The Good The Bad And The Ugly - The Moral Trichotomy

Thoughts On: The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Closing the Dollar Trilogy we have the penultimate western in our western series. As I've been doing the past few post, I'm going to be throwing a link or two at you for my new ebook/screenplay. It too is a western, inspired by the likes of Leone's Dollar trilogy. To check out a sample...

To read the full story...

The last of the links I'll throw at you will be the westerns already covered. There's UnforgivenHigh NoonA Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. Check those out if you haven't already, otherwise, let's go...

The legend. Arguably the best western of all time. Quite obviously the most popular, the most iconic. During Civil War time, three figures risk life and limb in search of a grave holding hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Leading on nicely from the talk on For A Few Dollars More we can jump right into the themes of greed. Money as motive in a narrative is often approached in two or three ways. There's the It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Wolf Of Wall Street approach where money is shown to truly posses characters - and to destructive or absurd lengths. Then there's the Pursuit Of Happyness or Bicycle Thieves approach where money is in dire need by the good guys with poverty being the looming threat. On top of that there's the third (and quite similar) narrative you can see in Spiderman 3 or Oceans 11. In these films money is in dire need too, but by what we can assume to be bad guys. So, to summarise, there's the money as incentive approach and then there's the money as conflict approach. It's either a need or want. We see the first approach applied in comedies and crime pictures. These are films in which morals and belief are suspended slightly. The second approach comes largely in drama, or in the more dramatic segments of a film. They rely on moral investment - which is often fueled by verisimilitude. The best two examples are probably The Wolf Of Wall Street and Bicycle Thieves here. With these as representatives of the two categories I ask: where does The Good The Bad The Ugly Sit? (P.S we'll call it The Good from now on). At first thought The Good sits well with The Wolf Of Wall Street, but, whilst you may not care as much for Blondie or Tuco finding their money as you would do the Riccis finding their bike, it has at least a foot in the other category - we care for these characters. The same could be said for It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and could be put down to good character work, but, in It's A Mad World as in Wolf Of Wall Street, Home Alone, Goodfellas, Citizen Kane there's an element of excess. This manifests itself in the form of comedy or literal excess in the way of hundreds of nude women, drugs, money, possessions. In all such films there is a downfall. In Citizen Kane we have a man dying with words of his childhood making clear the waste the majority of his life has been. In Home Alone cops come take the beaten, bruised, burnt, bricked (Home Alone 2) criminals away. In Scorsese's gangster pictures someone always oversteps the mark, people end up dead and others in ruins. There is always moral confirmation (the bad guys losing) and/or moral levity (the money hungry idiots being beaten down and left with nothing). The Good is one of a few good films that gets away with not doing either. There are enough serious moments in this film for it not to be considered a comedy, and the bad guys kind of get away with the money in the end. I can hear you stirring already about 'bad guys', so what this takes us to is the characters themselves.

Be honest and ask yourself if Blondie really is The Good. He exploits the law for thousands of dollars at a time, impersonates officers and probably doesn't pay taxes. He's not too great of a person. But, what makes him good is relative. He is the Good because Tuco is the Ugly, but also because he won't cross the line and kill him for his own gain. It's that moral boundary that can allow him to abandon Tuco 70 miles from town in the desert, but not shoot him as he hangs or just leave him. His boundaries even allow him walk through the desert as Tuco's hostage. Blondie has transparent principals. This is what makes him Good. What comes into question here is why Angel Eyes in then The Bad. He too has principals. He always finishes a job he's been paid to do. Is it just that he kills? Possibly. But, to complicate the films ideas of Good, Bad and Ugly further, let's reintroduce For A Few Dollars More. In this film we also have a Good, Bad and Ugly element. It is much more clear cut in this film however. The Man With No Name is the ugly because he does what's right (takes in criminals where the law can't), but only for money. Mortimer is the Good because he was forced into becoming a bounty hunter both by the changing society and his sister's assisted suicide/murder and rape. El Indio is the Bad for obvious reasons. Compare this with The Good. Blondie has not been wronged. Tuco has his past, and so why he is who he is, explained. Lee Van Cleef is playing the same character, the only difference being a lack of back story. There is almost no tangible justifications for their titles - Good, Bad and Ugly. You could say this is down to bad writing, but, would Leone really be so audacious as to name his film and then book-end it with 'The Good, The Bad, The Ugly' when it made no sense? I think not. As I've said before Leone's westerns (especially his famous four) are very similar in how they blend this idea of good and bad. With this in mind we can begin to take them a little more seriously, accepting that he has intentions toward a message of sorts. Furthermore, Once Upon A Time In America, the full directors cut, is one of the most overlooked gangster pictures of all time. This has a lot to do with how it was hacked down for original release. But, in this film Leone demonstrates a complex moral understanding of his characters. I'll stay on this film shortly as we are amidst a western series, but, I only need to point to one of the most shocking scenes in the film. This is the one in which Noodles rapes the girl who never gave him a chance. I won't delve deep into character motivations, but through a complex and rich narrative, Noodles' reasoning for doing this is very clear. That doesn't justify anything, but it is a very hard task to make a rapist anything more than a one-dimensional piece of filth. Other attempts toward this come with A Streetcar Named Desire and The Woodsman. Both films deal with equally heavy ideas, Streetcar being rape and The Woodsman pedophilia. Both are very mature films and like Once Upon A Time In America show a shade of humanity in what are so easily dismissed as monsters. A director of this calibre, comparable to works such as Streetcar and The Woodsman, is someone I believe deserves to be taken seriously - especially when his forte is morals.

