The Good, the Bad, and the Greatest of All Time: An Appreciation of the Classic Film ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’

An examination of the directorial, musical, and acting genius that cemented “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” as an essential movie of the Western genre, and its impact on the future of cinematography.


Juan José Berhó / Pixabay

Here is Sadhill Cemetery, the location of the final scene. The graves are set against a backdrop of mountains, contrasting the seeming freedom of the end of the movie with the looming threat of death.

“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend — those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.” 

This famous quote, as well as others from this movie, have become historic lines. Every movie makes its own tune — and this is certainly one that you won’t forget soon. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) stars Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef. Its exceptional acting, innovations in moviemaking that set the precedent for future films of its genre, and music that captivates the audience, made it one of the most famed Westerns (movies depicting the old west) ever made Part of the Dollars Trilogy, along with A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and For a Few Dollars More (1965), the movie cemented director Sergio Leone and his composer Ennio Morricone as one of the greatest film production duos of all time. 

This movie, along with its siblings, has many iconic characters, lines, and scenes that have been mirrored throughout modern culture. The opening notes of the official soundtrack, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Main Theme,” have been used in The Simpsons multiple times during its entire series, and many bands have sampled this tune to some extent; even the renowned rapper Coolio used some parts of the melody in his song “Change.” The ‘Mexican Standoff,’ or the three way duel, became a standard in ensemble Westerns, along with the idea of the morally-split character. Well-known quotes such as “There are two kinds of people in this world, my friend” have been modified countless times since their inception — they are seen on clothing, in literature, and even duplicated throughout other multimedia. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a must-see, even for those who don’t usually watch classic movies. The movie catapulted many of its actors to eminence, including the star, Clint Eastwood, who is now regarded as one of the great Western actors. Eastwood set the precedent for the mysterious, nameless drifter, somewhat of a symbol of justice, that became the standard for many later Westerns. 

Eastwood plays “The Man with No Name” (The Good), a drifting bounty hunter who makes money by scamming towns out of bounty rewards. Despite never giving his name, he is christened “Blondie” by Eli Wallach, who plays Tuco (The Ugly). Blondie goes through an oscillating relationship with Tuco, an illiterate yet comedic bandit. Lee Van Cleef plays “Angel Eyes” (The Bad), a bounty hunter who always finishes the job. 

Tuco originally cooperates with Blondie to help scam towns. Blondie pretends to bring in Tuco as a bounty, collects the reward money, and then frees him, and they repeat the process in the next town. Blondie betrays Tuco after deciding his bounty reward won’t increase, and leaves him for dead in a desert, seventy miles from the nearest town. Tuco survives, and seeks his revenge against Blondie, eventually capturing and dragging him through the same desert, but with the intent of exacting revenge.

A caravan containing wounded soldiers passes through the desert as Blondie is on the verge of death. Tuco learns of the $200,000 (around $3.5M today) buried in Sad Hill Cemetery through a dying soldier named Bill Carson (Antonio Casale), but before he can learn of the grave where it is hidden, Carson passes out. Blondie manages to learn the name of the grave where the money is hidden right as Carson dies, and passes out, forcing Tuco to take Blondie to a nearby church to recuperate. 

On the verge of death, Blondie stumbles upon an unmanned carriage containing soldiers also on the brink of death. Pushing him aside, Tuco (left) learns of the gold from dying soldier Bill Carson (Antonio Casale, right), beginning the final partnership between Tuco and Blondie, and sparking the main issue of the movie. (Produzioni Europee Associate, Public domain / Wikimedia Commons )

After a few days, they leave together, but are arrested by a Union patrol. They are taken to an infamous Union camp, where Tuco is beaten up and leaks the cemetery name to the assassin Angel Eyes, who joins the chase. Angel Eyes orders Corporal Wallace (Mario Brega) to take Tuco away, and informs Blondie that he is his new partner in the chase for the money. Tuco, however, escapes, eventually reaching the same town as Blondie and Angel Eyes. Blondie hears Tuco’s gun (cryptically saying “every gun makes its own tune”) and secretly meets up with Tuco, who helps him dispatch Angel Eyes’ backup men. However, Angel Eyes has already left for Sad Hill Cemetery. 

