A FISTFUL OF WESTERNS
When Sergio Leone made his famous ‘dollars’ trilogy with Clint Eastwood, culminating in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, he didn’t just create a new sub-genre – the spaghetti western – he also produced a template for subsequent Westerns to follow. That template signalled the end of the traditional Western genre and the beginnings of what we might call the post-modern Western.
Stylistically, Directors who now try their hand at a Western are almost obliged to nod towards TG,TB&TU in some way. Westerns have to be hip and cool, with eclectic music scores or big rock themes (think ‘Blaze of Glory’ in Young Guns 2), dense with accurate historical detail (Tombstone) or relentlessly driven character archetypes (parodied in The Hateful Eight).
Leone achieves all these brilliantly in TG,TB&TU, through Morricone’s unforgettable title music, surely one of the most famous in cinema history, the elaborate civil war setting that impinges on the basic plot of hunting down the elusive cashbox, and the dynamic relationships between the Good (Eastwood), the Bad (van Cleef) and the Ugly (Wallach).
But the real influence of the film on the Westerns produced today is the social commentary. The traditional Western, where it had a social dimension, tended to dwell on the development of the Old West itself. In TG,TB&TU, we get something more contemporary: extended musings on the futility of war and the waste of human life in the face of Vietnam.
Since there is little to say on the Old West that the genre hasn’t already said, recent Westerns also pick up on contemporary themes, to the point where the guns, the clothes, the saloons etc. are like props for the point being made. Django Unchained, The Harder They Fall and Brokeback Mountain dress their relevance up in Western trappings to get the message across in a way that is undeniably entertaining.
Even where such content is absent, the sense of style, veering between comic book and opera, that Leone brought to the screen is visible in all the above-mentioned films, and more than anywhere integrated into the visual style of Tarantino. In fact, the impact of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on film generally is acknowledged by the very title of a non-Western, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.