By Tony Williams.
This is the moment when the Italianization of the Western was complete.
–Alberto Moravia, quoted by Christopher Frayling
As most film departments merge into Media conglomerates and student knowledge of past films diminishes due to increasing time constraints, it is all the more important that the world outside continues promoting past traditions treated with disdainful condescension on the part of many establishment academics. In addition to web sites and informed internet commentators, DVD has a key role to play in continuing circulation of acknowledged cinematic achievements. This new three-disc DVD version of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) is one such example. Following some twelve hours marathon attention to audio-commentaries and extras that surprisingly never fatigued me, I must assure readers that I’m not DVD “punch drunk” but have come to appreciate one of my favorite films more and more, viewing it constantly over a five-day period. Like Criterion in its better efforts, Kino Lorber has superbly provided an important reference source for those inside and outside the world of higher education now under attack by anti-intellectual corporate forces demanding courses that adapt to the needs of the outside economy, such as hideous Schools of Homeland Security.
Kino Lorber’s new edition provides abundant material for constantly returning to a classic film subjected to establishment critical attacks on its first release against a film that needed to be taken more seriously then. Its status resembled Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1975), a film that should have gained its actor-director earlier Academy recognition rather than Unforgiven (1992). Good as that later film was it could not match the prologue of the earlier film that conveys the ruthlessness of Civil War guerilla campaigns better than any film before or since. This new edition contains three audio commentaries. Tim Lucas contributes his usual informative, detailed exploration of the 162-minute American release version that contained more scenes than its British counterpart in 1968. Christopher Frayling and Richard Schickel deliver their own perspectives to the 179-minute extended and restored version of 2003 designed to match the original Rome premiere. Presumably, Sir Christopher received his knighthood before doing his audio-commentary so it is to his credit that he does not use his title, preferring to be just “one of us” in the critical fraternity. As the Hollywood Cockney would put it: “Ta, Guv. You’re a real toff.”
All three audio commentaries have their respective merits but those of Lucas and Frayling are definitely more informative than Schickel’s that operates on a more basic level of interpretation. This is to be expected since Lucas is an international expert on Italian and world cinema in general and Frayling is justly celebrated for his well-known book on the Italian Western as well as his Leone biography. All three commentators cover common ground, some more meticulously than others. From the very second of the opening credit Tim Lucas delivers his always carefully researched, detailed observations involving actors, historical background, cinematic references, and astute audio-visual associations. In many ways I am reminded of the late British historian A.J.P. Taylor’s (1906-1990) 1960s ITV lectures to the camera without notes or visual material dealing with The Great War. All three commentators note the significant jackal cries that accompany the sudden introduction of Al Mulock into close-up, Lucas seeing it as an appropriate sound metaphor for the following story dealing with “human jackals”. Like Frayling he also notes the significance of Buster Keaton films influencing Leone especially The General (1926), and the possible influence of Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) on Tuco’s torture by Wallace (Mario Brega). He also mentions that Gian-Maria Volonte was originally offered the role of Tuco but would have supplied none of the humor conveyed by Eli Wallach. Lucas also supplies key information about the roles of Allesandroni and Bruno Nicolai in their Morricone collaborations and reads extracts from a copy of Mickey Knox’s dubbing continuity supplied by friend Jim Wynorski. Both he and Frayling mention the influence on Leone of a little known Mario Monicelli World War I film La Grande Guerra (1959), starring Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman about two con-men surrounded by an environment of total carnage. The actor who plays the ill-fated Baker, Livia Lorenzon, also played the Sergeant in Monicelli’s film. All three commentators recognize the influence of both World Wars on Leone’s recreation of the Civil War, especially the concentration camp orchestra playing “The Story of a Soldier” to drown out the sounds of Tuco’s torture. Lucas also notes that the surname on the known grave is that of Lincoln’s Secretary of War.
The contemporary Viet Nam War is not too distant. Frayling reports seeing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at a San Francisco cinema in 1968 noting audience reaction at Eastwood’s comment during the senseless Battle of the Bridge: “Never seen so many men wasted so badly.” Frayling also mentions the influence of Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932) – an author Leone referred to in several interviews – on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Despite Celine’s later ugly behavior during World War Two, this novel is set in World War One involving absurdity, brutality, and chance encounters all of which would be key features in Leone’s masterpiece. Frayling states that it was scenarist Luciano Vincenzoni’s favorite book and the underlying message of the absurdity of war is common to both Celine and Leone. Schickel correctly recognizes that the Battle of the Bridge sequence with its trenches more appropriately evokes World War One with its senseless carnage. This diverse historical epic canvas of violence makes the quest of the trio for buried gold minimal in comparison very similar to the defense given by Chaplin’s serial killer at the end of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), cited by both Frayling and Schickel.
