Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Ferocity of Alone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is perhaps the most famous Western of all time.

Made in 1967, this is the third of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns that star Clint Eastwood as a lonely gunslinger with a curiously unique – some would say indecipherable – code of conduct that allows him to remain aloof from the immorality of frontier America. Of the three, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is by far the most complicated and compelling of the so-called “Man With No Name Trilogy" the two men made together. Indeed, the fact the movie survives the ravages time often inflicts on Westerns and remains popular among both fans and critics alike is a testament to the film’s visual and thematic power and the very real weight of the philosophical issues the plot wrestles with.
More specifically, this is a film that probes the limits of individualism and exposes the dangerous links between independence and amorality in the Old West.

Leone himself said, “the West was made by violent, uncomplicated men and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.” To achieve this, he scrubs the Western to its base elements; he jettisons Indians, mining towns, wagon trains and the card games in saloons that dominate more traditional Hollywood Westerns and depopulates his vision of the West until nothing is left but a handful of stubborn survivors who believe violence is the only way they can impose themselves on the empty grandeur of their surroundings. 

In Leone’s West, there is no community to speak of and certainly no authority capable of taming the wild country and the barbarity of men. As a result, a wary brand of individualism – and to a lesser extent, amorality – thrives in all of his characters, because an individual in Leone’s West does not have the luxury of anything like trust in others or absolute morals. If this world has any rule it is that people must look after themselves and remember that circumstance trumps all.

In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a trio of opening vignettes establishes who is Good, who is Bad and who is Ugly. The sequence also forces the audience to question why these characters are described in such terms and to judge during the course of the film whether the descriptions are accurate.
As is the case with all Leone films, the dialogue is sparse – indeed, 10 minutes pass before the film’s opening line – and the characters reveal more about themselves with their eyes and their body language than they do with words: The angular figure of Lee Van Cleef standing in a doorway with one hand resting on a pistol needs no vocabulary to communicate purpose.
When the film opens, Van Cleef – the movie’s Bad character, called Angel Eyes throughout – is on the trail of a missing Confederate soldier who knows the whereabouts of a cash-box stuffed with Rebel gold. His quest for the riches eventually attracts Eastwood – the Good character – and a low-level Mexican bandit named Tuco – the Ugly character, played with a wonderfully-rotten panache by Eli Wallach.

When both Eastwood and Tuco discover clues about the gold’s location, circumstance dictates that they form an uneasy partnership and go after the treasure together. Angel Eyes soon learns what the men have discovered through a combination of sheer brutality and pragmatism. He briefly joins forces with Eastwood – butting Tuco out – in an even more unwieldy partnership, only to be driven away in the film’s penultimate gun-battle. These relationships of convenience, the switching sides – from Union to Confederate – and utilizing whatever is available – the Church, the Law or each other – all to further the quest for gold serves as a constant reminder to the viewer that none of these men has an allegiance to much of anything beyond themselves and their immediate goal.

What little moral clarity there is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly arrives with the devastation of the Civil War. Both Angel Eyes and Tuco seemed unmoved by the conflict’s violence. To them, the war is an inconvenience, something that stands in the way of their big payday. Eastwood shares this sentiment, but he also recognizes the folly of the death all around him and it moves him to express as much compassion as his character is capable of. “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly,” he observes after watching a hopeless attack on a bridge.
Eastwood’s gradual emergence from his shield of solipsism is starkly contrasted by the company necessity has forced him to keep. At one point, Tuco is asked: “Outside of evil, what have you managed to do?” The answer, of course, is nothing. Eastwood dubs Tuco the “Rat” because of his odious personal habits and his unsavory penchant for selfishness. But as repugnant as Tuco is, he is not as bad as Angle Eyes – a committed solipsist who kills, tortures and lies his way through the film’s plot with the cool calculation of a sociopath who sees people not as people but as tools for his fulfillment.

In the film’s famous climax, Eastwood tempts the other two protagonists into a three-way duel. Initially, it appears the entire trio will have to consider both their own perceptions and those of their opponents before deciding who to shoot at. Unknown to Tuco or Angle Eyes, Eastwood emptied Tuco’s gun the night before, meaning he knows who to shoot at and knows he will survive if he shoots quick enough. Far more interesting than Eastwood’s stratagem is the fact that Tuco also chooses to fire at Angel Eyes. So it seems neither the Good or the Ugly can tolerate the Bad – and both men think they will get a better deal with each other rather than with a remorseless killer like Angel Eyes.

To put it another way, it is obvious that if Angel Eyes lived, he would have killed whoever survived the standoff because killing people is what he does (he is bad). Tuco would have killed the duel’s survivor because it would have meant more money for him (he is ugly). Eastwood splits the money with Tuco and rides away, their partnership now forever dissolved. While he might not be “good” in any absolute sense, he certainly is good in the film’s compromised world. And what is more, he seems to have learned a deeper truth the others missed: Namely, that some things are impossible to do alone. One man is not enough.

This reflection does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one needs the society and community intentionally absented from Leone’s film, but it is a strong indication that the director is trying to say partnerships – or something like them – are important, even for rugged, individualistic gunman. Indeed, such arrangements are the building blocks of the society and community Leone’s Old West -- essentially a kill or be killed state of nature -- lacks. In this sense, Eastwood’s character has evolved, and in doing so, he points to a future where militant individualism -- and the amorality that comes with it -- will not be as necessary as it is for the men in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

In other words, civilization proper was coming to the West, it just took some time getting there. In the meanwhile, the denizens of the frontier were, well, on their own. So when Tuco tells a corpse who failed to get the drop on him: "Just shoot: Don't talk about it," the audience knows exactly what he means...

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