Hollywood westerns were one of the most popular genres of cinema entertainment during the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, they had been the financial backbone of the industry. But the emergence of TV western series in the mid-1950s sounded the death knell for the big screen western.
By 1959 there were close to thirty, hour-long western shows spread across the various US networks, aired during prime-time every week. These small screen, family-friendly, horse operas such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Maverick, Wagon Train, Bronco, Cheyenne, Laramie and Rawhide downplayed the violence of the Old West and were more akin to weekly morality plays. Subsequently, American audiences grew bored with the genre, and after all, why should they pay to go to watch a western when they were free every single night on their television sets?
A prime example of this US non-interest in the genre was the release of the now classic western, The Magnificent Seven (1960), which made its huge box-office returns not in America, but in Europe. With the lack of big screen Hollywood westerns being released, European countries, whose film fans still adored the genre, decided to make their own. Consequently, in the early 1960s, Spain, Italy, Britain and even West Germany began producing westerns, filming the majority of them in the sun-baked landscape of Almeria, Southern Spain. These European filmmakers would often hire unemployed Hollywood actors whose star status had faded – such as Stewart Granger, Lex Barker and Guy Madison – for the lead roles, with the rest of the cast made up of local actors.
Although some of these “ersatz westerns” were popular with European audiences, it is fair to say that if not for A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), the European western – much like the 1950s Italian “sword-and-sandal” productions – would have faded into obscurity and now be no more than a footnote in cinema history. But the first two “Dollars” films, starring TV actor Clint Eastwood, represented a distinct break from the old stereotypical Hollywood western by disrespecting the genre’s outdated moral code. Visionary Italian director Sergio Leone’s new version of the Old West, with an anti-hero protagonist who is an impassive avenger and a concentration on high body counts instead of moralistic messages, swiftly gained his films international popularity.
The impressive European box-office returns for the films drew the attention of executives at United Artists, who in 1965 approached Leone regarding purchasing the US distribution rights.
Just as The Magnificent Seven had its roots in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Leone had based A Fistful of Dollars on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), but without crediting either the Japanese director or his scriptwriter. Consequently, Kurosawa’s production company, Toho, sued Leone, who initially just ignored the lawsuit. However, the almost shot-for-shot similarities between the films was too evident and Leone was eventually forced to settle out of court for $100,000 and 15 per cent of the worldwide box-office. (All of this ongoing litigation meant that United Artists were unable to release the films into US cinemas until early 1967).
During those negotiations for the US rights, United Artists asked whether there were any plans for a third “Dollars” production.
Leone’s writer, Luciano Vincenzari, replied that he was working on a story of three bounty hunters who are searching for a large cache of Confederate gold during the American Civil War. Based on that one-sentence scenario, United Artists advanced Leone a one-million-dollar budget for 50 per cent of the box-office takings outside of Italy. The end result was the very best of the “Dollars Trilogy”– The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Each of the film’s three characters is introduced with an expository prologue and then a title card. “The Ugly” (Eli Wallach), “The Bad” (Lee Van Cleef), and “The Good” (Clint Eastwood), which revealed the personalities of the three protagonists, the location (Texas) and the time period (The American Civil War).
Van Cleef’s character, hired killer Angel Eyes, is hunting down a fugitive named Jackson, who is responsible for stealing a shipment of Confederate gold. Blondie (Eastwood) and Tuco (Wallach) are working a scam together where the former turns in the latter for reward, then shoots him free of the noose. They both come across the dying Jackson and each learns a part of the secret of the buried gold. The two are captured by Union troops and sent to a military prison run by Angel Eyes, who tortures Tuco to learn the location of the gold but offers Blondie a partnership. On the way to the cemetery where the gold is hidden, they are held up by a futile Union army attack on a bridge. Blondie and Tuco undertake to blow the bridge with dynamite to clear their path to the gold. At the cemetery a brilliantly staged three-way duel in a huge circular arena leaves Angel Eyes dead. Blondie makes Tuco dig up the gold, then strings him up with a noose around his neck and balancing on a graveyard cross. On a far-off hill, Blondie turns and shoots Tuco’s noose away one last time.
With Ennio Morricone’s memorable title theme of echoing coyote howls, cavalry trumpets and a pounding drumbeat enhancing the spaces between the gunfire, the film proved a sensation when released in Italy during the Christmas period of 1966.
The following month, United Artists were finally able to release all three films in the US. However, as one of the most innovative Hollywood motion picture companies, UA designed a release campaign at four monthly intervals using television networks to plug the series. Fistful, released in January 1967, was advertised as “the first motion picture of its kind, but it won’t be the last”. They introduced Eastwood – who was then only known to American audiences as a secondary character from the TV series Rawhide – as “The Man with No Name”and “Who is going to trigger a whole new style of western adventure”. For A Few Dollars More opened in May and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly opened in December 1967.
The vast majority of American film critics initially panned all three movies, dubbing them “spaghetti westerns” or the more derogatory “paella trilogy”. However, for US audiences, these westerns were totally liberating and unlike any other they had seen before. Through positive word of mouth for the third and most successful of the trilogy, audiences grew solidly and enthusiastically, resulting in US domestic rentals of over eight million dollars and $25 million worldwide (which equates to $182 million today).
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is now hailed as a landmark of the western genre and is arguably Sergio Leone’s greatest western, made by a director at his zenith with a global superstar-in-waiting in the lead role.