That said, we can begin to pull apart the complex mesh of good and bad in Leone's Dollar Trilogy. To do this we'll have to make clear that these films are largely about greed and revitalise a good old adage of mine: selflessness doesn't exist therefor selfishness isn't all that bad. To explain real quick, all we do is to survive, to fit in, to live as apart of, in line with, despite of, society. This means that when you save a kid from an oncoming car you may be risking your own life, but only because the term 'hero' is so revered, is so imperative to the part of us that wants to fit in, be of significance in a huge society. Everything we do is for selfish gain. This may make people frumpy, huffy, depressed and all 'what's the point?', but this idea doesn't reduce the world to pointless desolation. For the same reason, it's ok if God doesn't exist. This is all because one cannot deny reality, they may merely accept it. You may hate the idea of taxes, but, come on, what are you going to do about it? You carry on. You tell yourself taxes aren't so bad or just moan about them. Moreover, the norm, to a healthily mind, should never be considered bad. What you are essentially doing is denying reality. By saying that it's bad for us all to be selfish when (as I think) we quite obviously are, you are saying we are all capable of better. People love to say this kind of thing, but such statements are empty. There is good and bad, suffering and levity, in everything. I mean, pure world peace isn't just unachievable, but would just be boring (just like complete equality). You couldn't punch your friend in the arm, bully the fat kid, shout 'you fucking limey cunt' once in a while (I'm British so that one's fine). Sure these things are a little nasty, but so is Jerry Springer, NASCAR, action movies, fail videos. But, we all love them. Without aggression, without wanting to see worse situations, cars crashing. people dying (even pretending to) or just getting hammered by their own stupidity, we're not human - not people recognisable as such. This is why selfishness isn't bad. But we also have the element of God to discuss. Before proceeding, I only mean to discuss present ideas of what God is in the form of religion (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism...). God as a creator is a valid and interesting idea, beyond that, with the dress-up of religion, I lose interest. And so, it's fine that God, heaven, hell, karma, fate, prayer don't exist because meaninglessness is ultimately bliss. The main argument against disbelief is the lack of morals, justice and meaning. However, (as in all likelihood) the reality of there not being a man in the sky but just a big empty universe is something we shouldn't try and refute. We shouldn't try to fabricate our own reality but try to come to terms with it. This is just like trying to take blame for a tragedy or something going seriously wrong. It's not our fault that the universe is empty and pointless, we don't need to take the burden onto our shoulders. If we accept that idea as an inevitability (like taxes) we can just get on, or, as is probably put best by Samuel Becket (under my interpretation), we should all be 'Waiting For Godot'.