Tuco and Blondie, together again, walk into another Union camp, where there is a skirmish going on between two sides of a river. They pretend to enlist under the alcoholic Union Captain Clinton (Aldo Giuffrè), who makes morbid statements about the role booze plays during a war. Blondie, shocked by the death he sees all around him (“I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly”), wants to end the battle by demolishing Branston Bridge. While they rig the bridge with explosives, Tuco makes a pact with Blondie to tell him the name of the cemetery, but Blondie lies about the name of the grave. They blow up the bridge, and cross Sad Hill, finding the cemetery; Tuco runs off to find what he thinks is the right grave, while Blondie waits for him to find the false grave. 

Tuco finds it, and Blondie orders him to dig. Suddenly, Angel Eyes also appears, demanding Blondie also dig, as “two can dig a lot quicker than one.” When the grave is revealed to only have a corpse, Blondie says he will write the real name of the grave on the underside of a rock, and that whoever wins a three way duel will earn the money. 

The iconic standoff ensues. Tuco finds out his gun has been unloaded since last night, courtesy of Blondie. 

“This is my favorite scene,” said Lucas Melendez ’23, “It is so intimate, ubiquitous, and invoked in so many ways… there are so many later parodies of it. It’s the first thing I think of when I hear the word ‘Westerns’.”

Historical Significance 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is not only historically accurate, but serves as one of the few movies, alongside with Gone with the Wind (1939), that does not take the side of the Union; it instead introduces a Southern perspective, which is vital for a time period, such as a war, in which only one side’s viewpoint is usually shown. The plot is fairly realistic, although there is an over exaggeration on certain details, as it is a Western. 

The bounty money, for instance, is much greater than it would really be in that time period. In the movie, Tuco’s head is worth about $3000 ($54,840 today), but in reality, a track-and-capture job would usually be under $100 ($1,828 today), and there weren’t many such jobs to begin with. 

Another flaw in the movie’s recreation of history is its use of dynamite. Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867, so for a story set in 1865, the destruction of the bridge wasn’t possible. The Confederate flag used is not the one that was actually used at the time; instead, the modern Confederate flag is shown. The use of a Belgian Galand & Somerville revolver, which didn’t exist until 1868, was another minuscule mistake. 

Despite these minor errors, the movie keeps in touch with history. Towards the end of the Civil War, many smaller battles continued to be fought, although the war had already been won. This was due partly to a sense of Southern pride, but more so because of Southern fear that the conclusion of the War would bring a radical change to Southern society.

Although both sides are generally represented as warlike and irrational, as any two sides of a war would be, in some shots, the Union is seen as inhumane. When Tuco and Blondie are captured the first time, they are interrogated regarding the whereabouts of the money; although the information is irrelevant to the war, Angel Eyes, parading as a sergeant, doesn’t hold back when torturing Tuco, and the other officers seem to enjoy, or at least have no qualms about, the ill treatment of the prisoners of war. 

A similar instance of cruelty occurs soon after that, when Blondie is under the custody of Angel Eyes and his men and they stop by an abandoned town, through which the Union army is passing. They witness a prisoner of war carrying his own coffin (not an uncommon sight in war) who is then executed by firing squad. Although both the Union and the Confederacy used this method of execution, the Union army was notorious for using it all the time as a fear tactic. 

Overall, this movie’s historical significance is a large part of what makes this movie exceptional. Its unique point of view examines the other side, the sympathy-inducing Southern “loser,” of the Civil War, a necessary concept to remember when discussing history, as well as examining the ties each character has between their personal history and the context of the war. 

Filmmaking Significance 

The other reason this movie is ranked among the top three Westerns, along with The Searchers (1956) and High Noon (1952), and is considered one of the best movies of all time, is because of the innovations in different aspects of moviemaking. 

The movie addresses many common stereotypes, an aspect that was important to the director, Sergio Leone. Tuco, the Mexican bandit, is portrayed as an odorous, backstabbing, greedy criminal, which was based on the history of Mexican bandits raiding American outposts and small towns. However, he is ultimately a complex character; when he met his brother, a priest, he felt regret and tried to justify his leaving his family. This provides a contrast from Hispanic characters in older movies, who are usually just greedy, evil, and ugly (hence the sarcastic naming of Tuco as “the ugly”), with no morals whatsoever. 

