July 25, 2008
The Spaghetti Monster is Back
By Geoffrey Macnab
'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly' has been restored, re-cut with formerly deleted scenes, and re-released. Geoffrey Macnab tells the story of Sergio Leone's once-overlooked masterpiece
There is a certain irony in the veneration now accorded Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film (re-released in the UK this summer) is acknowledged as probably the greatest of all the Italian spaghetti Westerns. Running a full three hours in its restored version, it boasts one of the most famous musical soundtracks in movie history.
Alongside the hangings, gunfights, brawls and moody close-ups, it is also a film with a self-consciously epic sweep, one that aspires to some of the same grandeur of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (with which it shares certain Spanish locations). Leone contended - with some justification - that it was among the best movies ever made about the American Civil War. However, when it was released in Britain in early 1968, the critics were condescending.
"Dreadfully long, wearisome and vicious," was the verdict of The Sun. "These Italian Westerns with Clint Eastwood chewing his cheroot and acting with as much expression as a man with neuralgia are really the bitter end," complained the Daily Sketch. Others complained about the "wooden" acting and the comic-strip sensibility of the storytelling.
Leone's biographer Sir Christopher Frayling sighs as he contemplates the barbs that were regularly unleashed at the great Italian film-makers during the 1960s. Frayling (rector of the Royal College of Art and a distinguished academic) still can't hide his irritation at the way even the best Leone movies were caricatured as "crappy, ersatz Westerns, badly dubbed, too loud and on an intellectual par with Carry On films." When he tried to talk up the merits of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, colleagues shook their heads as if listening to the ravings of a crackpot.
"At the time, no one could know how well it would weather," Frayling says. "It fits with a cultural moment - Catch-22, Vietnam, Bob Dylan, Che Guevara posters, that sort of attitude toward war was very strong."
Hollywood's own movies about the American Civil War have not lasted so well. Time Out calls Edward Dmytryk's Raintree County (1958) "an elephantine bore". The Horse Soldiers (1959) has its fans but is still seen as minor John Ford. Such films were undermined by their own piety and desire to celebrate heroism. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, by contrast, is utterly cynical about the motivations of both sides. In one celebrated scene, Eastwood and Eli Wallach spot a troop of cavalry riding toward them. They appear to be dressed in grey, so Wallach shouts out "hurrah for the Confederacy". However, they aren't southerners at all but Union soldiers covered in dust. Leone's point, namely that war is anarchic and terrible and that both sides are equally bad, may be familiar but it still hits home.
Frayling points out that the film originated with a story by Guy de Maupassant called "Two Friends". This was about two men on a fishing trip at the time of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. By mistake, they go over to the Prussian lines and get shot by a firing squad. The writer Luciano Vincenzoni had already adapted this into a film called La Grande Guerra, starring Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi, set in the First World War. He decided to rework the story again, this time to be set during the American Civil War. Vincenzoni also drew heavily on his favourite novel, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night.
Many Italian Westerns were ersatz versions of their Hollywood counterparts. But Frayling contends that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had broken free from its American anchoring. What made the film distinctive were its Italian elements.
Shooting in Spain, Leone was able to recruit extras from General Franco's army. As long as a film wasn't set in Spain in the present day, film-makers were allowed to be as subversive as they liked. The Italian auteur had no qualms about using Franco's soldiers as cheap labour for a movie with such a strong anti-war message.
But one of Franco's officers was responsible for the biggest mishap during shooting. In a misplaced fit of enthusiasm, he blew up the bridge with hundreds of pounds of dynamite before the cameras had started rolling. Leone was incandescent with rage. Eastwood has testified how the director went crazy, swearing in every language he could think of. In the end, the crew went elsewhere to shoot for three weeks. By the time they returned, the Spanish army had rebuilt the bridge, free of charge.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was Leone's farewell to the spaghetti Western. His next film, Once Upon a Time in the West, was in a very different register. This was Leone working with young screenwriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, trying to make the Western to end all Westerns. As Frayling recalls, Leone originally intended the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time to show Eastwood, Wallach and Lee Van Cleef at the railway station. The idea was that the train would arrive, all three men would be shot as a symbolic farewell to the world of the Italian Western and then the film would begin in earnest. Wallach and Lee Van Cleef were happy to oblige but Eastwood wasn't available.
The cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being re-released in the UK is the restored version. Archivist John Kirk, who oversaw the reconstruction, went to heroic lengths to piece together the three- hour film that Leone had originally made but which had been whittled down for US audiences, "to increase the sale of popcorn," as Leone complained. At first, the studio was reluctant to invest in the restoration. "I kept talking it up. I refused to give up on it because I thought it was such a good idea," Kirk recalls. In the end, support came.
Kirk called in Eastwood and Wallach to record lines for scenes that they had shot 40 years before. Van Cleef was dead, and so Kirk hired a sound-alike - another actor, called Simon Prescott.
"I don't usually work with actors. Usually people are dead when I restore their films," Kirk says. Wallach struggled at first to recapture the voice of Tuco, the foul-mouthed bandit who is tormented by (and torments) Eastwood's character. "It took him a little while to get into it. He hadn't been that character for so long." Eastwood was easier. He speaks so little and so laconically in the movie that no great verbal gymnastics were required from him.
Opinion is divided as to whether the reconstruction lives up to the film that Leone intended to make. As Frayling puts it, "some of it is terrific and some of it is a disaster." There is a scene with Tuco and a chicken that Leone reportedly took out after the initial release in Italy because it didn't work. It's back in. But Frayling acknowledges that the extra imagery of war and mutilation that features in the restored version enhances the movie considerably. "It adds to the Ambrose Bierce feeling of this as a surreal comedy with lots of carnage."
Leone fills the film with anachronistic references that contemporary audiences can pick up on. When Wallach is beaten up and tortured by Sergeant Wallace, an orchestra plays outside to stifle his screams. (This is Leone's nod to the idea of the concentration- camp orchestras playing to obliterate the sounds of the death chambers). The sadistic, over-the-top brutality was intended to have added resonance for Sixties audiences, aware of what was going on in Vietnam and elsewhere.
The director clearly had a craving for the respectability accorded to big-name international directors like David Lean and Fred Zinnemann. When the film was finished, Leone startled journalists by giving a press conference at which he announced he wanted to remake Gone With the Wind. At the time, such an idea seemed ridiculous. So did Frayling's claim that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the "finest Italian Western ever made."
Leone went on to make films every bit as ambitious in their way as Gone With the Wind. Meanwhile, 40 years on, it would be hard to find many film enthusiasts who disagree that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was one of the great films of its era.
'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is re-released next month, and has an extended run from 1 to 15 August at BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) in an Eastwood season
SERGIO LEONES FOUR BEST FILMS
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
Woefully undervalued on its first release, this is a full-scale American epic combining gangster-movie elements with a Proustian evocation of childhood. The set pieces are breathtaking and the music is melancholic and wonderfully evocative. Belying his reputation as a director more interested in image than depth of characterisation, Leone elicits some beautiful performances both from the professionals (Robert De Niro, James Wood and others) and from the newcomers who came in to play their characters as children.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Leones earlier Westerns were magnificent in their own right but here he goes a step further. It has all the scope (and even some of the same visual conceits) as a David Lean epic. It evokes the spirit of John Ford, too. Many critics still claim this as the greatest Western ever made.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
The original version released in Italy was credited to a certain Bob Robertson. (Leone took on the American pseudonym into order to make the film seem more authentic as a Western.) There's a strong Japanese flavour to the first part in Leone's great trilogy. It was a remake of sorts of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), which was itself loosely based on a Dashiell Hammett novel. There's also the same primal feeling as in all Leone's best work - the trademark emphasis on blood, violence and humour. Clint Eastwood is the agent of mischief, turning rival families the Rojos and the Baxters against each other.
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
The second part in the trilogy that culminates in 'The Good, the Bad and The Ugly' isn't just about Eastwood. His co-stars Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte and Klaus Kinski boasted three of the meanest stares in movie history. This is again a story about vengeance. Only slowly do the characters' motivations come into focus. The violence here isn't just to do with the bounty hunters getting their man, but is rooted in crimes that took place long ago.
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