I like to provoke people by claiming The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best film about the American Civil War that I’ve seen. The provocation isn’t just a perverse tease. The film does offer a remarkably convincing depiction of the surface of the war, even if it has no interest in exploring the substance of it. Otherwise, it is no more serious politically than an Astaire/Rogers musical, and as with those airy fantasies, its chief attraction is personal and cinematic style.
Of course, it is a particularly brutal and violent kind of style, and the appeal of Leone’s sadomasochistic approach is clearly a matter of taste. It nonetheless grounds the most outlandish actions in a gritty, tangible earthiness. The combination of fantastic violence and raw, physical detail produces a powerfully convincing sense of time and place, no matter how fabricated.
It would be less engrossing without Eastwood’s alternately vicious and graceful performance. In the three films Eastwood made with Leone, he transcended his otherwise flat presence to endow myths about the American frontier and history with the iconic aura of a laconic killer. Grafting him on to the Civil War borders on the exploitative, but the very tenuousness of the connection makes it work. Leone has little to say about the conflict and there is nothing to suggest that if he had a message it would extend any deeper than his films’ vibrant surfaces. He’s just providing a taste of the war’s brutality and inadvertently demonstrating its importance to the Western and its centrality in the American psyche. By removing the sanctimonious mange of the Western, and looking at a national tragedy through the eyes of an executioner, Leone revels in the visceral pleasure of violent action, revealing the barbarity of both the genre and the war.
No matter how barbaric the action, however, its execution is far from primitive. In fact, the film making is elaborate to the point of stilted, as complexly mannered in style as the content is reduced to essentials. The most gruesome actions occur in self-conscious, nearly abstract compositions of parched landscapes in expansive widescreen frames, accompanied by the twang of Ennio Morricone’s famous score. The effect is to turn the characters’ taciturn, icy straight shooting and physical toughness into a stylized ritual stinking with sweat and dirt. Every camera movement, shot, and cut is calculated, as if the film itself were just waiting for the right moment to draw and shoot. It is not just the moral simplicity of the Western that has been stripped away. The formal clarity of the genre has been supplanted by an ornate style held together by blood caked with dust.
The result is a testosterone fueled fantasy that turns sheer SOB ruthlessness into a virtue. Women might like the Leone/Eastwood trilogy, but clearly these films are meant for the boys. Unsurprisingly, they are thereby most revealing and expressive for what they do not say.