“Every gun makes its own tune.”
Widely considered to be Sergio Leones’s opus alongside Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is the conclusion to the Dollars Trilogy, one of cinema’s greatest mythical weaves. While Fistful and For A Few are among the best the genre has to offer, here Leone delivers a purely operatic shakedown of what the world perceives Westerns should and could be. Quotes, musical cues, and certain shots are ingrained into the social osmosis as much as any scene from the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars, for very good reason. Everything about GBU bleeds cinematic grandiosity that you’d really have to dig to find anywhere else. Leone was a filmmaker of seemingly endless talent, yet my favorite thing about him was the fact he was pursuing constantly active filmmaking at all times while never losing sight of what he really wanted to say. And Leone had a hell of a lot to say with GBU.
A bitingly deconstructionist play on the genre against the backdrop of the increasingly intensifying Civil War, GBU is first and foremost a film that belongs to its actors. Would this film be as iconic today if it weren’t for the endlessly fascinating enigma that is Blondie/The Man With No Name? Would it be as impactful if it weren’t for Eli Wallach’s dastardly yet multi-layered performance as Tuco? Would this film still have its beautiful touch of danger if Lee Van Cleef was missing? It’s an anti-trio that’s almost as much of a work of art as the film itself. I’ll go even further to argue the relationship between Blondie and Tuco is the beating heart of the film. Theirs is a mesmerizing homoerotic dance of greed and violence that remains one of the best arcs of any Leone film. It’s as dramatic to watch as it is often outright funny, with a twinge of tragedy; these two men are so far gone, their souls having been sold to satisfy their most basic impulses and inner desires. But this is a trio, and a trio isn’t complete without the third ranger, Angel Eyes.
I could write a novel about Lee Van Cleef. One of spaghetti westerns all time silver screen angels (or demons), Lee Van Cleef comes as close as he’s ever come to emulating the grim reaper in GBU. Has an actor’s arrival ever announced danger so clearly and presently? While he may have been “typecast” in these roles, Van Cleef always brought a level of spontaneity to each performance that can hardly be replicated, and anyone would be stupid to try. He had the ability to make the worst type of movie seem like something you’d see on PBS Masterpiece Theater simply by showing up and sitting down. It’s hard to hate a villain so much when you have the charisma of Van Cleef, let alone if that actor/character was Van Cleef.
This would not be a review of any Leone film if I excluded Ennio Morricone. His work is indelibly critical to the final product, as much of what the culture knows about this film would be lost in time if it weren’t for the soundtrack. You hear Ecstasy of Gold in television ads, in sports, in video games, and in your sleep if you’re lucky. The main theme of twangs and rattlesnake-like vocals is enough to instill joy in even the most hardened soul. The grandeur of the entire Western genre owes some limbs to this man. It’s only natural to cry at Ecstasy of Gold. It’s okay. Let it in.
For FilmEra’s Horsepower Month, it only felt right to foolishly attempt a review of something as monolithic as this film. Every rewatch is a new foray into the grime and dust of an era long gone, undone by its own treachery, but its seductive grasp will always find its way back to our throats. I wouldn’t have it any other way.