All these justified cultural and historical references reveal in hindsight how blinkered and prejudiced were dismissals by the Anglo-American critical establishment at the time and validate those of us who appreciated not just this film but Leone’s other work specifically and key works of the Italian western in general. On this note I must acclaim Tim Lucas’s dislike of the term “Spaghetti Western” since he correctly recognizes that it trivializes the genre. (On a relevant aside, I must add that two authors in 1975 vehemently fought against such a demeaning label for their book at the time)
However, this film with its cross fertilization of many relevant influences operates less as a western but more as a damning commentary on destructive Western “civilized” human behavior for which no denial or excuse can ever condone. As a young adolescent Leone witnessed the real-life behavior of American liberators that contrasted with their Hollywood idealized images. Like his contemporary Kinji Fukasaku (1930-2003) in films such as Greed in Broad Daylight (1961), Battles without Honor or Humanity I (1973) he had no illusions concerning these “liberators” (as opposed to their ideologically manufactured images in the 1944 A Canterbury Tale or the hideous 1944 Welcome Mr. Washington once lost but now unfortunately rediscovered in 2016) or Carl Foreman’s The Victors (1963) who soon become global bullies as Fukasaku’s posthumous legacy Battle Royale 2 (2003) aptly documents in that telling scene when Riki Takeuchi’s character turns on the American President accusing his nation of being the real infantile one because of its constant use of violence to settle problems.
Confusion exists as whether Tuco’s appropriation of the gunsmith’s cash derives from which James Cagney film. Frayling believes it is Public Enemy (1931) but Schickel thinks it is Blonde Crazy (1931). Frayling and Schickel (like Mickey Knox in the 2004 featurette “Leone’s West”) stress Leone’s interest in Art especially Giorgio de Chirico, Goya, Magritte, and Velasquez. Unfortunately, Tim Lucas makes one glaring error in his audio-commentary when he describes Baker’s uniform as “Union Army” (15:24) when it is clearly Confederate but this only reassures us that he is as human as the rest of us. However, this is minor in a DVD compilation of critical richness. Despite the extra scenes restored in 2003 when only Eastwood and Wallach were around to dub, Frayling believes that they often slow down the action. This may be true of the grotto scene when Tuco recruits his former gang members and who cares that Hawks’s Red River (1948) never has a scene where John Wayne’s Tom Dunson recruits men to take his revenge on Matthew Garth. But the devastated ranch where Angel Eyes first witnesses Civil War carnage deserves restoration. While Frayling mentions the influence of Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1955) on the musical cut-off of Tuco’s obscenity at the end of the film, similar to the trumpet cutting off Lancaster’s profanity in the earlier film, he misses Leone’s homage to that remarkable earlier scene where the camera circles round Lancaster’s hat as he sees himself encircled by the Juaristas. In Leone’s version the camera circles round the back of Angel Eyes’s hat choosing a different angle for a more subtle homage than Tarantino would have chosen since the lesser talent would have copied it 100%! We should also remember that Leone borrowed Frank’s black outfit and Harmonica’s costume in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) from those worn by Lancaster and Charles Bronson in Vera Cruz but giving both characters different creative inflections from their original incarnations. I would defend inclusion of this scene in the restored version since it shows another dimension to Angel Eyes who at the end of his introductory scene dispatches Baker in the same way another character does in Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning (1956) according to Frayling. Even this brutal killer registers despair at the waste and mutilation of human beings in the Civil War and it ideally complements the later vision confronting Tuco and Blondie when they arrive at the monastery caring for mutilated and wounded Confederate soldiers.
Frayling also mentions the influence of Ambrose Bierce’s “One of the Missing” on the scene where Tuco mistakes a dust covered Union officer for a Confederate! Like Eli Wallach in a later featurette, Frayling mentions that the pressure Wallace exerts near Tuco’s eyes was an Army medical tactic to sober up somebody quickly but I see no reason why it should not also have an eye-gouging reference.
