It is a common practice for filmmakers to pay homage to the films and filmmakers that inspired them. From Star Wars to Boogie Nights, from Dressed to Kill to Sukiyaki Western Django, and from Night of the Living Dead to Pulp Fiction, cinema history can be read as a long list of directors who are showing respect to those who came before them by totally ripping off their style. In other words, every movie builds on the one that came before, using the techniques and tricks invented by folks who were trying to improve the techniques and tricks invented by their forebears. One of the all-time best directors in the history of the medium was as guilty of this as anyone else, and he created some of the most iconic and lasting films ever made. Director Sergio Leone was content to play around in other people’s sandboxes, using their toys to come up with larger than life films that have managed to stand the test of time, and have even gone on to inspire countless filmmakers to this day. He only made a handful of a films, but nearly every one of them is considered to be a high watermark in the history of film. However, his masterpiece is undoubtedly The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), which serves as the focus of this month’s column.
For those who don’t know, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly follows the ruggedly handsome Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and his scheming sidekick/rival Tuco (Eli Wallach) as they perpetrate a bounty hunting scam all across the Old West (which resembles the hardscrabble hillsides of Spain). When their partnership goes sour, Tuco assembles a posse and hunts down the dashing gunslinger, only to stumble across a dying man who alerts them both to the existence of a cache of Confederate gold that is rumored to be buried in a cemetery on Sad Hill. The man expires, but not before he tells Tuco where the cemetery is located, while Blondie gets the name on the grave in which the loot is buried. Now the race is on as the two men try to get to the cemetery while staying one step ahead of each other. To make matters worse, they are being pursued by a cold-blooded killer known only as Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the money.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of the greatest movies ever made (if not THE greatest), and is chock full of great moments, any one of which would be worthy of inclusion in this column. From the iconic wordless opening sequence to the epic clash on the bridge to the tense yet rousing three-way shootout that serves as the film’s climax, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece features one great moment after another, and they all deserve to be dissected and discussed. Of course, the purpose of this column is to focus on a single moment or sequence from any given film, so I’ve decided to take a closer look at my favorite scene from what is probably my all time favorite film, and that is the moment in which Tuco finally reaches the cemetery and frantically searches for the grave that contains the gold.
Having just blown up a strategically important bridge that was being fought over by Union and Confederate soldiers, Blondie and Tuco find themselves in a rare moment of calm at the foot of Sad Hill. Blondie takes a moment to comfort a dying soldier, and Tuco takes the opportunity to abandon the tough but compassionate gunslinger and sets out to retrieve the gold on his own. Blondie is not about to let the backstabber get away with it, however, and he uses his trademark black stogie to fire a cannon at Tuco, who is thrown from his horse. Stunned but alive, Tuco slowly gets to his feet, only to discover that he is right outside the very cemetery he has been searching for throughout the entire film. Tuco takes a moment to survey the scene, and the camera pans up to reveal what looks like thousands of grave markers stretching far out into the distance. Cue the haunting opening strains of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” as Tuco makes a mad dash through the cemetery, running from one grave to the next as he searches for the one holds the treasure he so desperately covets. The camera whips around frantically, panning this way and that, as the music builds to a fever pitch until, at last, Tuco finds the grave he tricked Blondie into telling him about, the one marked ARCH STANTON: 3 FEBRUARY 1862. The music drops out, and Tuco’s face fills the frame, his expression a mixture of exultant joy and wary disbelief. He cannot believe he found the grave. His search is over, or so he thinks.
The scene is great for a number of reasons, but mostly for the way all the elements come together to make something as simple as a man running through a graveyard and searching for something into an epic struggle to attain one’s dreams. In lesser hands, this sequence would not be anywhere near as thrilling as it is when helmed by a true master like Leone. Sure, other directors could probably make it feel tense and involving (albeit in a completely different way), but it is doubtful they could make it feel anywhere near as grandiose or all-consuming the way Leone does. The urgency of the camera movements, the frantic editing, and the overwhelming score all come together to convey a sense of scope that is not at all inherent to the scene. Instead, it is a feeling that is completely manufactured by Leone and his collaborators, using all the cinematic tricks available to them. It is a masterful construction, built entirely on a foundation of cinema, and in many ways it serves as a gushing love letter to the medium as a whole.
The thing is, Leone was a film nerd before film nerds really existed. Like many of his contemporaries, he was obsessed with movies, and his entire oeuvre was informed by his love of cinema, especially Hollywood westerns. These days, it’s pretty common to see movies being made by folks who love movies (think Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or even Kevin Smith), but back then, it was sort of a new thing. Leone wasn’t the first director to work in this sort of pastiche style, but he is definitely one of the most well known. He cranked out a handful of great films that pay homage to all the movies that came before them, and would go on to similarly inspire countless films that came after. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a western that is informed by the essence of all the Westerns that came before it, rather than the actual Old West. As such, it becomes iconic in a way that many films strive for, but few actually reach. The scene of Tuco running through the cemetery is a prime example of the larger than life feeling that permeates the entire film, and as such it is more than deserving of a spot among the all time great moments in the history of cinema.