Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly first showed on movie screens in Italy 50 years ago today. The film’s eerie, piercing Ennio Morricone soundtrack; its giant close-ups of swarthy, sweaty men and their narrowing eyes; its slow contemplation of landscapes rent by sudden bursts of exquisitely choreographed death—everything about the film’s hyper-self-conscious style is iconic. That includes the film’s anti-war message, and also the way the message provides an excuse for the ecstatic celebration of violence.
As all cinephiles know, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly referenced in the title are Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach), three scruffy, hardened killers hunting for $200,000 in gold during the Civil War. The film revels in high-drama, flamboyant, sadistic set pieces. The most memorable is probably the sequence where Tuco forces Blondie to march 100 miles across the desert at gunpoint. The genius is in the little details. Tuco shoots off Eastwood’s hat, so he won’t have any protection from the sun; then delicately puts up a little parasol for himself so he can ride in comfort. As Eastwood stoically blisters and staggers, Wallach dares his victim to drink the water in which he’s just washed his smelly feet. Tuco’s so happy inflicting slow, lingering death that you can’t help but love him for it.
But even as Leone’s directing makes torture entertaining, the film sympathetically, and elegiacally, condemns the horrors of war. In a sequence towards the end of the film, Tuco and Blondie stumble into a Union encampment where they meet the commanding officer, Captain Clinton (Aldo Giuffrè). Clinton is a drunk, driven to the bottle by the constant spectacle of death as his forces battle day after day for control of a single, pointless bridge. “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly,” Eastwood muses, as the camera pans across a magnificent panorama of clashing troops. Tuco and Blondie blow up the bridge, mercifully ending the battle—and then trot off to shoot at each other over gold.
The Good, the Bad and The Ugly’s anti-war message is, then cheerfully hypocritical—but that puts it firmly in the tradition of the majority of war movies. Violence is pulp entertainment, and war films with any kind of conscience are always torn between using violent set pieces to visualize the horror of war, and using the horrors of war as a pretext for violent set pieces. At the end of Full Metal Jacket, when Joker (Matthew Modine) shoots the female sniper, his comrades breathe “Hard core!” Killing is brutal and dehumanizing—but also exciting, and admirable. It always impresses the spectators.
You can see similar tensions in the just released World War II epic Hacksaw Ridge. As with all of Mel Gibson’s films, the movie lovingly depicts the horrors of violence; men are riddled with bullets, burned alive with flamethrowers, and blown to pieces by artillery. In the finale, which takes place during the battle of Okinawa, soldiers jerk and thrash and scream for more than hour.
Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector who served as a combat medic while refusing to carry a weapon. But even though the film is about a pacifist, it loves the spectacle of violence so much it includes a completely gratuitous depiction of Japanese leaders committing ritual suicide. Dawes says he wants to put people together rather than take them apart, but the film itself has bloodier ambitions.
Hacksaw Ridge and Full Metal Jacket are both earnest films; they want to show you the gritty reality of war, as a warning and, almost despite themselves, as a pleasure. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, on the other hand, is quite straightforward about the perforative natures of its dirt-flecked reality. Eli Wallach manages to look filthy even as he’s taking a bubble bath. And of course, he keeps his revolver with him in the tub, because tough guy banditos are prepared at all times, and can somehow get their pistols to fire underwater.
After five decades, the The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly remains an incredible film not because of its brutality or its pacifism—but because of its campiness. The dust and the blood and the inhumanity are all a glorious stage show. The film is a pulp genre goof that is so self-aware it actually writes the words “the ugly” across the screen when Wallach appears, to let you know it knows he’s a larger-than-life antihero.
On-screen violence, Leone is telling you, should be fun—and on-screen anti-violence, with its sentimentality and galloping body count, is fun too. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, half a century on, looks like a narrow, steely-eyed wink at films like Hacksaw Hill, or at any Hollywood extravaganza that sets itself up as deploring violence and injustice. Who cares about the morality of good and bad? It’s the charming aesthetics of ugliness that pulls people into war films. Or do we mean anti-war films? As with good and bad and ugly, it’s often hard to tell the difference.