As a recognized historian Frayling also knows about the General Sibley Texas-New Mexico Civil War campaign that many dismissed as a fantasy at the time of the film’s release. An extra 14: 20 supplement “The Man Who Lost the Civil War” deals with the Sibley-Canby confrontation on Disk 3 but Frayling also recognizes the role of creative license when he admits that there was no Battle of the Bridge in reality but it does not matter since the sequence operates as a metaphor for General Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg and the bloody Battle of Antietam, both of which took place in the East as was the case of most of the Civil War battles.
Frayling concludes his commentary by nothing that Sad Hill Cemetery was overgrown at the time. However, this has since been happily rectified.
Disk 3 contains supplementary featurettes many of which appeared in an earlier 2004 DVD release since Clint looks relatively unwrinkled. Clint, Wallach, Alberto Grimaldi, Schickel and Mickey Knox all deliver informed contributions, Schickel mentioning that of Eastwood’s Dollar outfit Leone contributed the serape alone while Knox mentions overcoming the Union prison guard’s comment to the Confederate orchestra by finding “More Feeling” as an appropriate lip-synchronized substitute for the original Italian “Piu Forte”. Wallach also humorously remarks that one of his snarls at someone witnessing Tuco’s forthcoming hanging was motivated by the actor thinking that he could be comfortably playing Chekhov on stage rather than being in such an undignified position on horseback!
Edited by DVD expert critic Glen Erickson, credits also acknowledge other well-known experts such as Tom Betts and Jim Wynorski. Two features are devoted to Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack contributions by film music historian Jon Burlingame who notes the composer’s expertise in avant-garde, popular music, and innovative music techniques having nothing to do with the traditional symphonic western movie score utilizing the natural sounds of a coyote in the opening scene to form a distinctive leitmotif acoustically varied according to each main character. Like Frayling and Schickel who note the operatic dimensions of Leone’s cinema, Schickel comparing the tight-close ups to specific Arias in Opera, Burlingame comments that the tone-deaf Leone thought in operatic terms but Morricone’s classical musical background developed his cinema into an operatic vein. All three audio-commentators see this film as a transitional work moving Leone towards a much grander conception of cinema far greater than his first two Dollar films but it is Burlingame who notes that Morricone did at the time what no American composer would have done with his creative and original merging of popular and avant-garde soundtrack motifs that were not recognized at the time and still sadly remain unacknowledged today especially with his later Leone collaborations Once Upon a time in the West and Once Upon A Time in America (1984). This blind spot, equivalent to the disdainful and snobbish attitudes displayed against Leone by the Anglo-American critical establishment, remains a black mark against the Musical Academy. (But then what else what you expect from any establishment mired in bias and ignorance?)
The next feature examines “The Leone Style” with contributions by all main players, Clint recognizing that he felt that Leone “wanted to become David Lean” moving towards broader canvases in which his Man with No Name would eventually become one version of Joseph Losey’s Figures in a Landscape (1970). Mickey Knox also praises Leone’s knowledge of American history and relevant costumes while Schickel laments how long it took people to take Leone’s films seriously as a form of artistic expression. Other items are a short documentary (10:53) on the Triage Laboratory’s 2002 reconstruction of a version approximating as near as possible the Rome premiere version, various vignettes, the full version of Tuco’s torture that proved impossible to re-incorporate due to partial film stock deterioration, the Socorro sequence only partially filmed, some of which existed in the French theatrical trailer (also included), an alternate clip showing an optical edit to the beginning of one of Tuco’s hangings, a very good photo gallery of on-set scenes, and deleted scenes such as the “skeleton in the desert” that had definite surrealistic associations.
All these fragmentary remnants of scenes are equivalent to those alternative textual variants and survivals found in other disciplines such as Renaissance manuscripts, classical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek different texts whether in partial or complete forms that reveal the possibility of film viewing being on the same critical levels of any other acknowledged disciplines. Like the better type of DVD Restoration, this version of a now well acclaimed film shows how appreciation and investigation can operate on so many different levels critical as well as pleasurable but here a creative mixture of both. It is an ideal complement to that detailed 2016 study by Peter J. Hanley.
Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He co-wrote, with Laurence Staig, the first monograph in English of this important genre, Italian Western: Opera of Violence in 1975, and has recently co-edited, with Esther C.M. Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).