The Dollars Trilogy – Part One: The movement of identity

Spoilers

And so I return to the lands of film theory. Throughout my examinations, I was able to find the smallest of relaxation times. I spent it reading up on some philosophy, psychology and tried to beef up my repertoire of film theory techniques. After finishing my studies, I think I’m ready to start going off the beat. This isn’t really an introduction to this essay, but it’s instead a warning. Soon you’ll be getting Freudian analysis of films, feminist examinations, Nietzschean application and all kinds of abnormal bits of film essaying. I’m waxing on, I know, but this is my statement. I am riding back into town and soon they’ll be a book on the table called Tears In Rain (entirely dedicated to Blade Runner) and so… I know too much. I know too little. It’s time to spread the joy around tinseltown and invite everybody in. In other words; I am back.

And there’s only one way to truly celebrate that fact:

This will be a two part essay with the first part mainly focusing on identity within A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. The second part will then address the immortal The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in incredible detail (perhaps our first ‘Pop Philosophy’ lesson). Regardless, it’s time to start discussing our first topic and first films in this trilogy: identity.

People often overlook that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was preceded by two incredible works of Western. I think that might be because it’s so grandiose of a title, or maybe because it’s generally considered by critics and folks alike to be the finest Western of them all. A genre entirely built inside the vein of the American West should never have been so purely popular, but it was a little spin-off from the action genre. An illegitimate child then, with the likes of Eastwood peppering it with popularity. It’s easy to see then that there’s the issue of identity both inside and outside of these films. Inside with Eastwood’s character and outside with recognizing the other films in the Dollars Trilogy. I’ve read critical examinations that it’s a critique of capitalism, American expansionism and even a brutal critique of the American dream. I’ve also read that it’s just a fun Western film.

 Issues

It’s easy to spot the issues at the very heart of these pictures. Eastwood’s cowboy, Man-With-No-Name demeanour carries such masculine swagger you can see why so many women flocked to see the films. He’s handsome, tall and devilishous. That’s ‘devilish’ and ‘delicious’ compounded together. Except Eastwood demands it, nay, deserves it. The cast, for the most part, feels full of first-timers and B-grade actors. There are a few shiners like Mortimer and Angel Eyes (played by the same actor… in the same trilogy… heavily confusing) and Tuco and El Indio but, for the most part, Eastwood carries the films to glory. His piercing, eagle-like eyes across the beautiful American (actually Spanish) landscapes epitomise his very character. A watcher; both within and without.

Some could argue there’s parallels with The Dark Knight with the ‘watcher’ quality. A silent protector and borderline anti-hero. I’d argue Eastwood’s man-with-no-name is utterly anti-hero to the core.

Except this already established one of our issues of identity within the films: heroism. A Fistful of Dollars opens up with an opportunity of heroism, which Mwnn (Man With No Name) utterly refuses. Some of the townsfolk tell him he’d make a “good scarecrow”, and the innkeeper Silvanato tells him that Mwnn is “Just like the rest of your kind”, that all he does is “eat” and “drink” and “kill”. In A Few Dollars More, Mwnn is given a full-on explicit name with ‘Manco’. We have our issues of identity established within the realm of heroism: idleness, reluctance, anti-hero, conformity, recognition.

‘Idleness’ comes about with Mwnn’s refusal to help Marisol at the beginning of Fistful, and as he gains more and more money we see him as greedy and (in some sense) we lose our sympathy. As much as we see the violence and the rotten greed of the Rojo brothers, it’s hard to still identify with Eastwood’s character. We then are seeing him ‘conform’ to the “Rest of your kind”. Mwnn loses individuality, when in fact a hero is someone who rejects the villain’s purpose and seeks selfless pleasures. In short, we lose our ‘recognition’ of the character; the root of all identity.

 

Without a name, without any identifiable nationality and with no trace of sympathy or support… Mwnn seems lost in the film. His loss of identity should create dissonance between the audience and the narrative, we should not care. He wears a poncho, a cowboy hat, he has American mannerisms and talks about as much as Gosling’s Driver (Drive). But, eventually, we learn to see just how ugly the Rojos are. We learn in A Few Dollars just how much good that the actions of Mwnn are doing. In Fistful he gives all of his money to Marisol’s family, so they can escape. He truly becomes an ‘anti-hero’, showing his compassion through his heroic actions. In short, he becomes moral. He gains an identity.