Angel Eyes is a bounty hunter, who doesn’t leave a job hanging. His character was based on previous antagonists; his all black apparel, cold-blooded ways, and devilish mustache were all inspired by previous films, but his character, too, stands out — he shows compassion towards Blondie when he decides not to torture him for information (although that may just have been because Blondie had sealed lips anyway). This was a break from the villain of older movies, who was abundantly cruel, and morally dark. 

Blondie, in particular, illustrates Leone completely breaking with the traditional conception of the lone protagonist. The idea of a lone protagonist did exist in previous movies, but usually included a righteous cowboy who came to everyone’s aid. In this movie, however, Blondie serves as a morally-gray protagonist. He is compassionate and trustworthy at times; he regrets not saving a man, he always splits money with Tuco equally, he is rather shocked by the extent of death in the war and attempts to end it, and he comforts a dying soldier by giving him his last cigar. At other times, however, he shows his survivalist side; he strands Tuco in the desert, and he unloads Tuco’s gun before the final fight, unfairly acting in his own interests. However, even in the midst of his selfishness, he shows grace; when he leaves Tuco in the desert, he knows Tuco will survive. 

Along with the supporting cast, these individuals remain basic enough to relate to viewers, while diverging from their stereotypes. Audiences can both critique the essence of each character (by questioning, for example, the authenticity of Tuco’s apparent ‘Mexicanness’), and understand the personal plight of each character (poverty forced him to become a bandit) — both aspects are crucial in interpreting the motives behind each persona. 

In addition to the actors who gained recognition for their perfectly played roles in the movie, Sergio Leone became prominent for his unique directorial style. Famous for his juxtaposition of close-up shots and expanses of landscape, he set a precedent for future Westerns. These types of shots exaggerated the characters and brought to attention the setting against the plot. For instance, Tuco’s (and later on Blondie’s) dilemma of being stranded in the desert is magnified by the slow, lengthy dramatization of all the sand around him, which is then immediately contrasted with his sweaty, despairing face — perhaps standard cinematography now, but revolutionary of the time. 

The movie certainly wouldn’t have been as powerful as it was without the majestic score by Leone’s childhood friend, and later inseparable composer, Ennio Morricone. Largely the reason for the movie’s length and slow pace, Leone dared not cut Morricone’s music down, and instead fit the scene to accompany the music, as during the final showdown, in which the audience genuinely has no clue who will draw first. This produced a hypnotic effect in many scenes where viewers are dying to know what will happen next, due to the perfect combination of Leone’s filmography and Morricone’s musicography. He even substituted different instruments in the main theme to match each character’s special mood; a flute for Blondie, an ocarina for Angel Eyes, and a chorus of voices for Tuco, as well introducing other motifs throughout the film. 

“Ennio Morricone’s musical composition in ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ is what I always associate with old western movies because of how iconic it is. I think his music helped to popularize the ideas/motifs of Western films in a way that would be absorbed into the cultural zeitgeist of the 60s/70s,” said Gabriel Marinescu ’23.

Morricone previously acquired fame for his compositions through radio stations, TV shows, and other movies. However, his composition for the Dollars Trilogy, widely considered his magnum opus, secured him a Grammy and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and permanently established him as an icon in pop culture. 

The music is specifically appreciated by Mishal Malik ’25, who said, “the music composition is stunning and fits in so well with the plot which speaks of injustices during the Civil war. The scene at the camp where Tuco is being abused pulls at the heartstrings, and the melody in the back fits in so well.”

I myself have watched the movie at least a half dozen times, and have listened to the music many more times and yet they never cease to amaze me.

All things considered, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly stands as one of the greatest movies of all time. Its magical union of the distinctive characters, the music, and the cinematography all add up to create an unforgettable picture about the different aspects of the Civil War and its players, while living up to its name as a prominent Western. 

Every movie makes its own tune — and this is certainly one that you won’t forget soon.