The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: A Medieval Parable for the Modern Age
© 2009, Randall A. Beeler
On the face of it, that’s what The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly (GBU), the ultimate “spaghetti western,” by writer/director Sergio Leone seems—face, all surface, all shoot-em up: tight facial shots of sweaty Italians, garish gunfight scenes, and a stark tableau of forbidding desert. However, since its premiere in 1966, the epic has won grudging approval as the ultimate “anti-western” and “post-modernist” send-up of the classic western’s black-and-white portrayals of good guys versus bad guys.
Indeed, GBU seems to relativize objective categories of good and evil. After all, the protagonist is a ne’er-do-well desperado bandit who prays only when he stands the chance of deceiving a companion to gain a fortune in gold. Truly, Setenza, or “Angel-Eyes,” (played by the shorn-fingered Lee Van Cleef) is indeed a Satanic, fallen-angel, psychopathic murderer. But the only thing that seems to differentiate the laconic Blondie (played by Clint Eastwood) from the Luciferian bad guy is that Blondie is quicker on the draw.
But why does Leone take pains early in the film to literally label each of the three leads as “The Ugly,” “the Bad,” and “the Good” (in that order)? Is he being sardonically facetious? Is he lampooning the seemingly vain attempt to discern illusive categories of absolute truth in a meaningless world?
Or, is he actually reviving an ancient means of storytelling that has more in common with our Medieval ancestors than it does with a modern deconstructionist despair?
As the protagonist, Tuco (masterfully and comically rendered by Eli Wallach) deserves close examination as the key to understanding GBU. The movie starts with his glass-smashing murderous escape from three demonic-visaged bounty hunters and ends with him suspended by a hang rope with a grave-head cross as his only support against death. Despite his outlaw ways, Tuco is our hero—in fact, he is us: using his wits to scrape out whatever pleasures and hopes he can from a forbidding landscape of marauders, frontier justice, and warring Yankee and Rebel armies. He embodies our daily struggle to live amidst the conflicts that swamp us with their very pervasiveness.
Tuco chooses “the harder way” (as he notes to his brother, a self-righteous friar who only too late laments his Phariseeism) of scraping whatever he can from cunning, vengeance, lying, and sheer desperate effort—except that this is Tuco’s only way. He attempts to do so across a harsh landscape of forbidding desert, clashing armies, merciless bounty hunters, and the ever-present threat of death by rope. In short, he is us—as we are without Grace or even a wit of its existence. The real contest in this Wasteland tableau is not a war between North and South, nor even a race for $200,000 in gold, but a contest for Tuco’s soul—and our soul—between the ravenous Angel-Eyes and the enigmatic Blondie.
So why the blatant, almost pernicious, labeling of the lead characters? Perhaps the wasteland setting provides the key: Leone filmed his masterpiece on the Spanish high desert not because of budget constraints (indeed, his profits from his previous two westerns enabled GBU’s multi-million-dollar budget) but because Leone was making a cinematic homage to the wasteland setting of T. S. Eliot’s eponymous poem and Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Not only is Tuco a hollow man roaming a waste, searching for water and a king’s ransom, but so are we the viewers. Just as Tuco cannot fathom the evil Angel-Eyes and the good Blondie, so we in the modern age have blinded ourselves to the cosmic battle between good and evil. We no more have the capacity to discern between good and evil than does the scurrilous Tuco—thus, we the viewers need the labels, just as much as Tuco needs Blondie to dish out some hard lessons in the nature of good and evil.
If Blondie seems superior to Angel-Eyes only because he is better skilled with a gun, that is no indication of relativism but rather a commentary on just how little of true goodness that Tuco—and we—choose to appreciate. Tuco’s admiration of guns and cunning is akin to our present attempts to reject objective truth: given the predatory, wasted moral landscape we have blundered ourselves into, the only good we grope for is a weapon-like utilitarianism. Long before Mad Max roamed a post-nuclear-holocaust moonscape, Tuco seeks his El Dorado by dodging bullets and siding with whomever can help him reach his goal.
Blondie’s grimy appearance and cold-bloodedness (seemingly not all that different from Angel-Eye’s self-satisfaction at doing his assassin’s job to ruthless completion) is thrown into relief by Tuco’s—and our—obliviousness to the true nature of good and evil. Blondie’s skill is all we choose to appreciate. And just as Christ condescends to our frail human nature, so the force for good in GBU meets Tuco and us on our own terms, providing an persona and a role with which we can interact.
What does differentiate Blondie from Angel-Eyes (even if Tuco cannot appreciate it because he is blinded by the ecstasy of gold) is the stark (if implicit) difference between the two gunmen’s interactions with the hapless Tuco.