What all of that should make clear is that I'm only really writing essays because I firstly love writing them, but mainly because I used to get in trouble for taking huge tangents in my English Literature classes. Who's going to stop me or tell me I shouldn't here? (Shout-out to all the teachers that put up with me). Anyway, this is all of relevance. With themes of greed and religion put forth in the Dollar Trilogy coupled with the last paragraph, the trichotomy (3 categories) of morality becomes all the clearer. Morals are right and wrong - a left and right of sorts - two extremes in short. This is where our Good and Bad come from. The Ugly originates from a grey area. Now, this scale of Good then Ugly then Bad is shown to be relative by Leone. This calls back to the fact that the Dollar Trilogy is not a traditional western. Traditional westerns are quite civilised. Leone drops civilisation to reflect present day. In my books, 'civilised' is a tradition, it's an idea of knights, princesses, kings, queens, chivalry, fearing God and knowing your place in society. Note, I said idea. This fantasy probably never existed. It did however have gravitas, it did have appeal back in 'the good old days' (when, I won't try to specify (I'm no historian and won't use Google to pretend to be)). Before we get lost again, Leone's idea of Good then Ugly then Bad is relative. So, in the wild west, Blondie is good when the others in question are a ruthless bounty hunter with principals (Angel Eyes) and a worm without many (Tuco). In a civil context, like in most traditional westerns, High Noon for example, the good is clearly the hero who makes the right decisions. The bad is the black hat criminal and the ugly are those without a spine who sit on a fence when maybe they shouldn't. Leone knows this, and so, The Good The Bad The Ugly reflects a lot about its audience. We live in a dog eat dog, follow back or I unfollow, world. The internet is our wild west and it is not very civilised. Of course, 'The Good' predates such an invention, but it is still relevant and very popular. Moreover, the film is about the same morality or mindset behind the shit-storm that can be the internet, that was also present in what we think of as the wild west. So, what this film represents is a change in cinema, a move in the world toward individualism and today in short. With this idea we can see that on the internet the good are responsible content creators, the decent human beings, the ugly are the trolls and propagators of the bad, which are those who just want to watch it all burn. If you zoom in here, let's say to a negative comments section, the good becomes those who say one or two nasty things that are quite funny, the ugly are the viewers who indulge them, adding to the mess and then the bad are those who take it a step to far and mean for death threats to seriously affect. Am I making a clear point here?

What I am trying to make clear here is Leone's expression of relative morals, and the idea that all situations can be understood by his good, bad and ugly trichotomy. This is all noteworthy because the film almost comments on itself. Morally, this film, as a western, is pretty ugly. It's not as ugly as Wolf Of Wall Street, but it isn't Bicycles Thieves. What we can, however, consider 'bad' is the likes of Cannibal Holocaust or The Human Centipede. However, Cannibal Holocaust is in a league of its own. All I can say is animals being killed, stabbed in the neck over and over, is nothing I want to watch - especially in the respect of an exploitation picture. Suffice to say I have no interest in getting through that film. On that point, we come to the truly interesting aspect of this film and its idea. Who decides what is good, what is bad, what is ugly? Us. Me, you, the audience. Why can Leone's stories be so simple, so entertaining, but be so morally complex (not necessarily in a good way)? The same can be asked of most blockbusters. Heck, we can bring Michael Bay back up again. Good in Transformers is the Autobots defending us Earthlings. Bad is the Deceptacons trying to kill us. And the ugly is a lot of the Bayisms like casual racism, sexism and childishness. What Michael Bay represents is the growing prevalence of the ugly in modern cinema. It started with the antihero's popularisation (I direct you here and here for more on that). This evolved into individualist teen cinema that flourished in the 80s (a must read) and with that came the loss of the clear-cut. The ugly weren't always gangsters, idiots or guys with a problem - they started to become us in our worst lights. I draw your attention here to Michael Bay's characters, those in Twilight or even those in Spring Breakers. As 'ugly' characters, the likes of a Mikaela Banes, Sam Witwicky, Cotty, Brit, Candy, Bella, Jacob, Edward aren't treated as such by director and writer. The same could be said for a Ferris Bueller, Gary Wallace (Weird Science), Chris Parker (Adventures In Babysitting - P.S '87 Elisabeth Shue, the proposal still stands). You can find these ugly characters in mainstream cinema before The Good The Bad The Ugly most notably those in screwball comedies. But, that pulls back to the top of the essay. The comedy aspects justify the ugliness. That said, there's still Scarlett O'Hara in one of the most successful films of all time. Well, again, she's not dealt with in the same respect a Man With No Name or Ferris Bueller is. Through writing and direction she is clearly very ugly. The fact that an attempt toward black and white right and wrong is being lost with the likes of a Twilight, Transformer or even Breaking Bad if you want to bring T.V into this, and they are all so immensely popular, shows that the growing individualism in cinema is something to watch.

