There’s an earthen quality to way Sergio Leone understands location that is almost otherworldly. The mood, the atmosphere, the sense of a place; they all seep up from the cracks, and he strangles you with it. Everything about the characters and the conflict is just laid out plainly and honestly on the screen in a sort of pure cinema we really didn’t see in genre works in the mid ’60s (horror excepted, and also, notably, the other great genre of the Italians in the ’60s). The sand doesn’t just exist; it hoarsely croaks, it robustly swallows, it does a stalwart, omnipresent, Herculean take-over of the entire event of the narrative and coats everything in a throaty sort of impact that cinema rarely attempts. We aren’t just watching sand. We’re rasping our voices. We’re searching for water. We’re drying out as we sit, welcoming each bead of sweat like an old friend to be ravenously devoured.
Leone’s skill was all cinema though. He could take a location, deconstruct it to its husky base lines and shapes, and then build it up again until it was much more than earth and celluloid. The wandering desert of this film becomes a harsh plane-scape of desperate ambition fighting for supremacy with oppressive emptiness. Needs, wants, and desires all unfold on the screen. Characters don’t have to say anything, for Leone’s camera says all. We don’t have to glean, for instance, why the taciturn Blondie (Clint Eastwood) or the unfeeling Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) or the stubborn, wheedling Tuco (Eli Wallach) want the buried stash of gold lost amidst the secrets of arid Mexico during the American Civil War. The desire for gold, the madness, and indeed, as Ennio Morricone lets us know in the film’s crowning moment and one of the most unspeakably perfect cinematic sequences ever captured (but more on that later), the ecstasy of it all are apparent simply from Leone’s impulsive camera motions and sense of place.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a pulsing film, the third in a series of transformative Westerns to feature Clint Eastwood in a spiritually similar role, wandering through the desert and taking no names, for he has none himself. Even more-so here than in A Fistful of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More, all of this film, all of its everything, pulses right out from its bones and into our heads. There’s nothing didactic, intellectual, or composed about it, even as the film is a parade of awe-inspiring compositions. It has a hurtful quality, a coarseness about it we just intuit, that happens to us, to quote Roger Ebert on a totally different film that none-the-less bears this film’s genius of craft. It just “is”, and it “is” with the force of a concrete slab.
That outline, by the way, that sense of three men in a desert, is all the film has going in. There are few necessary complications. There are motives that add to the film in meaningful ways by enhancing the heat surrounding the characters, giving them an enhanced sense of sweltering passion to interact with, and to kill, one another. But these motives do not “make” the film; they are sidewinders, and not changes of direction. They are the strokes, the pencil-sketches of an idea, and Leone spends the next 180 minutes filling in that sketch with filmmaking that comes about as close to perfect as anything in the past half-decade. It isn’t about what we are seeing. It is about “how” we are seeing it, and Leone gives new meaning to the word “how”.
So, the “how”. The feel of the how is all in those first two paragraphs, and admittedly, some of it is almost unexplainable in pure technique, working more like Werner Herzog’s concept of the voodoo of location (in this case, Spain serving as the American Southwest) just instilling a certain magic and ethos in a film that just works in a way other films of the same ilk do not. But a great much of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly can be tied back to pure technique, and that is its great genius as a textbook case of “Western as pure cinema” goes. Certainly, Leone has framing going for him, filming his characters in a glorious ’60s wide-screen that just swallows them up. Even when Blondie and Tuco form an uneasy partnership (Tuco knows the name of the cemetery where the gold is buried, Blondie knows the name of the grave), they are but specks in an alien land that wants nothing to do with humankind, even as that land beckons humans forth to their destruction.
And what of Morricone’s score? You know, the single most famous movie score ever released? That score? Words fail it, but the question marks are earned. For all its intimate excitement and screen-tearing panache, it feels elusive, even unknowable. It is the rare score that manages both judicious restraint and freewheeling anarchy. The three instruments of the title theme (wistful flute, arcane ocarina, and fleshy human voices) tell all about, respectively, the lithe Blondie, the omniscient and high-strung Angel Eyes, and the lively, hurting Tuco, but if the main theme speaks volumes about the lingering mood, it isn’t defined by strict adherence to formula and character. It becomes its own vigorous, testy ringleader in the arid desert, filling the empty land with a soundscape of fiery immediacy and icy detachment.
It is alchemic, but even this main theme isn’t the highlight of the film; that would be the traumatic, omnivorous “The Ecstasy of Gold,” kaleidoscopically coaxing Tuco along when he arrives at the whirlwind of a cemetery and vulture-circles around the graves in hopes of finding the gold. Leone’s directing, and specifically the editing by Euginion Alabiso and Nino Baragli, are in perfectly jarring and disjointed disharmony with this ethereal song, cutting through the opera and causing it to bleed a little.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the sort of film you can go on and on about. Its strengths are legion and all identifiable in technique and structural mechanics, but the film never feels preordained or mechanical. It feels free. It feels pure, youthful, slathered in a wild spirit like it had just discovered the Western genre for the first time and just had to become a film itself to get some release from jumping up and down in its room for days on end in joy. Earlier Westerns were genre cinema at its most schooled. Leone counters them handily, not with schooling of his own or by learning from the masters, but by throwing school out of the window and just being himself for a few hours in a marvelous blast of pure filmmaking potency and primordial power.
This film is arguably the peak of a great long, understudied tradition of Westerns epitomized by the Italians. Not the soon-too-be-popular revisionist Westerns, which announce the artifice of the Old West image and posit themselves as gritty, realistic alternatives. No. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not a revisionist Western. It is a modernist pop aria, a work which prefaces the revisionist sub-genre by letting it know that all Westerns, even the ones that pine for grit and realism, are necessarily artificial constructions. They are merely substituting one kind of myth for another. Leone, as he always did, played as much a role as Fellini in shepherding the shift of the Italian film industry away from realism and into dreams, myths, and nightmares. He says that all Westerns are myths and dreams, so why plaster over it with pretend realism? Dream, he says, and dream with the most vibrant paint and luxurious vistas you can. His Westerns aren’t reality. They’re something else: films. He has the charisma and honesty to say that sometimes, and only sometimes, reality is only second best. Dreaming big, to him, can tell us more about the underlining buildings blocks of reality – the human fables, archetypes, stories, and myths we construct our identities after – than reality ever could.