The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is often revered as the greatest Western ever made. It’s a near 3 hour epic spanning across the US civil war, covering the Wild West at its absolute peak. The grandiose score, the inter-connected web of the characters, the depictions of the landscape and other heavy features of the American West all blend into one fine soup of a film. I’ve analysed Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More and A Fistful of Dollars with the focus of identity, but for the finale of the ‘trilogy’ it’s more fitting to take another approach. With Ugly I’ll be taking a crack at seeing just how ‘ugly’ it actually is; by considering the very nature of ‘beauty’ in the world.
“You know you got a face beautiful enough to be worth 2000 dollars?” Tuco is dubbed ‘the Ugly’ and the sarcasm of ‘beautiful’ comes throughout the opening act. Blondie (previously ‘Mwnn’ (Man With No Name), Eastwood’s character) and Tuco work together to scam the local bounty hunting trade, with Eastwood rescuing Tuco from hanging just before death. The value on Tuco’s life at first is assumed to be ‘Ugly’ moral deeds he has committed. They’re even read at length to him every time he is ‘hanged’. Tuco seems to relish in his crimes, at many points laughing or appearing blatantly ignorant to what he has committed. Even after murdering someone all he can say is “If you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!” a basic wisecrack after he’s ended a life. Tuco’s very ideals about life are ugly, but his physical appearance is valued in the same semantics.
Obviously, he isn’t hunted down because he’s ugly but there’s some kind of loose Frankenstein allegory to the picture, I’m serious. When Tuco assembles one of his earlier guns, after Blondie double-tricks him, he instead takes different pieces of other guns and sorts them together. Ugly pieces, but a beautiful working whole? Remind you of anything? Tuco is however not a tortured creature, nor is he hunting for his original creator. He does however eventually torture Blondie through a trip into the harsh sandy wastelands, and so the value of life itself in this landscape does somewhat correlate to your physical appearance. The dashing Blondie is rigorously tortured by the ugly, venomous Tuco in an act of vengeance. The journey that the two go on is filled with humour, sadness, brutal tension and all kinds of genre blends. It’s a real thrill to watch them interact with each other, given their polar racial and moralistic opposites. Blondie, in contrast, is referred to as the ‘Good’, the good looking perhaps.
He is certainly dashing.
‘The Bad’ however? I’m not sure. Lee Van Cleef is a certainly handsome gentleman, so the correlation between morals and outward appearance ends there. The fairytale assumption that if you’re bad, you’re bad looking, falls apart here. Ugly is certainly not a Western fairytale, but now I’m suddenly relishing at the very thought of perhaps the two blending together. Perhaps a challenge for modern filmmakers? A mix of classicist fiction and hard boiled genre pulp? Could be fresh and interesting.
‘Superficiality’ itself, and the value of beauty, is integral to fairytales like Cinderella and Snow White. There’s no abstract connection between the materials, I doubt Sergio Leone sought inspiration from such things, but it’s fun to see that the ‘dashing prince’ of the fairytale world could be Eastwood’s character in the Ugly world. He is valued more crucially than any of the characters, probably because he has the most rare piece of information. Tuco and Angel Eyes (interesting choice of name) both come into possession of knowing the location of the treasure, but only Blondie knows the name of the grave throughout the entire picture (even playing the theme of deception against the other two).
The movement of beauty
‘Gold’ and the element of extreme beauty is at the very narrative thrust of the picture, and its very beauty moves the characters to their destinies. There’s a reason why Ennio Morricone’s seminal piece is called ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, it’s because the wealth has such a direct and emotional connection with the characters of the narrative. I’ve read capitalistic critiques of the film in my little time researching other interpretations, and in fact I toyed with the idea of ‘money’ being the crucial driving force of the entire trilogy; it is called the Dollars trilogy after all. What I think the trilogy addresses, and what Ugly addresses, however is the value and beauty behind money. The American dream, the superficial glitty to which Gatsby and Crucible and so many American greats have devoted their thematics to exploring.
