As in For A Few Dollars More, this film, set in the Civil War, opens with scenes establishing the main characters. First we are introduced to the Ugly, Tuco (Eli Wallach), who leaps through a window after killing the men who were out to get him. Then there is the Bad, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), a mercenary who kills a man to find out the whereabouts of a large sum of gold; he then kills the man who employed him. Finally we see the Good (Clint Eastwood), referred to as 'Blondie'. He captures Tuco and turns him into the authorities for the reward, but then shoots the rope from around Tuco's neck and splits the money with him. They continue this business relationship, until Blondie decides there is no future in it and so sets Tuco down in the middle of the desert, 70 miles from the nearest town. Meanwhile Angel Eyes is on the trail of Bill Carson, the man with the gold, and finds that he has re-enlisted.
Tuco, having made it to a town, tracks Blondie down with a few bandit companions. Blondie shoots them down, but Tuco creeps up on him from behind. He puts a noose around Blondie's neck, but just as he is about to hang, a shell from the retreating army hits the building and Blondie escapes. Tuco tracks him down again, and makes Blondie allow his new 'business partner' to hang; he then drags him through the heat of the desert to get his revenge. But when he is just on the point of shooting him, a runaway stage comes by full of dead bodies. One of the occupants, however, is the same Bill Carson Angel Eyes is after, and he promises Tuco the gold for a drink of water. He tells him the name of a cemetery, but tells Blondie the name on the grave, before dying. Therefore Tuco is forced to nurse Blondie back to health and go back into partnership with him.
They pose as Confederate soldiers, but are taken prisoner and end up in the POW camp where Angel Eyes, now a Union officer, is in charge. He tortures Tuco, who is using Bill Carson's name, and learns which cemetery the gold is in. Realizing that Blondie will not talk, Angel Eyes goes into partnership with him, and promptly leaves the army again. Tuco meanwhile escapes from his guard and follows them, but is caught in the bath by Blondie, and their partnership is reformed; the two of them then gun down Angel Eyes' companions, but he himself escapes. Moving on towards their goal, they find themselves in the middle of a Union camp, with a fierce and seemingly unresolvable battle raging for a key bridge.
Since they need to get to the other side of the river, Tuco and Blondie blow up the bridge, telling each other their half of the gold's location. When the two armies move on, the two men cross over and make their way to the cemetery. While Tuco runs on ahead, Blondie offers his cigarillo to a dying soldier, who very shortly dies. Blondie removes his trench coat and covers the dead man, taking his poncho as a replacement. Meanwhile Tuco has found the grave and is digging away; Blondie tosses him a spade to help him; and Angel Eyes appears and tells Blondie to dig too. Blondie refuses, since the gold is not in that grave after all: he writes the name of the real grave on a stone for which there is a three-way shootout. Blondie shoots Angel Eyes, having unloaded Tuco's gun the previous night, and makes Tuco dig up the gold, which he then shares 50-50. But he leaves Tuco standing on a shaky grave marker with his head in a noose and rides away, before turning back and shooting the rope from his neck one last time. Blondie rides into the sunset while Tuco shouts abuse at him.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third and most accomplished of the Dollars trilogy; Sergio Leone created his film on an epic scale, and it stands today as one of the greatest westerns made. The increased budget allowed for scenes of war on a massive scale, and the film serves as a condemnation of the futility of war, summed up by Eastwood's character when he says, "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly." This is motivated in part by Leone's childhood in Italy during the Second World War - he identified the prison camp with Nazi concentration camps with their Jewish orchestras - but the message was also very significant for the American public when it was released in the US in 1969.
The film is set chronologically before the previous two films, and it implies the development of the character of the Man With No Name. We see him despairing at the war, and we are also shown a compassion which is absent from the other films. He is shown stroking a kitten at one stage, and later he gives the dying soldier a puff of his cigar; then symbolically he removes his trench coat and replaces it with the familiar poncho, showing he has become the character of the earlier movies.
Technically the film is superbly crafted. Leone's camerawork is very striking, most notably with the tension built up when Blondie is struggling to load his gun before Tuco's assassins burst in; also the final shootout scene, where the wide shots of all three protagonists (which has to be seen in widescreen format to be truly appreciated) gives way to extreme close ups of eyes and hands moving towards guns. The cross-cutting is made all the more effective by the difference between the three lead actors' eyes: Eastwood's are narrowed in a squint, Van Cleef's are also narrow but older, and Eli Wallach's are wide-open and shifty. The superb pictures are perfectly complemented by one of the finest and most memorable film scores ever, again supplied by the ever-improving Morricone.
The film came at a turning point in Clint's life: in addition to the $250,000 and percentage he received for making the film, he also had the $119,000 he was paid by CBS when Rawhide was cancelled after its 7-year run. This made Clint a wealthy man: that year he set up his own production company, Malpaso, and has never looked back.
Hear Clint Eastwood in his own words as he talks candidly about his thoughts on this film and the late director Sergio Leone.
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