Prior to the release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, whenever a bunch of people in a movie embarked on a project to obtain a great deal of money, something always went wrong. In some cases, the project was illegal, and given the Production Code in force at the time, the criminals had to die or be arrested, as in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). In It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the treasure hunters are not criminals, but the buried treasure was stolen loot, so they all had to be arrested in the end. But even when the enterprise was entirely legal, there was an unwritten rule that it must fail, that pursuing money per se was wrong in some way and must not be rewarded. For example, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), there was nothing illegal about the three men prospecting for gold, but it had to fail nevertheless. When the two surviving members of the team realize that all their gold has been lost, they laugh about it. Presumably, even when the search for money was legal, it had to fail, the movie’s way of telling us we should be content with our lot. One slight exception is King Solomon’s Mines (1950 et al.). The people in the movie do manage to keep a handful of gems, but the vast treasure is lost for good.
And then came The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Three men set out to find buried treasure, and something incredible happens: the treasure does not turn out to be worthless Confederate bonds; it does not blow away in the wind; the men pursuing the treasure are not arrested; and only one of them dies, leaving the other two alive to split the loot. Nothing like that had ever been seen in a movie before, and the violation of the taboo against that sort of thing was exhilarating.
This amoral ending was perfectly in line, however, with all that had come before in that movie. Were it not for the advance notice provided by the tagline, “For three men the Civil War wasn’t Hell. It was practice,” we would not even realize that the movie was set in the Civil War when it begins. And it is only gradually that we become aware of the war, because it really does not seem to concern the three principle characters. The Ugly, Tuco (Eli Wallach), is a bandit, the Good, Blondie (Clint Eastwood), is a bounty hunter, and the Bad, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), is a hired killer, each pursuing his own business with no interest in the war. Only when they find out about the buried Confederate gold does the war take on significance for them. And as they pursue that gold, they walk through the war as if they were walking through a room. In one case, when the war gets in their way, they blow up a bridge so that the soldiers will leave the area, which has as an incidental byproduct the result that the pointless daily slaughter is brought to an end.
Actually, the amoral nature of this movie was no surprise, for it was also characteristic of the two previous Westerns by Sergio Leone featuring the Man with No Name, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). This was a new kind of Western protagonist. He was not a law enforcement officer; he was not seeking to avenge someone’s death; and he was not trying to reform and hang up his guns. Instead, he was either a hired gun or bounty hunter who profited by his expertise with a pistol, and had no intention of changing his ways.