A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Italian West
Part VIX: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
In 1966 United Artists was impressed at how profitable Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More had been, even though they hadn’t been released in the States they wanted in on these Italian westerns. UA would put up half of the budget and Alberto Grimaldi would put up the rest. For A Few screenwriter, Luciano Vincenzoni along with Sergio Leone came up with a new scenario for their Stranger character (this time referred to as Blondie) called Two Magnificent Rogues, Leone seemed to really love that Magnificent title as the original names of the previous pictures were The Magnificent Stranger and The Magnificent Strangers respectively. Since this time the picture was expected to play in the U.S. they brought in blacklisted American actor Mickey Knox to help with translating the English dialog.
“In the first film, I was alone. In the second, we were two. Here we are three. If it goes on this way, in the next one I’ll be staring with the American cavalry.” – Clint Eastwood on his hesitation about staring in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Leone wanted to bring his successful trio back into the fray, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volantè and now major international star Clint Eastwood. Van Cleef signed on right away, Volantè passed to star in a film he thought was more interesting Quein Sabé aka A Bullet For The General (more on this film in a later blog) Eastwood held out for more money. Clint Eastwood had just played a role in Vittorio De Sica’s episode of the Italian anthology The Witches for which he was paid twenty grand and a Ferrari, not bad considering he only worked on it for a couple of days. Clint could see the direction Leone was going in, the script was much more ambitious and epic then the previous and he was concerned that his role was becoming less important but also knew his name was a major draw, so he held out. They eventually settled and Leone got his actor and Clint Eastwood got 250 grand and another Ferrari!
Since Volantè wasn’t interested Leone had to search for a replacement. For the third time he went to Charles Bronson, but this time he didn’t say no but he’d just inked a deal for Robert Aldrich’s equally genre changing The Dirty Dozen. Leone obviously loved the great John Sturges film The Magnificent Seven, so he looked at the pictures baddie “Calvera” and offered Hollywood, Broadway and method trained actor Eli Wallach for the role of Mexican bandit Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez. Wallach had never heard of Leone but after watching a few minutes of the director’s work immediately agreed. According to one source director Henry Hathaway (Hathaway directed Wallach in The Seven Thieves and himself made numerous westerns.) helped Wallach pick out the costume he would wear! Now the trio was complete.
The finished screenplay was change from The Magnificent Rogues to Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo with the English version being known as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The film tells the story of a confederate cache of gold that went missing after an attack by Union soldiers. There were only three survivors of this battle , Stevens, Baker and Jackson, who we learn after Angel Eyes, a bounty hunter hired by Baker (played to the utmost evil by Lee Van Cleef) pays Stevens a visit; that Jackson now goes by the name of Bill Carson. Angel Eyes kills him, then goes back to Baker and brutally kills him as well and a title appears “The Ugly”, this clever use of graphics will end each character introduction. The only people that know of the gold now, are Angel Eyes and someone who goes by the name of Bill Carson. This is the plot device for what would become the first of Sergio Leone’s masterpieces.
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Though the picture has the same gritty, grimy texture of the previous “Dollars” pictures, Leone wisely chose to play with its narrative structure and chose an episodic way of telling its story. The film unfolds in a series of vignettes all masterfully done. Leone and his writers Luciano Vincenzoni, Furio Scarpelli, and Agenore Incrocci had spent a lot more time with details, like researching the Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass. Most of New Mexico had been ignored by the federal government as well as local government in Santa Fe, so a large portion of the population had Confederate sympathies. The Confederates already had control of the southern halves Arizona and New Mexico territories. The Confederates goal was to access California’s gold and silver mines and evade Union naval blockades. Without turning this into a history lesson, that is essentially the background of the picture. These rogue treasure hunters are basically stepping through and around this battle looking for the stolen loot.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly would be a massive epic that transcended the genre, a spaghetti western on a David Lean scale. Grand Civil War battles with hundreds of extras, exploding bridges, not just your usual shoot ‘em up.
This being Clint’s third time out with Leone and crew he had some advice for his esteemed co-star Wallach; “Stay as far away from special effects and explosives as you can.” Leone and crew were waiting around for clouds to pass by the sun so they could shoot the explosion of the bridge, all the cameras were set up to cover every angle, wide lenses, slo-mo, close-ups. The special effects tech told one of the Spanish crew members that he can trigger the explosion and the signal would be “Vaya!” Not long afterwards, the special effects tech told a crew member to check on one of the cameras and he mistakenly said “vaya!” KA-BOOM!! Clint turned to Eli “There, you see what I mean?”
Leone sat up from his chair and said “Let’s go eat!”. Luckily no one was hurt but it took another week to rebuild the bridge so they could blow it up again!
Eli Wallach got along really well with Leone, neither man could speak each other’s language but they both could speak French and they spoke often and developed a mutual respect and this had an effect on Wallach’s performance.
The character of Tuco, thanks to Wallach really takes center stage and is the heart of the picture. It really is Tuco’s story, he is The Lovable Rogue, these are characters who are from the lower and working classes, are often thieves who try to beat the system by doing things their way and are often sympathetic, essentially the more well rounded and human of most character archetypes. Tuco most definitely fits this and I’m sure Wallach was well aware of it as he played many of these types of characters on screen and stage and no doubt Leone new of this as well considering he’s often been quoted as saying these pictures are “…fairy tales for grown ups”
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Eli Wallach would improvise a lot of his dialog and performance in the picture. After being left out in the middle of the desert by Blondie, Tuco manages to hump it back to town, he stumbles into a gun shop to get himself armed. This scene was unscripted and it’s all improved by Wallach. The beauty of this scene isn’t just Wallach’s cleaver improves, Wallach knew a bit about guns, but also Leone and production designer Carlo Simi’s attention to historical detail.
Not only do they name some the periods pistols but they have them there, which was probably difficult or at least time consuming to get a hold of in Spain/Italy. Tuco assembles his pistol out of various pieces, a nice piece of business to reveal that Tuco is a force to be reckoned with as opposed to showing off his skill shooting hats off heads, an act that by this time was getting stale.
An interesting thing about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, is that the film can be seen as a prequel to Fistful of Dollars. Here when we first meet Blondie, he’s wearing a long duster, a wide brined gamblers hat, and a purple puffy shirt. Later when Angel Eyes captures him and joins forces he hands him the blue chambray shirt and shearling vest that he wears in the previous pictures. Finally in a scene that shows a bit of pathos to Blondie, after giving a dying man a toke of his cigarillo he takes the mans poncho. When he meets up with Tuco he’s dressed exactly as we first meet him in Fistful. This could be seen as a prequel or a nice bookend to the trilogy.
TGTBTU would be the final Leone/Eastwood team up. As an actor Clint didn’t want to compete with Leone’s bigger and bigger visions and chose to conquer his home country and make films his way, when he came back home he created his own production company, Malpaso Pictures, and took control of his career. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly would be a huge success, but not all critics responded warmly to it. It’s now on most critics lists as one of the greatest films ever made and Leone is now considered one of the greatest filmmakers ever, along with Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa.
-Phillip López Jiménez