But, still, the identity is tested. He vanquishes his early idleness, his “scarecrow” nature”, in Fistful by finally fulfilling the heroic deed that was available to him at the very beginning. He finally destroys reluctance, right after the film’s incredible destruction of the Rojos’ opponents (the lawful Baxters) and suddenly all ‘issues’, all conflicts of identity should be rested. But we still do not know who Mwnn is. We know his names. ‘Joe’ in Fistful, ‘Manco’ (meaning one-armed) in For A Few Dollars. We now understand that Mwnn is utterly unique in the world of film: he is the first truly adaptable, universal character.

 Universality

And here comes the full throttle of Sergio Leone’s narratives: universality. Mwnn is whoever we want him to be. He is a ruthless bounty hunter, carrying a cart of bodies and a bag of a million dollars at the end of For A Few. He is a trusted hero, a charming man with a moral centre at his core with his deeds in Fistful and his treatment of the kids in For A Few. He is, in some senses, the Nietzschean ideal. The true ‘superman’. Across nationalities, beyond strength, moral and all kinds of incredible. He may get beaten down, but he still manages to go on even without a heart (in Fistful).

With Mwnn a universal character, Leone’s main dilemma is in making him a being that the audience can still identify with. Kids can see his macho-male power and aspire to wash away all criminal immoralities. Men can see his do-goodery and moral attitudes as a signal of what to do in life. Women can watch how devilishous he is. Except that’s a generalization, not everyone will want to see Mwnn for his moralistic attitudes, his aspirational Nietzschean qualities nor for his handsomeness. A concrete, named, swaggering hero is one that people could so easily identify with. The emotional difficulty of Peter Parker in Spider-Man, even the relationship within Drive and the personal disasters of Nic Cage’s David Spritz in the phenomenal Weather Man. People don’t always need a hero, but they need someone to care about.

But in Fistful, Mwnn puts it plainly. That there are Baxters on one side, Rojos on the other and he is caught “in the middle”. He is, again, both within and without. He can be the hero that the town deserves and, by the end of the film, both gangs are vanquished and the heroic quest is complete. The ‘middle-man’ that is Mwnn is merely a guiding light in the narrative, but not a strict ‘hero’ in the typical sense. If anything, he isn’t an anti-hero either. I don’t think this is a mistake of the film at all, it amplifies the brutal realism. He is a human being at the end of the day, with difficulties and attitudes and ethics. We learn to like him, not through seeing him win (he eventually does) but seeing him suffer. I noticed both in Fistful and For A Few Dollars that the second act, when the hero should fall, Mwnn is beaten up in both films. He is stripped of his physicality, tipped over the edge of death but leans back in and swipes the bad guys down. That is what makes us, even if it is quite a slow-burning plot, truly celebrate a character.

Mwnn still tries to find barriers between his true self and his outer ego. Mortimer, pictured above, is a reflection of Mwnn. He smokes, but instead of a cigarette it’s an old-fashioned pipe. He says that he was “like you once”, he is a ruthless bounty hunter and excellent with  guns. By the end of the picture, however, Mortimer’s character is given an emotional climax. We see how the dots all connect, that this was (all along) a personal voyage of Mortimer. He has become entangled in his heroism, it’s now no longer selfless, but we care nonetheless. Mwnn allows this denouement to occur, helping it play out just the way we want it to. The bad guy loses, Mortimer looks to retire but Mwnn goes off with a cart of bounties (bodies) and all the money.

