True Accounts of a Classic: Behind the Scenes of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly by Peter J. Hanley.
A Book Review by Tony Williams.
This handsome, beautifully illustrated, well-researched book of over 400 pages (from Il Buono Publishing) is another example of the valuable work done by individual talents outside the institutional confines of an oppressively market-driven publishing industry. Currently available on various Amazon.com links, whether America, the UK or Germany (the latter containing appreciative reviews), this book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Leone’s work.
Fortunately, the days are long gone when the Italian Western experienced critical disdain and ignorant condescension by establishment critics when it first appeared. We now have studies by Christopher Frayling, Robert C. Cumbow, John Fawell, and many others who fully understand what the genre was attempting in its heyday. But what has been lacking so far is a detailed production history of the filming and interviews with many of the production team. Since this book appears fifty years since the actual film itself, naturally many key personnel, such as Leone himself, Lee Van Cleef, and others, are no longer with us. Clint, himself, remains not just a man of few words but no words at all in this study, and I’m sure the author made several attempts to contact him. However, since the actor has moved on to other prestigious activities in the past few decades he may have felt that he has said everything he needed to say in the past. However, he remains a strong visual (as seen in production and behind the scenes stills) presence as well as a firm memory in the minds of those who remember him. Yet what is so important in this study is not the centrality of one particular actor or director but the role of a collaborative production team that made this film possible not only in its now unassailable stature of being one of the best Italian Westerns of its type, but also as a work diligently researched in advance and the product of a strong production team in which everybody collaborated in making the film what it is today.
The book is well illustrated not only with production stills but behind-the-scenes photos showing Clint playing golf between takes, the actor seated in publicity stills with his fellow title characters, and rediscovered collaborators such as Romano Puppo who functioned not just as set interpreter, but also body double and stuntman (see e.g. Figures 2.3, 2.9, 2.47 dressed as Angel Eyes in the Sad Hill cemetery location, 5.41, 11.53.). We see also Leone engaged in many demanding production activities on set alongside technical collaborators such as cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and assistants Franco Di Giacomo and Sergio Salvati, as well as many showing the frequent appearance of the late Serena Canevari as script girl. The eleven profusely illustrated chapters in this book cover the little known historical background concerning the ill-fated General Sibley’s Texan and New Mexican campaign that formed one of the rare instances of the Civil War in the West, Principal and Supporting Actors, Art Direction, Assistant Direction, Editing, Titles, and Sound, Deleted Scenes, Music, Special Effects, Leone, and an outline of the original script and shooting locations. Throughout the work, Hanley shows the geographical locations as they are today comparing them to scenes in the film. He makes expert use of the advantages of Blu-ray both in frame enlargements, and close-ups of maps barely seen in theatrical prints but based on actual historical ones. Many photos show period watercolor paintings such as “Leaving Andersonville” from the military prison series by J.E. Taylor (1839-1901) as well as actual Civil War photographs by Matthew Brady and others that show the very careful historical reconstructions that went into the film. Great care was taken to reconstruct close approximations of the actual Civil War cannons (even if they were made in Spain) and historically accurate armaments such as Angel Eyes wielding an 1851 Colt Navy revolver (Figure 9.4) except where creative license occurred (see e.g. Figure 1.10, where an 1873 cannon is used) and this appears to be at a minimum. Andersonville mentioned by Angel Eyes in the union prison camp sequence actually opened some two years after Sibley’s campaign (363-364) but in the world of cinema not beholden to neither realist fallacies nor rigid historical accuracy this type of divergence is excusable in the creative sense. The whole book is a tribute to a dedicated working team who all collaborated in making the best possible film that they could, before or behind the camera.
Neither Leone nor Lee Van Cleef were around for the book but, as with other deceased collaborators, Hanley compensates for such sad absences with either interviews from surviving family members, such as Carla Leone or Van Cleef’s son Alan, as well as extracts from secondary material such as an interview conducted several years ago with the actor. Cuban-Mexican actress Chelo Alonso (fondly remembered for her stunning appearance in the 1959 Steve Reeves Goliath and the Barbarians) who plays the soon-to-be-bereaved widow of the farmer grilled by Angel Eyes in the second sequence contributes an informative interview. Stills from other Leone films also appear including several from For a Few Dollars More that show “No Name” in bed with Mara Krupp’s voluptuous, well-proportioned wife (Figures 7.8-9) of the hotel manager (Kurt Zips who resembles a younger version of Benny Hill) appearing briefly in the final film. The removal of the revealing Krupp scene may not have been just due to concerns over running time but undermining of the nickname given to “Il Monko” showing him breaking his “holy” vow for the pursuit of happiness but the quest for dollars. Had this scene remained, Clint’s character would have resembled a James Bond of the West who would certainly not be one of Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) though parallels to Joe D’Allesandro’s Joe the Hustler would have been hard to avoid. This “brief encounter” set a precedent for another deleted scene in the following film showing Clint in bed with Silvana Bacci (Figures 7.6-7), who is also interviewed in the book. Figures 7.12 and 7.14 certainly show him as a “happy camper” in two off-camera moments! Like many others interviewed, Bacci (238-9) describes the actor as polite but distant (possibly already considering the next move in his career) while collaborating on the film in a professional manner and having no history of alcoholism, unlike Lee Van Cleef as mentioned by two other surviving crew members. Clint is also seen supporting Leone’s home team with an Italian flag during an Italy vs. Spain football match on set, as well as consuming wine from a traditional Spanish leather wineskin (Figures 4.18, 4.19). “When in Rome, Keep your Director Happy….”
The book mentions several deleted scenes that were either filmed such as the one showing Tuco teaming up with the Mexican brothers to avenge himself on Blondie or the one supposedly opening the film showing Bill Carson burying the money in the cemetery that becomes the climatic location for the final gunfight. The dates on the crosses seen on the markers link up with the bloody toll Sibley’s campaign took on his men. At various points in the book, production members recount the humorous incident of how a Spanish official accidentally prematurely blew up the bridge seen in the final Civil War sequence by linguistically mistaking the command he was supposed to receive. This lead to a delay necessitating constructing the bridge again.
Two errors occur in the text that can easily be corrected. In the extensive Eli Wallach interview surely “Charles Lawton” should read “Charles Laughton” (70) and Tony Ranford as “Tony Randall” (70) especially since the actor attended the same Neighborhood Playhouse where Wallach began his formal training. These are minor in comparison to the immensity of this book that is worth saving up for and acquiring.
To paraphrase the advertising logo following the release of the first two entries in the Dollar Trilogy, “This is the first book of its kind. Hopefully, it will not be the last.” It is well-illustrated, meticulously researched, and indebted to new types of technology that enable us not only to zoom in to the page on Newsweek that Clint reads off-set in one of his off-duty moments but also revealing that it is the European English language edition and not the American one. The story he reads deals with captured American flyers in Hanoi during the Viet Nam war (Figure 5.42), during an historical era that not only influenced the Italian Western but the Hollywood version that would never be the same again.
Tony Williams is Professor/Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor at Film International.