublemaker of a different and more deliberate kind, and this is made plain in even the smallest details of his behavior. When he walks, he moves with a leisurely, half-limping saunter; when he enters an unfamiliar place, he sweeps it with his eyes, watching for danger. He is introduced to us by a somewhat complicated sequence that explains his profession as an investigator and assassin: Angel Eyes invites himself to dinner at the home of his target, and manages to frighten the poor man into blabbing his secrets by doing nothing more sinister than eat, very deliberately, without his eyes ever leaving his target’s face. Well, yes, the simple line, “That your family? Niiice family”—delivered with a slow cruel smile—doesn’t hurt any either, but what is frightening about the man is his aura of fully intentional malice: whatever he does to his victims, he does on purpose. A few minutes later, when he kills his former employer (for money, of course), he grins and laughs aloud with delight at what he’s done, the camera catching the actor’s naturally grim face at its most saturnine angle. The image freeze-frames, as “The Bad” appears on the screen. The implication is clear: true evil consists in doing vicious things in the full knowledge of their viciousness.

Blondie, the “Good,” is more ambiguously presented: he first rescues Tuco from a group of bounty hunters, delivers him for the bounty, rescues him from hanging (by shooting the rope Tuco’s dangling from), and splits the reward money with Tuco, then turns him in again for the increased bounty—rinse, repeat. When the bounty on Tuco has gone as high as it’s liable to go, Blondie simply abandons Tuco in the desert with only a slim chance of survival. As Tuco rails at him, Blondie simply tuts, and says “Such ingratitude, after all the times I’ve saved your life.” Freeze-frame, and the text “The Good” appears.

That summarizes the enigma of Blondie nicely. He claims to do good, may actually do it sometimes by accident, but actually he is primarily interested in doing “well” (in the financial sense). In that respect, he is indeed much like Angel Eyes and even Tuco (who will prove quite greedy once he stumbles onto a clue to the lost Confederate gold that Angel Eyes is pursuing).

Tuco also sometimes performs a good deed or two in pursuit of wealth: he was originally slowly torturing Blondie to death when he stumbled across the clue to the gold, and realized that the dying Blondie may hold another piece to the puzzle. “Don’t die!” he howls in anguish, and the audience laughs, knowing that he doesn’t mean it from any noble motive. A good deed doesn’t count when done for money.

Nor does mere conventional piety and niceness, the viewer discovers, when Tuco brings Blondie to a monastery to recover. Here Tuco meets his brother Pablo, who has become a monk. Pablo offers his brother neither the comfort of a friendly face nor the stern but kind censure of a priest: initially he is simply bitter and judgmental. According to Tuco, Pablo became a cleric solely because he could stomach neither the life of a peasant nor that of a bandit. When Tuco taunts him with cowardice, Pablo slaps him, adding “Forgive me” only after Tuco has stormed out of earshot, showing that he is only “good” when he finds it easy, as Tuco had said. Blondie watches the exchange, unseen by either brother, seemingly troubled by what he sees.

Other experiences over the course of his adventures trouble Blondie. When he encounters the Civil War, in the shape of General Sibley’s ill-fated campaign in Texas, he looks into the abyss, and when he meets his dark-mirror image, Angel Eyes, he finds the abyss looking back at him. For the nihilistic abyss, Blondie has nothing but disgust. “I’ve never seen so many lives so badly wasted,” he says of one battle, and his exchanges with Angel Eyes, with whom he must cooperate to save his own life, are edged with disdain. Like Blondie, the viewer becomes not desensitized to this violent landscape but more aware of its wrongness.

But what can be right in a place and a frame of mind where everything is wrong? Blondie shares a partial answer of sorts very late in the movie, when he finds a soldier dying and offers him his cigar. There’s nothing “in it” for Blondie in this case—no harm, no benefit. The soldier is not a threat, and he has no information to give. The movie thus seems to say that anyone can recognize the right thing to do, but doing the right thing without being coerced into it by danger or seduced into it by some potential advantage . . . that is what is “Good.”

It is at this point in the movie that Eastwood’s character acquires the signature poncho that he wears in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More—both movies were shot before this one, but take place after the Civil War, and to the extent that the three have any continuity, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a prequel to the other two. As it happens, the two other films feature Eastwood as a cynical but not dishonorable trickster who tries to deal fairly with those who seem to deserve it. So the visual implication is that Blondie has been “transformed” into a (somewhat) nobler character by his encounter with the soldier.

Not long after this incident Blondie faces Tuco and Angel Eyes in the famous three-way gunfight. Here Blondie—having thoughtfully unloaded Tuco’s gun in advance—kills Angel Eyes, evil incarnate, his near-equal at gunplay and backstabbing. Once the gold is recovered, he plays one last joke on Tuco by stringing him up and shooting him free once more (from a safe distance, so that Tuco can’t retaliate) but leaving Tuco his share of the money. And with that final, ambiguous gesture of decency, the Good rides out of the story and into legend. :::

C. M. Huard is a digital archivist by day, philm phan plotting global cinematic domination by night.

posted by editor ::: May 01, 2005 ::: philms ::: (2) Comments