This all raises very interesting ideas in respect to the audience. Is it because of modern individualist cinema that we are being better represented and that characters are becoming more and more ugly? The main criticism of The Wolf Of Wall Street is that fact that it didn't condemn Jordan Belfort. I don't agree with this, but only because I like the film so much. I would however say that Twilight is kind of fucked up in the way everyone treats each other. But, don't think I don't see my own bullshit. here Jordan and Bella are both ugly, but huge masses of us are willing to overlook that. That's the paradigm I'm trying to make clear. Condemnation is a huge aspect of older pictures. I cite Citizen Kane as an example. Moving forward we have The Good The Bad The Ugly where of course the bad guys get away in the end - and we support them all the way through. This deepened with the likes of Taxi Driver, more so with Ferris Bueller and even further with Transformers. There's little consequence to being a bit of a dick in these pictures. And of course that 'bit of a dick' quotient is increasing from Travis to Ferris to Sam. An interesting paradigm, no? It's now that I'll try to take this all full circle with the idea of the helpless and the ruthless to explain why Leone's spectrum exists. Firstly, this idea of the helpless and ruthless is expressed through the following iconic lines:

There's two kinds of people in this world: those who have a rope around their neck, and those who do the cutting.

There's two kinds of people in this world: those who come through the door, and those who come through the window.

There's two kind of people in this world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.

Poetry, huh? What each of these lines make clear is the weak and the strong. But what they don't account for is:

Those who miss.

That cannon that blasts through the wall.

Angel Eyes, who also has a loaded gun.

Each of these are visual responses to the quotes up top. Yes, Blondie may be the one who shoots the rope around Tuco's neck, but only until he chooses to miss. Just like Tuco may be able to sneak in the window, but Blondie gets away when that cannon hits the house. Just like Angel Eyes had to complicate the discovery of the money. To reiterate, we have two extremes and then a complication. Leone uses these to create conflict, such as Blondie standing on a stool, Tuco shooting at the legs, the noose around Blondie's neck tightening. He then breaks it up (with the cannon) so his story can continue, taking us to the ending of the epic - resolution. Extremes nullify each other for the sake of narrative flow. So, there can be good and bad, but things figure themselves out. Here, we come back to the ideas that selfishness isn't bad and neither is it such a disaster if God doesn't exist. Each of these men are outwardly selfish, but, only in context, in their little circles. Their fight for the money doesn't cause any one else much harm. This is why their selfishness is acceptable by the standards of the audience. Moreover, this is why films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Taxi Driver, Twilight and Transformers are successful. They deal with context. All ugly characters stay in situations where they don't make the jump to bad - they don't let us label them as such because: 'but look what she did'. The religious elements of this film are also there to show this same kind of leniency. We see this with Tuco's interaction with his brother. Tuco is the way he is because that's how he survives. He lives in a harsh, ungodly world. But that's ok because he still finds joy, he still finds purpose in the material and equally meaningless - money. This is why Leone satirises religious imagery throughout the Dollar Trilogy. First it shows a lack of religion in the characters, but secondly it shows that they get on despite that. Leone's lasting image is an idea of an automated process. His narrative contains conflict and aversion (the italicised bits up there) for resolution - so that The Good The Bad and The Ugly can sort each other out. In Leone's universe there is always moral complication, but, it always fixes itself. There seems to be an underlying mechanism by which evil is conquered and the sustainable live on. This is why The Ugly is left to his loot, but the relative Good is the focus in the end of the film. His journey, where he goes next, matters. Similar could be said for For A Few Dollars More. The Ugly, The Man With No Name again, has won his loot and is going to use it to live the life he wishes - the sense given is that he'll stop bounty hunting becoming more moral. Tuco on the other hand might not. Either way, in all narratives, the bad guys get it. That is what matters.

All in all, the Dollar Trilogy is about inevitability. It's about the acceptance of the negative aspects of the world, but also seeing things in context, the small victories, the human tenancy to quash the bad - whether it be accepting them as ugly, being able to indulge in the mischief or laugh off the absurdity. Morals are relative. This is what Leone makes clear through the idea of Good Bad and Ugly. And... wow, that's the dollar trilogy done. A long final post, but we've still got Once Upon A Time In The West to do and the western series to round off, so, stick around for that.

With all that said, are you interested in my take on the western? If so, my own western inspired fantasy can be sampled or read in full at the following places...


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