The movement of beauty throughout the picture takes on various forms. Tuco’s catchphrase is practically ‘Filthy bastard’, with the final line of the movie being ‘Dirty son of a-‘. There’s an emphasis on filth and decadence, perhaps of the moral flavour, and the object of beauty moves throughout the picture in various forms similar to Tuco’s. It comes throughout the repetition of filth, the moralistic pursuits, the American dream, the “rotten trick of fate” that is the character’s underlying destiny, the value of life and also the core theme of deception. The soldiers that Tuco sees as Confederates (who dress in grey) actually dust off their uniforms, revealing themselves to be clad in blue (Union) and Blondie plays all the characters to his will, even pulling a possibly posthumous joke on the survivor of the last stand by having no name on the stone (which is actually a truth, the name is ‘Unknown’).
As the beauty takes on various forms, it’s easy to understand just how significant of a factor that superficiality played into the world of the Wild West. The grandeur ‘gold rush’, the taverns, the booze and the rampant bandit trade all epitomise an era of superficiality built around the core pursuit of greed and happiness within greed. Why is it then that we are on Blondie’s side? Why do we cheer on the likes of Tuco against Angel Eyes? We see Angel Eyes slaughter an entire family, an old man and insult a gangrene dying fellow but we still care more about Tuco. We listen to Tuco’s crimes: his rapes, murders, killings, desertions and so on and so on. But, the truth is, beauty comes through Tuco in a different way.
Because he is the underdog, and it felt weird watching a film that had such massive screentime for his character, and I wonder if it dwarfs Eastwood’s screentime too. Beauty comes through Tuco not through his tortured Frankenstein emotions, nor his heroic endeavours nor even his anti-heroism. It comes through his actions. He shoots people, wisecracks and he plays the dirty, scavenging and ugly scoundrel of the piece. He becomes obsessed with the idea of the treasure, but his religious devotion and humour make us still appreciate him as a character. Here, beauty moves in a significantly different way and it’s interesting to consider that the world of the Western was indeed full of such benignly abnormal folk.
Style and Realism
Here’s where things get slightly more interesting. I don’t utterly believe Ugly to take a post-modernist slant on its many ideas, and in facts some of its reflections on ideas such as wealth appear simply to dip into surface levels. The exploration of the American dream is spread throughout its three racially diverse, morally diverse and interestingly webbed characters however. I do believe that Ugly seems to have a lot in common with the great American novel of the 20th Century, perhaps moreso than its traditional roots. It’s not historical fallacy at all, in fact it gets across that authentic brutal feel of the West quite easily. What post-modernism means is a rejection of the ‘post-industrial’ era that we now reside in. Ugly came out at the tip-end of our technological evolution, the buds of the 21st Century were wallowing in the sands of the Western world and cinema, literature and other cultural passions were undergoing a revolution. Charles Dickens was one of the most authors to popularize a realistic and gritty working class perception on the ‘modern’ civilisation, but authors like Bukowski were able to usher in an era of pulp realism, dirty realism, that shocked audiences and rewrote the books on censorship and free speech.
Ugly depicts a violent, brutal world that is now beyond mankind… right? In fact, it came out just as Lyndon B Johnson was escalating the Vietnam war and sending Americans to fight the Red Scare in that pursuit of international freedom and prosperity. Sergio Leone is not fabled for his political masterpieces and critiques, but instead for his gritty depictions of worlds, layered characters and showing the full heat of narratives. He is to me at least, with his extreme close-ups and emphasis on music, an incredibly stylistic director and this makes me truly wonder if the story he is telling is simply one about the obsession of aesthetics. The pursuit of the characters, that binds them and connects them, is the extreme wealth.
In a Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s character donated a good chunk of money to a family to escape. In For A Few Dollars More, he cleaned up a bandit unit with ‘Mortimer’ (also played by Van Cleef, confusingly for those who view the trilogy as a cohesive narrative), but here in Ugly he’s… simply out to get rich? He destroys a bridge with Tuco to help the soldiers and give a Captain one last moment of pleasure, but in the end, it’s just in the pursuit of his individual wealth. While he doesn’t slaughter families like Angel Eyes, and he doesn’t rape and pillage like Tuco, he isn’t the hero we deserve… but it’s the one we need. He’s the ‘least bad’… and he’s the most good looking. Beauty comes in many ways throughout the picture, and I don’t think it’s ever truly ‘moral’ and I don’t think you can ever appreciate or admire their moral sensibilities, even of Blondie’s. The apparent ‘Good’ apple of the story.