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'Raping a Virgin of the White Race'
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Sergio Leone, with Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef


I am reviewing the classic "spaghetti western," The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as a part of the investigation into the fiction of Robert E. Howard, for the very simple fact that I got that Howard feeling—that sense of rampant, overreaching action by driven characters striving in the shadows of an overarching doom. Doom was something Howard trafficked in with much alacrity. Not having viewed this movie since boyhood, I had forgotten—or, perhaps, had never realized—that it was an anti-war movie, a melancholy setting peopled with doomed soldiers across which three barbaric, outlaw warriors ride, laugh, scheme, and stride, with a kind of glorious disregard for the extreme suffering of nearly every person they pass in their pointless quest. Pointless, for as they seek 200K in gold they look ever longer into the gaping maw of Death.

There was another aspect of this film that made me feel the same way I do when reading a Howard tale—particularly a Conan, Kane or Gordon tale—the poetry. Howard has stood as an enigma to mainstream readers because of the seemingly pointless nature of the story plots: treasure hunting by characters destined to have the treasure slip from between their fingers, fighting on behalf of some other people and facing Horrors not understood. In this tale, Sergio Leone employs the Civil War as the cosmic horror looming over the contesting adventurers, with anachronistic World War I type artillery terror serving this role. Of course, the florid poetics of Howard lend an obscenity—in terms of modern literary convention, for to the modernist such beauty seems to be put in service to an ancient nihilism, which is how the modern mind see heroism—to his work. Likewise, the distinctive thematic music, that is more center stage in this movie than in any musical, brings a kind of raging beauty to an empty landscape across which three heroes pursue an emptier dream. More than five minutes might pass without dialogue—a very realistic touch [1]—but the music engages the mind's ear.

Humor, too, is mixed in with the tragedy and action, an aspect of Howard's work that crops up in Conan, Vulmea, and his westerns. The stream of insults voiced by Wallach is astonishing, and very pulp-like. The men call each other dogs and rats. Tuco [2] the "Rat" [played by Wallach] accuses "Blondie" [the Good, played by Eastwood] of being "the son of a thousand fathers!" Overall the mix of realistic brutality, ghostly war suffering, unreal, dreamy gunplay, a stark, grimy environment and florid music make The Good the Bad and the Ugly a beautifully disturbing experience, feeling like a Kane story until the end, when it finished more along the lines of a Conan tale—alternately smiling like hope and grinning with a grim fatalism, here achieved differently than by Howard, as Leone uses detachment where Howard employs a palpable incomprehension.

The Ugly one is "the Rat," a likeable rogue played by Eli Wallach, who should have won an award for his performance. He steals the show, literally, and is in fact the viewpoint character, the driven man seeking an anecdote to madness in an empty quarter and never, like the Bad character, played by Van Cleef with savage precision, forgetting to laugh at himself and his predicament. The Good character, played by Eastwood, is the straight man, representing the storyteller, not the actual hero, who is Wallach. Howard, more direct in his American way than Leone, reveled in Van Cleef type villains. In terms of heroics, he rolled the two archetypes represented by the Ugly Rat—who was declared guilty of the crime cited in the title quote above as he was being hung—and The Man with No Name, who represents the leveling, karmic hand of justice, into one being, most successfully in the Vulmea and Conan characters, and most specifically and beautifully in Rogues in the House, The Tower of the Elephant and The People of the Black Circle.

The key aspect of Howard's story-telling that most readers do not notice, is the reason why Conan rarely has a "buddy" a "sidekick" like he has in Beyond the Black River with Balthus. Conan is the Good and the Ugly combined, the hero and the sidekick. Where the Ugly gets into trouble and the Good gets him out, Conan gets himself into trouble and gets himself out. In terms of heroic character building, Howard's heroes are the most complex of their kind and are therefore mistaken as antiheroes by some science-fiction critics. The conflicted natures of Kane and Mak Morn and the rarely understood and extreme complexity of Kull and Conan, permit Howard to compress his characterization and strike out with more clarity in the reader's eye. Howard managed, by this and other methods, to achieve a concentrated sense of the heroic that is rarely understood even by his fans and tends to be best grasped by the artists who have so magnetically depicted his heroes over the intervening decades. Likewise, the viewer of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is best served by not being privy to the mechanics Leone used to enthrall their sense of humanity and chain it to a crate of unseen gold as the story rattles across a dust-choked land.

This movie will be all but impossible for a person weaned on post-videogame cinema to enjoy. Still, give it a try. In telling my son about this $4 movie purchase, I said, "For people your age watching this movie would be like having your front teeth extracted by a chimp with pliers. My favorite scene, Ecstasy of Gold, is a full five minutes and 28 seconds of Eli Wallach running around a graveyard, increasingly frantic to satiate his driving ambition in the face of our overarching doom.

Note

1. Modern American movies waste much time on unrealistic dialogue, such as in Saving Private Ryan, when any squad of Rangers so blabber-mouthed as they walked in picturesque silhouette across no man's land would have been quickly snuffed.

2. This must be the inspiration for the Tuco character in Breaking Bad and Just Call Saul.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Theme

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQGGQ-FCe_w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdLQf1Ef9Ns&index=7&list=RDLQGGQ-FCe_w

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly SoundTrack - Ecstasy Of Gold

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOKhQ8ObQ7E

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly SoundTrack - The Trio

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EujDcc2xEUI

Add Comment
markoJune 19, 2016 9:36 PM UTC

Kurosawa's the Seven Samurai and or the Magnificent Seven westernized version
responds:June 20, 2016 11:32 AM UTC

The original was Seven against Thebes by Aechylus.

I've viewed both as a boy and will have to check them now as a man.

Thanks for the reminder.
SidVicJune 19, 2016 12:37 PM UTC

Watch Peckinpah's "wild bunch"- it will blow your circuits...
responds:June 19, 2016 11:39 AM UTC

Will do, thanks.