So this is another classic that I never got around to properly watching before this. As my wife noted, even if you don’t know this film you definitely will know the score by Ennio Morricone, iconic as it is. This film is officially the final part of the so-called Dollars trilogy directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. But this is by far the most famous and successful of the three and it’s not as if continuity matters so I picked it to watch first. I definitely will get around to watching at least the first film at some point however.
Some time during the American Civil War, a ruthless mercenary nicknamed Angel Eyes learns of a cache of gold stolen from the Confederates and hunts down the last surviving soldier who knows its location. Meanwhile a gunfighter nicknamed Blondie and a Mexican bandit named Tuco run a scam whereby Tuco is handed over to the authorities for a reward only to have Blondie rescue him. When Blondie tires of the scheme and abandons Tuco in the desert, the latter hunts him down. Both of them eventually run into the survivor that Angel Eyes was looking for and each of them learns one half of the secret of the gold’s location. When the two get captured by the Union army, Angel Eyes finds out that they know the secret and so targets them, setting the stage for a three-way confrontation.
Since we’re watching this in 2018, it’s naturally the restored and extended version. At over two and a half hours, this is in my opinion too long for what it offers. There are also a lot of problems with it that are rather glaring. One is that just about all of the actors in minor roles aren’t Americans and aren’t speaking English. The film was shot in Europe and the voices were dubbed over. It feels really odd to me to see obvious non-Americans speak as if they were. Then there’s the sense that half of this film is about the three main characters who are played by great actors with fantastic chemistry with one another. But the other half is about the American Civil War which happens in the background as the three of them are trying to get at the gold. I understand that Leone is trying to add a theme about the pointlessness of war through this but it’s not clear to me how that ties in with the main characters. I guess one could say it justifies the cynicism and selfishness of the characters as not even the nominal ‘good’ here, Blondie, is actually good. Let’s not even mention how the characters rely on coincidence to find each other again every time they are separated rather than employ actual investigative effort.
This sounds like I’m down on the film but I’m really not. Each of the three leads have such a powerful screen presence that you’re entranced whenever they’re on. They lean on the famous score a bit too heavily for my tastes but there’s no denying how perfectly matched it is for the film. The photography and how the camera focuses on the characters’ faces to capture every micro-expression is the mark of a great director. Leone spends a long time on the climactic scene and every moment of it is great. It truly is one of the best movie climaxes of all time. It is very easy to recognize why this film is regarded as a classic. The shoot-out scenes are nothing special by modern standards but I love how they are set up not as contests of skill and speed but as a sort of clash of larger than life personalities. As my wife noted, they disdain taking cover and instead stride confidently through gunfire, trusting in the luck of heroes to see them through. It’s in no way realistic, choosing instead of frame gunslingers as near demi-gods.
All the same, the attempt to use the war to moralize feels trite and very dated, dragging down the good parts. I’m also seriously bothered by how inauthentic it feels especially if they want to invoke the American Civil War. So on balance it’s not perfect but it’s a film that deserves its status as a classic for good reason and I’m very glad I finally watched it properly.