Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Good, The Bad, and the Holy Spirit

I toyed with the idea of hosting a "Christ-Figure-In-Film-Blog-a-Thon," (subtitled "WWETD"). I still might. But in the meantime, the "Film and Faith" blog-a-thon hosted by RC at Strange Culture caught my attention.

I've always had a genuine interest for ostensibly "non-religious." films that evoke Christian imagery and yet tell a conventional story. Often, these are more insightful and less melodramatic than movies specifically ABOUT Jesus.

It's not an uncommon element in many films. Some of the more the obvious have been: Klautu from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The title characters from Hombre and Cool Hand Luke (both from 1967 - wow, Paul Newman did it twice in one year). Even Little Miss Sunshine (2006) has a Christ-figure in it. Sure, he's a drug snorting old degenerate (Alan Arkin), but his death does lead the family out of Hell.

The tricky part is how to fully incorporate a Christ-like character into a storyline, complete with all the New Testament elements, such as the Resurrection (the tricky part in real life too), and still have a plot that stands on it's own.

Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) is an example of one such film. While loaded with Christian imagery, it still holds up as a traditional Western.

On the face of it, TGTBaTU has a standard Western plot; a trio of desperadoes are all after a stash of stolen gold. But at it's heart, I think Leone was telling a story about man's redemption.

Before you think I'm reaching, hear me out.

The Characters:

  • Christ - The Good (TG) = "The Man With No Name"/Blondie (Clint Eastwood)

  • Death/Damnation - The Bad (TB) = "Angel Eyes" (Lee Van Cleef)

  • Humanity - The Ugly (TU) = Tuco (Eli Wallach)

Tuco (TU) is by far the most irritating character. Self-centered and devious, he's far less sympathetic than "Angel Eyes" (TB), even though the latter is a cold-blooded and sadistic killer. While TU dominates much of the film, he ends up being a the minor player in the contest between "Blondie" (TG) and TB.

The Trinity

In TGTBaTU, the number three comes up a lot:

  • there are three main characters
  • three gunfighters at beginning
  • TG kills 3 bounty hunters
  • TB remarks that "3's a perfect number"
  • Arch Stanton died Feb 3rd


At one point, TU tries to hang TG (it was humanity that put Christ on cross). An explosion from above rescues TG. The shot of the empty noose has a supernatural feel to it.

Later, TG suffers in desert at the hands of TU. One can argue that TG "dies" in the desert and is brought back to life at the monastery.

During the monastery sequence, there's a interchange between TU and one of the monks. In the background is a CLEAR view of a painting depicting Christ on the cross. The way it's staged, TG happens to be in the room that's DIRECTLY BEHIND THE PAINTING (this can't be accidental).

In the first scene after TG's "recovery," we oddly don't see his face right away. Instead, his back is to us. An interesting choice that suggests some sort of transformation has taken place.

His recovery seems to have altered TG morally as demonstrated throughout the remainder of film. For example, TG is the only one of the three main characters who reacts to the horror of war and shows compassion for others. At one point, TG gives wine to dying Civil War captain (absolution?) and tends to him during the final seconds of his life. This is a definite a shift from his persona at beginning.


The final showdown between good and evil takes place AT THE VERY CENTER OF A CEMETERY (should I repeat that?).

Some have seen TGTBaTU as a statement against greed (like Treasure of Sierra Madre). But, if that's the case, then the film is severely flawed because both TG and TU profit at the end without any apparent moral implications.

I'd argue that the theme of greed is a minor part of the story.

In their search for the gold, they dig up Arch Stanton's tomb and only find his corpse. For me, this highlights the fact that DEATH is the real issue the film's characters are grappling with. The battle to find the cache of gold coins equates to the struggle for man's salvation and the ultimate victory over death/damnation.

The gold, as it turns out, is really buried in an unmarked grave.

Since TG is "the man with no name," one could say that it's HIS tomb which is dug up. No corpse is found, just the gold. Therefore, death is conquered via his grave (which is the main point of New Testament).

In the final showdown, as the three men square off, it turns out that Tuco's gun has no bullets. This is because the real battle is between TG and TB (Christ and Death). TU, humanity, is only a spectator.

Tuco is morally corrupt and deserves to die (damnation) as much as "Angel Eyes." Yet, TG ultimately saves him from death. TU is literally STANDING ON A CROSS when rescued by TG and allowed to collect his share of gold (clear symbolism that could have been TOO obvious if not handled so well by Leone).

Furthermore, in that last scene, TU is redeemed only AFTER he has called out to TG for "salvation." This is pretty straightforward Christian dogma.

The final shot of TGTBaTU shows TG on horseback climbing towards high mountains (Christ ascended to Heaven after his work on Earth was finished).

Tuco may be "saved", but (with apologies to Ann Coulter) he's not "perfect." He curses at TG, still demonstrating all the human failings he started with at the film's begining.

To reiterate something I said earlier, for me, this version of "The Good News" is just as powerful in it's presentation as more traditional tellings in films such as Nicholas Ray's King of Kings or George Stevens' often overwrought The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In the latter two, the main character has no texture and humanity doesn't quite seem to NEED His sacrifice.


Will said...

Awesome! Thanks for the post - you've obviously done a great deal of thinking about this.

GCCR said...


TGTBaTU is one of those flicks that I've sorta known about for years but have never really watched all the way through.

When I saw it at the Detroit Inst. of Arts a couple of years ago, and noticed the metaphor that Leone was developing, it gave me a newfound appreciation for it.

Ben said...

Holy Cow. Finally. I've been saying this for years and no one ever believes me. Then they watch the movie and it's so obvious, "Wow, why did I never notice that before?" But go look around the internet, there is NOTHING about it. In fact, the more I watch the movie, the more I wonder how it is that no one notices that the movie has huge problems if you look at it in any other way. Blondie is constantly getting saved by sheer divine "luck", the cannon ball with the noose situation, the fact that Bill Carson dies at the exact moment so that Tuco has to save Blondie etc.

By the way, did you watch the recently re-mastered and extended cut? It doesn't add a whole lot, but it does clear up some of the weird logical leaps of the earlier version, like, for instance, how Angel Eyes got mixed up in the army.

If you're into finding religious themes that are screaming out of a film but that no one seems to catch, also check out the American version of SOLARIS, with George Cluny.

Adam said...

What a fantastic entry about one of the greatest Westerns of all time. The only thing missing is a literal crucifixion scene.