Before I had seen any of the Clint Eastwood / Sergio Leone “Man with No Name” movies I assumed that they were broad stroke epics. By that I mean that I assumed they tapped into the same Jungian archetypes that, say, Star Wars did: a hero in white, a scheming villain with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, etc. It’s easy to understand why: even if you don’t know much about the movies, you’ve seen the posters of Clint Eastwood’s strong-jaw and squinting eyes, you’ve heard the bold titles like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, and you’ve heard Ennio Morricone’s scores through parodies, samples and knock offs. All of those elements promise something elementally powerful.
Which is why it’s still a little surprising to me how muddy these films can get plot wise. A Fistfull of Dollars is less complicated than the Good, the Bad and the Ugly because it’s confined to one small town on the Mexican border rather than roaming all over, but it still has a lot of moving parts. When Eastwood arrives in town on his donkey he’s told that there are two rival gangs fighting each other, and he plans to get rich by playing the two rival gangs off of each other. If that sounds simple, that’s because you don’t realize how many people are in each gang, and how it can be hard to track who is playing whom when everyone is wearing the same cowboy outfit and talking in similar dubbed voices.
The other problem that keeps these films from living up to their iconic reputation is the moral ambiguity of most of the characters. In a typical western Eastwood would be the noble hero riding in to save the day, but in these movies Eastwood is as duplicitous and murderous as the people he’s trying to outwit. You could make a case that he has a more solid moral code than the bandits because he draws the line at hurting women and children, but he’s so mercenary and these movies are so dominated by bloodthirsty men that it’s almost a distinction without a difference. I’m not saying that I can’t handle that sort of ambiguity, but I’m just saying that you would expect a movie called the Good, the Bad and the Ugly to have a well defined Good Guy who is actually uncomplicatedly Good.
Those criticisms, however, should not be taken as complaints, but rather as explanations – as warnings for someone who maybe hasn’t seen these movies, because I kind of wish I’d had a better sense that these movies were not cookie cutter westerns before I saw them. If you can hang with the fact that the plots are sometimes a little obtuse, then you’ll find that all of the stuff that seemed like it would be great is, in fact, great. The cinematography is breathtaking, taking full advantage of the beautiful locations. Eastwood’s rattlesnake attitude makes him captivating whenever he’s on screen. The score is basically perfect – moody, catchy, evocative. These films might not be for everyone - I’m kind of glad that I watched it without having to try to explain to my mother who was doing what to whom - but there’s a reason why they are classics.