Portrayed as a killer who does not merely do so for money but for pleasure (he repeatedly notes his determination to “see the job” through right before he needlessly murders his victims), Angel-Eyes views Tuco as quarry or fodder, a thing to be consumed and used as fuel towards Angel-Eyes’ ultimate goals. He takes pleasure watching Tuco nearly beaten to death (at the hands of Angel-Eyes’ henchman, Wallace); then, having extracted the information he wants from the torture, profits by selling Tuco for a bounty. For Angel-Eyes, men like us are things to be used and sold, grist to be ground for gain.
Although Blondie seems to use Tuco for a bounty-hunting scam in which he “captures” the outlaw (“saving” him from three bounty hunters by gunning them down) and turns him in for the bounty, only to shoot away his hang rope at the last instant, Blondie shares the bounty with Tuco. When Blondie severs the relationship, letting Tuco loose in the desert, he notes that “A man of your strength could manage” the journey back to town. Blondie’s seemingly cruel valedictory ends up being prophecy; albeit, Tuco nearly dies from the ordeal, but his experience represents what we all endure at the hands of what we perceive to be a capricious God. In other words, Blondie’s loosing of Tuco in the desert is akin to our experience of God’s allowing suffering.
Whether we can discern whether God commands such suffering or merely permits it as an exigency of a world in which free-willing agents can create all sorts of wastelands and deserts that we then must toil through is moot to the Tucos who wander the wasteland. What is pertinent is what such suffering ultimately effects in us. At the point of his release into the desert, Tuco is capable only of a viciously cyclic relationship with his hang-rope-shooting partner, as Blondie himself notes: “I don’t ever think you’ll be worth more than $3,000.” Before we categorize Blondie with Angel-Eyes, remember—we are seeing the situation from Tuco’s point of view; to him, the world is filled with nothing but Angel-Eyed, demonic marauders and bounty hunters who want to buy and sell his life. But the amazing fact is that, true to Blondie’s word, Tuco does manage to survive and his being shang-haied in the desert motivates him to hunt down Blondie, to, with a Job-like tenacity, track the perceived author of our woes and make him pay—
—Which Tuco does, first failing to hang Blondie from a roof beam of a hotel that is struck by an errant Union cannonball, thus assuring Blondie’s escape; then forcibly marching Blondie through the desert, only to see Blondie rescued by what Leone (and composer Morricone) labeled the “Carriage of the Spirits.” In the carriage is the man whom Angel-Eyes has been hunting, the man who knows the cemetery and grave name where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco manages to wrest the location of the cemetery from the wounded and dying man, but while he is getting a canteen to help loose the parched man’s tongue, Blondie secures the name of the grave with the man’s last breath. Tuco now finds himself charged with saving the life of the man who formerly rescued him and whom he just plotted to kill, and Tuco does so by taking him to the Franciscan mission/hospital where Tuco’s brother is the superior.
Note how Blondie’s rugged participation with Tuco in Tuco’s own suffering (Blondie undergoes the same desert ordeal as Tuco) and his enabling Tuco to save his (Blondie’s) life (as Blondie once saved Tuco from the hang rope) leads Tuco towards the gold. Blondie’s interventions are marked by Leone’s deus ex machina plot technique: misfired cannon balls, runaway carriages, parched secret sharers—as if to say that, at least from the modern age’s and Tuco’s limited perspective, these are as close as we are going to get to miracles in this war-torn wasteland.
The ostensibly crooked lines that Blondie draws for Tuco’s path actually keep Tuco one step ahead of the demonic Angel-Eyes. In contrast to Angel Eyes’ preying on Tuco, Blondie comforts him. After eavesdropping on Tuco’s heartbreaking encounter with his Prior brother (who informs Tuco that both their parents are dead and accuses Tuco of being on a road to damnation), Blondie willingly goes along with Tuco’s lie about his brother (“He’s crazy about me! No matter what happens to a rat like me, I always know there’s a brother who’ll give me a bowl of soup”). Blondie then notes that “After a good meal, there’s nothing like a good smoke” and shares his cigar with Tuco, symbolically giving Tuco the fellowship that Tuco’s own brother did not—an embrace that is astounding, given that a few days earlier, Tuco had sought to kill him. The meaning is clear—Blondie has made himself a brother to Tuco’s quest.
Despite Blondie’s guidance, Tuco inevitably blunders into encounters with the evils of this landscape. Tuco’s mistaking Union troops for Confederates lands the pair in Angel-Eyes’ POW camp (where Tuco is beaten). Later, Tuco’s sure-fire sense of direction leads the two into the midst of a Sisyphean battle between Union and Confederate forces for a mere bridge over a river.
