Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
New to Amazon Prime Video this month is a film that is not at all new, having passed its 50th anniversary of release last year. 50 years! Can you believe it?
On a personal level… did I really need to watch this film a twelfth time? Apparently that answer was “yes.” And the fact that the answer was “yes” probably says a lot more about me than it does about the film, or about whether or not you should see it.
I’d be willing to bet, however, that if you are between the ages of sixty and sixteen you are at least culturally aware of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly even if you’ve never seen the whole film. It boasts a 97% fresh critic’s rating at Rotten Tomatoes, plus a 97% favorable audience rating. Quentin Tarantino, whose Sergio Leone homage The Hateful Eight is playing in theaters right now, has called GBU the best film ever made. The score by Ennio Morricone, who just won an Oscar for The Hateful Eight, is legendary. And director Leone’s legacy is that of a ground-breakingly visionary genius… even though his oeuvre technically comprises only six theatrical releases, none of which were certifiable hits and one of which (Duck You Sucker, aka A Fistful of Dynamite) was a decided bust.
That demonstrates the power of Leone’s films at his peak, however. Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the West, and GBU are all certifiable masterpieces (though not to everyone’s taste, as tends to be the nature of masterpieces) though the latter (and the first of those three to be released) is the most flawed.
And yet, like certain gems, it is the flaws of GBU that lend it a certain brilliance.
For those who don’t know, GBU‘s Civil War-era plot revolves around three villains: a faux Union sergeant who moonlights as a hired gun (Lee Van Cleef as “Angel Eyes”), a scoundrelous outlaw (Eli Wallach as “Tuco”), and an opportunistic rogue (Clint Eastwood as “Blondie”). The three all stumble separately upon clues to a buried hoard of Confederate gold. Along the way to the final showdown over the treasure there are countless twists, turns, betrayals, and reversals. And a whole lot of carnage.
That plot summary alone should tell you why Tarantino loves it.
What’s it about, thematically? As I’ve written previously, “Good is not absolute in this universe; instead it’s the relative judge between the Bad and the Ugly, delivering very sweet just desserts. There are not just two kinds of men, Leone’s script tells us. Things are not that neat. … The film is about betrayal, and Leone takes the time to spell out very clearly that the frontier is no place for maidens or the naïve. No; in fact, the naïve had best not even entertain the notion of goodness on the frontier: it’s all dirty, it’s all corrupt, it’s all brutal. It’s all desperate, and almost pointless.”
Again, more ideal fodder for the mind of Tarantino.
One of the stunning things about Leone’s films is how long he takes setting his plots in motion. Unlike the Steven Spielberg School of Modern Filmmaking, in which All You Need To Know About Plot and Characters is revealed in the first ten minutes, Leone’s pacing takes however much time seems “right” to establish mood, character aura, and… well, whatever goes on in Leone’s brain. It’s an exhilarating way of making and watching films.
In this case, the two major threads of GBU–Tuco vs. Blondie / Angel Eyes vs. Gold–don’t come together for over an hour of running time. But what running time! The problems of looping English-language dialogue onto the lips of Italian- and German-speaking actors aside (and that is no minor obstacle to enjoying this film!), Leone’s scripting, shot selection, composition, and cinematography are breathtaking.
Just before Tuco and Blondie learn of the Confederate gold, there’s a shot that never fails to absolutely stun me. Tuco has gotten the drop on Blondie and has led him fifty or so miles out into the desert to die. Just as Blondie is about to expire, he stumbles at the top of a sand dune. As Tuco leads his prancing (Spanish!) stallion into the anamorphic frame, Blondie rolls down the slope toward the stationary camera. As Tuco comes down the slope toward Blondie, he tosses an empty sangria bottle onto the sand… and it follows Blondie’s tumble down the slope, spinning its own sandy track parallel to Blondie’s. Amazingly–and I do mean amazingly, for how could you possibly plan such a shot?–Eastwood ends up perfectly framed in supine pose with a sunflared Wallach above him as the bottle rolls right up to Eastwood’s head! And because this is virgin sand–there were no digital tricks in ’66–you know they had to get this shot in one take… or do it over and over and over and over until they got it right, moving the setup to a new location each time. Absolutely unreal.
And yet, if you really pay attention to Leone’s craft, you can see that GBU is just filled with this kind of serendipitous artistry. It’s as if Leone is the cinematic epitome of the mantra “You make your own luck.” A huge part of what Leone does is by design–but another huge part is just a filmmaker having the cojones to try stuff that might or might not work, and being prepared enough to take advantage of the things that do.
I’ll be honest, though. The first eleven or so times I saw GBU (ten of them either properly projected in theaters or on anamorphic big-screen video transfers) it was obvious to me that the weakness of the film was the narrative itself. The script, as released in the United States, simply had too many plotholes to be cohesive. In particular, the Civil War backstory to the plot–the raison d’etre of the bullion–simply seemed like a lame, unmotivated add-on. Only one explosive sequence of that narrative thread even seemed integral to the story and theme.
Thank God for film archivists, though! This time through, I finally got around to watching the fully-restored 3-hour version of the film that Leone intended to release in the U.S. MGM didn’t do the best of jobs with the restoration (I don’t agree, for instance, with the choice to have Wallach and Eastwood loop their own scenes), but gosh! Kudos to the studio for restoring the narrative sense of the film. It’s amazing how much those restored 14 minutes add.
And, thankfully, the fully restored version is what’s available to stream online. If only every 50-year-old film looked this good!