The Unabashed Complexity of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“There are two types of people: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” – the Man with No Name


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might seem like a straightforward Spaghetti Western; Within the first half hour of the three hour-long epic, the representative characters of the titular good, bad, and ugly are introduced. While director Sergio Leone presents three types of people in the West, the ugly Tuco consistently reminds the audience that “there are two types of people in this world…” giving a new opposing binary every time. Black and white oppositions of morality are constantly being made throughout the film. This clear moral dichotomy harkens back to the uniform moral lines of earlier Westerns that showed the egregiously bad antagonist overcome by the incorruptible and scrupulous protagonist. However, the ethical certainty of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and the rest of the Dollars trilogy) is not as incontrovertible as the Westerns that preceded it. This film is not straightforward or simple, rather it is a highly complex and reflective film that changed the landscape of the western genre inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly comes as the finale of the Dollars trilogy, while all three films feature “the Man with No Name” as the protagonist. Played by a scruffy Clint Eastwood, this gun slinging character is always depicted in his signature green poncho and brown hat, with a cigar stuffed away in a mouth that rarely lets words escape from it. This character is never given a real name, rather a nickname in each film. Throughout the course of the trilogy, Eastwood’s character is given the names Joe, Monco, and then Blondie in the final film. Nothing about this man is black and white. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Blondie sometimes works with and sometimes against the other men in his search, Angel Eyes and Tuco. While Leone’s introductory title card awards Blondie the angelic name of “the good,” that is not necessarily the truth. Blondie does perform some morally beautiful tasks. He fulfills a Union Army captain’s dying wish by blowing up a bridge. He saves Tuco multiple times from being hanged. However, the so-called good character only performs these feats because it benefits him. Blondie blows up the bridge so he could more easily get to the treasure on the other side. He saves Tuco only to trick another town in his scheme with the bandit.

Unlike the stark binary opposition of good versus evil in John Wayne Westerns, the lines between good and evil were erased and the Man with No Name was born. He was a character that was somewhere in between good and bad, varying depending on what scene he was in. Leone proved that Western protagonists did not have to be inherently good. But, perhaps the most morally ambiguous character in the film is Tuco. Even Leone’s titling of the character is vague. Tuco is named “the ugly,” but what exactly does that mean? While Tuco constantly tells others that there are two types of people in this world, he ironically is something else. He doesn’t fit on the binary between good and bad. With an outrageous list of crimes performed, this bandit does execute a variety of evil tasks such as torturing Blondie in the desert and killing a bounty of people. Almost every scene points to the notion that Tuco is just like Angel Eyes: a bad, bad man. However, when the audience meets Tuco’s brother, a priest, their perception of the character might change. Father Pablo tells Tuco both of their parents are dead and the audience hears the struggles Tuco faced as a child. One cannot help but to feel sympathetic for the same man that just forced Blondie to drink from his dirty feet water. Tuco had an ugly childhood and he does ugly things, but that doesn’t automatically make him a bad man.

Leone reflectively detailed that good and evil didn’t exist, life is more complex than that. There are reasons why men did the things they did in the West. The director’s use of the long shot allowed for audience’s eyes to search the screen as they searched for a marker of morality in each character. This shot permeates the film and is typically paired with extreme close ups of a character’s eyes or their hands on their gun. With this pairing, a viewer could look at the expansive West as they tried to figure out who exactly was good and who was bad, ultimately finding that the men they saw in close up were not just one or the other. Blondie and Tuco were both a moral amalgamation of good, bad, and ugly. This lack of simplicity was just what the Western genre needed. Leone’s ethically ambivalent protagonist stopped the genre from dying out. Just three years after the release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, John Wayne starred in True Grit, departing from the wholesome cowboys he had played in the past. The Dollars trilogy allowed for the complexity of the western genre to sprout and proved that there are not just two (or three) types of anything in this world.

Tara Zdancewicz is pursuing her MFA in Film and Television Studies at BU. She enjoys gushing about film to the undergraduates that she teaches.
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