This is the very universality of Mwnn, that he can be both incredibly compassionate and yet (at the end of the day) regress into the ‘Average Joe’ (he actually dons the name ‘Joe’ in Fistful) who just wants to get the most money. He is the purest capitalist in the Western genre and it’s easy to see why he’s so celebrated in this regard. The kids in For A Few Dollars ask if he’s a “Captain?” or a “General?” and Mortimer’s character is a “Colonel.” It’s as if Mwnn completes the chess set of a military hierarchy. He slots in, he conforms. However, “there isn’t anyone got the guts to face that killer” right? No-one has the guts to face El Indio? Mortimer does, as we begin to realize who he is. But the true ‘nobody’ of the picture, indeed Fistful also explicitly says that “Nobody” can put a stop to the gangsterism of the town, is Mwnn. He is a nobody. He has no name, no history and his identity moves beyond universality to cover all kinds of bases. He is both within and without.

Identification

There is a wealth of discussion topics with the Western trilogy, and while I decided on identity, I could have explored so many others. Capitalism, political antagonism, philosophical and psychological explorations, genre staples and conventions, elements of gothic blends (El Indio’s score is infected with a Gothic-like piano echo), the movement of the American Dream and all other theoretical nails to puncture the films with. But, I decided on identity. It has been covered ad nauseum in numerous film theory papers and studies and articles but there are specific strands of identification that (I believe) have not been covered in great detail or have no been covered at all, to my knowledge.

It’s quite… broad of me to suggest that sexuality is one of the identification muddles of the picture. The film’s display of the devilishous Eastwood portrays a strictly heterosexual relationship with its audience and, should in turn, its characters. It’s even more the merrily interesting when you notice in Fistful that Mwnn’s interest in Marisol is never identified as a sexual one or even romantic. In For A Few Dollars More, the woman of the picture (Mary) is barely given any lines… if none at all if I remember correctly. Mwnn takes no interest in women, maybe he was married or maybe he just hasn’t found the right on yet.

It’s however a little more intricate when Mwnn at one point says that, when he leaves the Rojos room (in Fistful) that they’ve offered to him, that “I don’t find you men all that appealing.” In For A Few Dollars More there’s a scene when Mwnn looks at a picture of Il Indio’s bounty in his bed. He even enters Mortimer’s bedroom, plays around with his belongings and (strangely) looks at him across the street with binoculars. I’m not suggesting Mwnn is homosexual, that would be incredibly stupid, but I am suggesting that the sexuality of the character is a lot more interesting. This then gives rise to him being universal into the modern sense, now that homosexuality is much more accepted it’s now better to see back with new context glasses and see the sexuality of Mwnn with added detail. He’s neither purely homosexual or heterosexual, I believe the film suggests both. It has to, because its very issues of identification creates the movement of identity itself. Mwnn is both within and without the very film, displaying mannerisms and attitudes both modern and traditional. He is universal… he is the American West.

The American West died at the springing of the 20th Century. The entire Dollars trilogy explores the Western world at its very peak. “Cowboys and indians” as one boy puts it in Fistful. Gunslingers, cowboys, horseback, gold, bounties, taverns, buxom babes and swinging… homosexuality. Brokeback Mountain‘s aesthetics bleed into mind and this is exactly what Mwnn explores throughout the films. He is the greatest example of the American West, encompassing all of its traditions and glories and ruthless immoralities. There’s a reason that Eastwood’s character comes to mind when the Western genre is brought up, there’s a reason that Mwnn is so revered and the Dollars trilogy is the comparative piece for any modern Western… because it deserves it. It covers the entire American West, nearly its full history (even its attitudes to the Mexicans, with the language of characters zipping between Spanish and English) inside itself. Mwnn explores all of these paces with the element of universality under his heels.

These a brave, eccentric and entangled films. I truly believe that the full trilogy is the figurehead of the Western genre and the movement of identity is at its very course. Even in today’s society, there are continual qualities of modern identity woes. Sexuality is an ever-shifting plateau, individuality is scrounged, anonymity is worried over, religion and belief is both vindicated and celebrated, politics is all about the branding image and the promise of the American Dream (of “rugged individualism”) is dead in the economic waters. Mwnn is exactly this too. His sexuality is layered, his attitudes is suggested, his heroism is both selfless and selfish, he is utterly universal (there’s a reason he’s the one to infiltrate El Indio’s gang), his individuality is removed with his lack of a name, his anonymous persona parades the entire narrative. The Dollars trilogy’s protagonist, if he can even be called a ‘protagonist’, doesn’t just encompass the American West but the entire world.

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