Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo" -- morality and trust

Director: Sergio Leone, 1966. (R) 

The third of Sergio Leone's "man with no name" trilogy, many take this to the best. It is certainly the longest and most complex, running to almost three hours. Yet, I found it looser and more rambling than its simpler predecessors. It also adds complexity in characters. Where A Fistful of Dollars had one main character and For a Few Dollars More had two, this one has three. And to some degree that creates the contusions of the plot.

Once again, Leone has made a spaghetti western that is beautifully filmed and set against a haunting score by Ennio Morricone. The title theme has reached iconic status and instantly brings to mind Clint Eastwood and this set of films.

Indeed Clint returns as the cowboy, in this movie known as Blondie for skin tone rather than a forename. He is "the good" of the title, although he is a professional gunslinger and bounty hunter. Not necessarily the same character as before, yet he wears the same poncho and jeans. Lee Van Cleef, a good guy in For a Few Dollars More, plays "the bad," Angel Eyes who is a sadistic killer. And "the ugly" is Tuco, played by Eli Wallach who has more screen time than Clint and steals the show.

At the beginning of the film Angel Eyes is searching for a man who has information on stolen gold coins worth $200,000, a fortune in the civil war era. He finds the name of the man who had the money, Bill Carson, leaving his informant dead but not discovering Carson's whereabouts.

At the same time, we find Blondie and Tuco in a partnership of sorts. Blondie is capturing Tuco, a wanted outlaw, and bringing him in for the reward bounty. When Tuco is strung up, ready to be hanged for his crimes, Blondie shoots the rope, enabling Tuco to escape so they can work together on this scam in the next town. But, after doing this so long Blondie cuts not only the rope but his ties to Tuco as well. Severing their business relationship, he leaves Tuco to die in the desert. When their roles are later reversed, and Blondie is almost dead in the same desert, these two stumble on an ambushed Confederate stagecoach where Carson lies dying. With his final breaths he tells Tuco the name of the graveyard where the money is buried and Blondie the name of the actual grave. For Tuco to get the money, he must once more work with Blondie in a temporary partnership.

With all three after the money it is inevitable that their paths cross. But the various journeys are intricate and tortuous. They involve both Union and Confederate armies, a battle to hold a bridge, and some torture to extract information, leading to a Mexican standoff in a desolate cemetery.

One of the interesting themes of the film is the nature of the characters. Unlike earlier westerns where the good guys wore white and were pure while the bad guys wore black and were evil, Leone gives us shades of gray morality. Blondie, our hero, is not really that good. He is a bounty hunter and a con man. By freeing Tuco in the early sham arrests, he shows that his nature is corrupt, not pure. On the other hand, Angel Eyes has his own morality, always keeping his word to his employer. Though he kills at the drop of a hat, his word is his bond. Once again, his nature is a balance of good and bad; black and white mix to form dark gray.

This describes humanity. We are not pure as some would like us to believe. The Bible says, "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer. 17:9). Such depravity entangles every aspect of our being, corrupting our character and motives. Even though we can still behave in a moral manner, inner drives belie the outer appearance. Yet, we still possess the image of God  (1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9), marred and twisted lacking its original intention (Gen. 1:26). We are not totally black; gray describes us well. Not fully evil like Satan, neither are we fully pure like Jesus.

A running joke throughout the film is in the contrast of twos in the dialog between Blondie and Tuco. Though not really pointing to themes, they do raise some interesting biblical thoughts. Blondie: "You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my frient: those with loaded guns and those who dig." In this world, there are two kinds of people: the powerful and the oppressed. Jesus came to offer a kingdom where injustice would be righted and the oppressed would find relief (Matt. 5:3-12).

Tuco: "There are two kinds of spurs, my friend. Those that come in by the door; those that come in by the window." In the Bible there are two kinds of people: those that come in by the door as it is opened, and those that come in through the door, while it remains closed. In fact, only one person was able to walk through a closed door, and that was Jesus, after his resurrection (Jn. 20:19). He is the second Adam, a type of what we could and should be (1 Cor. 15:45-49). Everyone else has to walk through the door after opening it. We all are imperfect, being sons of the first Adam (1 Cor. 15:22).

And Tuco: "There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting." There are two kinds of people in the world, those with the rope around their neck who are dying and will die, and those who do the saving. Indeed, all of us find ourselves in the former camp due to sin. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) and "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). But there is only one person in the latter category, and that is Jesus Christ the Savior. He does the cutting as we come to him for freedom from sin and life (Rom. 8:2).

A key theme of the film is trust. At the beginning Tuco trusts Blondie but that trusts proves short-lived. When they are forced back into a business relationship they must work together but theirs is a trust that is transitory. There is no foundation; both are waiting on an opportunity to cut out again. Even when Angel Eyes gets involved with Blondie, trust is missing.

Trust is important in business. When it is missing, we must look over our shoulders, always keeping an eye on our partners for masked motives or hidden knives. For life we need trust. To experience true life, we must place our faith and trust in Jesus (Jn. 17:3), the one who can sever the noose of sin around our necks. He offers freedom (Jn. 8:32) but it requires trust. We cannot sit on the fence or play the field. We cannot hedge our bets with fractional faith or "tolerant trust". No, Jesus demands that we sell out to him. When we sit on the figurative horse with the rope around our neck, he offers us escape if we commit our all to him. Regardless of whether you are the good, the bad or the ugly, have you trusted in Jesus, your noose-cutter and life-giver?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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