Graham Reid | | 2 min read
The reputation of the epic Western has been somewhat tarnished in recent years, but the tradition of outsiders and the lawless world they inhabited is an honourable one.
However, by the mid-Sixties, with the rise of the anti-hero and a more gritty kind of cinema, it took the Italian director Sergio Leone to re-invent the tired genre. With Clint Eastwood as the taciturn killer, Leone paced out the ground on the low-budget A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More. But his spaghetti Western masterpiece was the sprawling, episodic, dark, but often funny The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
With Eastwood as the emotionally impassive bounty hunter-cum-opportunist, Eli Wallach as the self-serving and treacherous "ugly", and the snake-like menace of Lee Van Cleef as "the bad", this was a Western composed with art-house elegance, dust on its face and -- surprisingly, given the amount of blood that is shed -- an anti-war message.
The trio are in pursuit of a buried fortune but as the tail-end of the Civil War rages around them there is much more going on than that. It is a Western grounded in context, both historical and in locale.
With the arid landscapes of Spain standing in for New Mexico and Spanish peasants chosen for their wind-bitten and sun-battered features as extras, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was unlike any other western before it -- not even Leone's previous work.
As with The Godfather, it is operatic in scope yet refined in its attention to historical detail. More than that, though, this is an exciting adventure of sudden gunplay shattering the long stillnesses, and conscience-free killers.
Here restored to the director's original three hours -- actually just a few linking scenes of little consequence put back in -- it is still captivating. It helps, too, that Ennio Morricone delivered a soaring score for the ballets of death and added idiosyncratic and memorable signature riffs throughout. Incidentally, that Essential Elsewhere soundtrack with extra material is a standalone item: epic and grand, intimate and romantic, or quirky and eccentric, depending on which track you pick. There is a tribute to Morricone among the extras on the DVD.
There are also amusing recent interviews with Eastwood, Wallach and others reminiscing about Leone (who didn't have a script), discussion of the film's style, a couple of unfinished scenes, and a doco about the historical context.
The interviews with Eastwood and Wallach -- who talk about the dangers of shooting with the Italian crew and their cavalier disregard for safety -- reminds you how unusual and difficult the film was to make. Eastwood jokes about how the Germans, Italians, Spanish and Americans could barely communicate with each other. And when they did they'd be arguing about who would pay for what.
Yet the result of this dysfunctional movie set is a timeless, epic western full of wit and invention. And one helluva good story. When would we see it's like again?
Well, a year later in Leone's darker, slower and more spacious Once Upon a Time in the West with Henry Fonda.
But that's another story.