Blondie’s compassion again pulls them out of these fixes. Plotting to use Union dynamite to blow up the bridge during a lull in the battle, Blondie gives a bottle of whiskey to the wounded and dying Union commander (who has drunk himself into alcoholic anguish over the waste of lives caused by the bridge)—the third time in the movie that Blondie administers “last rites” to a character.
Next, Blondie exchanges secrets with Tuco—who provides Blondie with the name of the cemetery in return for the name of the grave (unbeknownst to Tuco, it is the name of the grave next to the one with the gold). Blondie also surreptitiously unloads Tuco’s gun as the two sleep during the evacuation of the armies after the obliteration of the bridge. Again, Blondie seems to be just as cunning with Tuco as Angel-Eyes is, but Tuco himself grudgingly agrees with Blondie when, the deception revealed, Blondie notes, “You think I’d trust you?”
Leone and Blondie know that we and Tuco cannot trust ourselves, let alone be trusted. Leone’s treatment of the viewer and Blondie’s treatment of Tuco represent what C. S. Lewis once described as a “severe mercy”: from our perspective, severe; from the higher view of God, an absolutely necessary mercy to guide us through the traps planted by demons and our own delusions of godhead.
Tuco and Blondie emerge from the bloodstained river (itself an implicit baptismal and Eucharistic image), with Tuco racing ahead to find the grave before Blondie, who pauses in shelled-out church to put his coat on a dying soldier and give him a last smoke of his own cigar—hauntingly recalling his earlier sharing of the cigar with Tuco. The contrast is startling enough to shake us awake at this point: while Tuco feverishly races through the thousands of graves, Blondie quietly goes about what Blondie has done the whole story—being in this cruel world as much of an angelic, ministering presence as this world allows. At every one of Blondie’s Good-Samaritan turns, Tuco is oblivious to the Grace that Blondie represents. Earlier in the movie, even the demonic Angel-Eyes declares that Blondie is Tuco’s angel, which alludes to how even devils witnessed to the Christ, even while Jesus’ very disciples were unconscious of the fact.
The movie ends where it began—on a round stone-paved court in the center of the cemetery (recalling the stone paved circle of the home where Angel-Eyes murders a family at the beginning of the movie). Tuco impotently grasps at his empty pistol, while Blondie dispatches Angel-Eyes into an open grave. Then, after splitting the riches with Tuco, Blondie delivers one final severe mercy. Standing Tuco on the cross over the “Unknown” grave where the gold coins were buried, Blondie returns Tuco to where the bandit started the movie—with his neck in a noose.
But this time, Tuco’s life depends on the rickety cross on which he stands; it must provide him what little life he can hope for until Blondie returns on camera, from a distance, to shoot away the rope. Tuco lands on his share of the gold, a wiser and richer man—because of his Blondie-induced sufferings. The lesson is clear: as Tuco will never have the skill or charmed life of Blondie, so we do not, as part-and-parcel of our fallen condition, get to dictate the terms of our existence. Our suffering is lamentable, and we of course look for the time when weeping and death will be no more. But, as of now, our lives are balanced on a humble cross that keeps us alive until our final deliverance.
This wasteland of war and demonic marauders was never God’s intent. Yet God will not violate our freedom to perilously create and navigate this mine field of peril. Ultimately, through the grim setting and the ragtag nature of the protagonist, GBU reveals a comic vision of the universe. Even amidst the carnage and desolation wrought by the demons and by our demonic capacity for revolt, our very rebellion and our ineptitude pave the way for Grace—but not an oppressive, manipulative Grace. Rather, as Blondie works the bounty con with Tuco, walks the desert under Tuco’s gun, shares his cigar with Tuco, and unloads Tuco’s gun and deceives him about the grave, Blondie redirects Tuco’s free blunders into Tuco’s final reward.
The gold is Tuco’s; although the severity of this world ties his hands—and his own capacity for sin ties him into the occasional hang rope—he again has a new start and a patrimony, an inheritance, a future of hope—and maybe the wisdom that the Blondies of the world—even more so than the Angel-Eyes—are too much for him to dare to compete with. Better to stumble along and realize that, ugly as our lives can seem, we are too good, too precious, to be abandoned to the bad.
This parabolic lesson has more in common with Medieval morality plays and a Shakespearian sense of the role of buffoons and comic relief than it does with a post-modern or deconstructionist angst about the abolition of moral categories. Sergio Leone’s unlikely spaghetti-western shoot-em-up actually sends up the wasteland of modern attempts at storytelling and returns us to the foundations of our condition. Grace abounds in our most rickety-cross moments in the most parched of deserts.