Sergio Leone’s 1966 “spaghetti western” masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is perhaps the greatest directed film of all time. It is truly one of the closest things to the “perfect movie” that you’ll ever see. The acting and writing is superb; the imagery is engaging and fits perfectly with the feel of the film; the balance between story and action is perfect; and it does all of this while telling a deeply intriguing story of the struggle to balance good and evil in a world in which neither is as clear as it seems.
At its roots, it’s the story of three men in a race for $250,000 worth of Confederate gold. Those three men are shown as being “The Good”, Clint Eastwood’s unnamed character known as ‘Blondie’, “The Bad” played masterfully by veteran western actor Lee Van Cleef, known as ‘Angel Eyes’ or Sentenza, and of course “The Ugly” Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, also known as ‘The Rat’ which is perhaps Eli Wallach’s most memorable role.
Though the film introduces each character under those presumptuous titles, the reality is that they are all comprised of each of the three traits. Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco are not solely embodied by their respected titles. This is particularly true of Tuco. The term “Ugly” isn’t to represent his physical appearance (though most could agree that he’s not exactly a looker) but rather to represent the true ugliness of his lifestyle. It is made clear early on that he is not a reputable individual, but instead a ruthless, selfish outlaw. He’s also a murderer and a rapist. He is wanted in 14 counties and set to hang from the neck until dead for those crimes. If not for the uneasy alliance he made with Blondie, he would have paid for those crimes twice over.
But if you dig deeper and peal back the layers of the character, or to be more specific, all the characters, you’ll see that Tuco best represents the median between completely good and completely evil. The other two leads seem to float ambiguously between both sides, while Tuco is the purest and most true to his way of life and therefor finds himself somewhere in the middle. He’s a criminal, for sure, but is also shown to have faith in God and a love for his brother (who is a priest, but cannot condone his brother’s actions and casts him away).
Because of this understanding of himself and his actions, he does not live with the moral dilemma or broken compass that Blondie and even Angel Eyes seem to possess. Blondie is far from what you would traditionally call “good” and proves this by killing three rival bounty hunters early in the film in order to protect Tuco. Those men, for all we know, could have been men of the law and righteous. Some of his actions throughout the film make you question his true motives and his label of being “the Good” altogether.
Tuco on the other hand, seems to be completely confident in his actions and his desire for riches. But he’s also quick to gain respect and admiration for Blondie, even after trying to kill him by having him walk through a desert without water. He initially seems to just want to keep Blondie alive in order to find the correct grave marker and final resting place of Arch Stanton’s gold, but in reality, he’s come to have deeper feelings of friendship and a bond for Blondie. Though their relationship was rocky to say the least throughout the story, Tuco discovered that he cared about Blondie, even if he couldn’t trust him.
Blondie is never open about his thoughts or emotions (it’s Eastwood after all) and it’s hard to really gauge his motives during the process of tracking down the cemetery. He’s meant to be ambiguous, but seemingly a good individual, despite adapting to his surroundings and being as much of an outlaw as either of the other two main characters. Angel Eyes is roughly the same sort of character, as we never completely get to see too much detail in to what he’s thinking or feeling beyond just wanting to track down the gold. (There are some deleted scenes without English dubs that exist that add to his backstory and motives, but don’t really add enough worth mentioning.) He seems completely evil, but if you consider that in context, he’s just out to get rich like the other two, than it’s hard to really just label him “the Bad” and move forward from there because he’s quick to kill. He’s much more than that, but we as an audience just don’t get much of a chance to see it, outside of the scene in which he’s on the farm and hunting down his first bounty.
Tuco on the other hand is completely open and blunt about his thoughts and emotions. He has the worst luck of all the characters (almost being hanged, getting beat up by Angel Eyes’ Union Officer thug, etc.) but because of that, the viewers can identify in him the most. We were lead to believe that he was “the Ugly” and the most reprehensible of the three characters, but during the course of the film, we realize that he is the most human; the most “like us” of any of them. We are the downtrodden and ugly, regardless of if we want to admit it; as are Blondie and Angel Eyes.
The true message is that none of us, none of the characters in the story, are “good” or “bad” in that world, in this world. We are all the “Ugly” and would be better off embracing it, much like Tuco, rather than try to fit one side or the other. Tuco is an outlaw; a murderer; but is also a man with a set of morals and values that allow him to experience life in that time period in its fullest. And still be able to form a friendship that he doesn’t want to see dissolve or be broken, regardless of the implications it might have.
Perhaps the most telling moment of this in the film is after the famous final showdown. Blondie tells Tuco to stand up on the grave marker and place his neck through a rope one last time. Eastwood’s character splits up the bags of gold and rides off into the sunset. The realization of what is happening strikes Tuco to the very core and it resonates in his eyes. He’s not afraid to die; he’s not afraid to be missing out on his half of the gold; he’s afraid that he’s losing his friend. The shock sets in that Blondie is leaving him to die and the pain that it causes is incredibly powerful. You feel it through the acting of Wallach and its profound enough to make you question “the Good” in life.
And then, Blondie comes through and fires a shot that sends Tuco crashing back down to the Earth on top of his half of the gold. Tuco gets up and yells out the iconic “Hey Blondie! You know what you are? Just a dirty son of a bitch!” That line, along with the striking cord of Ennio Morricone’s score playing at just the same moment as Tuco’s final words make for one of the greatest endings in motion picture history. It’s just another example (often overlooked) of what makes this movie possibly the most influential and best ever.
Tuco is often remembered as being a vulgar, uninviting, reprehensible, and bad person. But he is by far the most pure and transparent of any of the three He’s the balance between the good and the bad. And just like most of us, it’s who we are meant to be, whether or not we’d want to admit it. Life can’t always be good or bad, but it’s often very ugly.