After far longer than I realized, I’m returning to Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. I was very much into them during high school, but my attention then shifted entirely to Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone’s final western was important to me at that point in my life, anticipating and then entering film school, as it’s a genre deconstruction, film as myth, dense with symbols, et cetera. With, perhaps, the help of Christopher Frayling, Once Upon a Time in the West opened up to me as a movie to analyze, and I never spared the same approach to the trilogy. These days I’m far less insecure about my movie taste, and this has granted me welcome revelations. Especially since, to be honest, I could hardly follow what was happening in these movies.
So far, A Fistful of Dollars really blew me away. It’s “often forgotten” to me, lacking the memorable scenes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the critical acclaim of For a Few Dollars More. But it’s a really cool movie that serves as an introduction to a new archetype of antihero. Clint Eastwood plays a guy who mysteriously wanders into town and does some terrible things to make money. But by the last act, things change without a word of indication from “Joe,” and this is where we get the heart of gold.
Next was For a Few Dollars More, which is almost like the antihero applied, now that he’s been established. In this one, Eastwood actually goes undercover with a violent gang as part of an ever-changing plot to stop them, in tandem with Lee Van Cleef’s Mortimer. It was the scene where Eastwood sticks up the telegraph guy that I realized we’re pushing on this archetype. And the film isn’t so much centered on an exploration of that archetype so much as seeing how he performs in a ruthless world, now opened up from the one town with two sides in Fistful. When El Indio sends Eastwood into Agua Caliente to kill any waiting gunmen, Eastwood simply demonstrates his shooting skills and scares them off. There are some lines he won’t cross. From here, I’ll have to review The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which will take days. I had to break up Fistful over like a week, though For a Few Dollars More took only two sittings. What can I say, it’s been busy!
Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about today is movie-watching order. One of the things that always fascinated me about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the idea that Mortimer had possibly returned as Angel Eyes. Same actor, same outfit, but not the same personality. However, after Blondie’s killed him in the climactic three-way duel, he shoots his hat into the grave, which to me was a callback to the shooting contest in For a Few Dollars More. Like I said, I really didn’t understand these movies. But I think I recognized that these were two different characters, and the possibility they weren’t served to characterize the world at the expense of Mortimer. How did he become such an evil bastard when he was the only remotely noble character just the film previous?
Of course, the Dollars Trilogy is not an official sequence of films but a marketing tactic, and Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonté play two different characters in these movies. That being said, there are clues that this could be one long story, a shared universe in our current times when everything has to be connected. Should we be worried about that? I mean, part of what makes American comics so inaccessible is the Crossover, now infecting other media. I’m like, “Batman: No Man’s Land, that sounds familiar,” but it isn’t something you can just pick up and read — I mean, you can — but it collects individual issues from different titles, and this is a recurring scenario. In our case, it’s just three movies, and with a very soft continuity. So soft it doesn’t even exist. And that’s what I really like. It’s what I wish The Legend of Zelda would do, that each episode is another interpretation of the, you know, legend. If you can find a meaningful connection in the Dollars Trilogy, like Angel Eyes’ hat, then that’s fine. Whether or not it’s real is part of the mythical aspect anyway. Maybe there’s just something about Angel Eyes that reminds Blondie of an old friend…
Specifically, online sources tell me that there’s even a proper viewing order, and that sets me all atwitter, because aside from the Ring Theory, the Machete Order is one of the coolest things to learn about in the world of Star Wars. This is a solution to the problem of how to watch Star Wars, which has indeed been rendered a problem. Read on! You see, if you watch them in release order, Episodes IV-III, you end with Ghost Jedi Hayden Christensen and won’t know who that is. If you go chronologically, Episodes I-VI, the big twist in Empire is spoiled by the whole of the Prequels. So the Machete Order is as follows:
Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi
Absolutely ingenious. As you see, The Phantom Menace is excised because it would make the prequel detour too long and it really doesn’t add anything. I don’t know that Return of the Jedi is a suitably grand finale to this new sequence, but what could be? That’s a problem we found had legs in 2019. Similarly, if you wanted to do a playthrough of the Halo games, you’d have to stop partway into Halo 2 and switch over to Halo 3: ODST.
So what’s the Machete Order for the Dollars Trilogy? According to Screen Rant, writing about this last year — way to stay relevant, am I right — it’s simpler, but far more surprising:
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
For a Few Dollars More
A Fistful of Dollars
That’s right! A complete flip. But the rationale adds up: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is actually situated during the American Civil War, specifically 1862, and Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More is a Civil War veteran. As far as Fistful goes, there’s something about his hat having been shot up, but it’s a bit weaker.
I think this works on many levels, however, although I’d find it difficult not to end any viewing with the epic finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Clint Eastwood once complained to Sergio Leone that each sequel was adding costars, a sort of Wesley Snipesean predicament. True enough, first it’s Lee Van Cleef and then it’s Eli Wallach. But if you go backwards, we then find the Man with No Name instead shedding companions. We could say he’s growing as a hero. Or devolving, since he’s actually empathetic during the Civil War, fairly mercenary in For a Few Dollars More as a “bounty killer” nevertheless hunting the bad guys, and a big jerk in A Fistful of Dollars — with the redemption rounding it all out.
What struck me about the very opening scenes of Fistful was how much Eastwood does talk, how much repartee he develops with characters, and how playful he is. He escapes his panicked mule by hanging onto a sign, and says, “Hello” to a shopkeeper while still hanging there. And he follows it by initiating the first gunfight in the series with a humorous exchange.
Throughout, we don’t know where “Joe” comes from, and if Fistful is the last adventure we witness, we already know he’s rich several times over. He doesn’t need that $500 from the Baxters if El Indio’s gang was worth, what, $40,000? And what about the Confederate gold next to Bill Carson? He just does what he does, and that’s part of what makes him so compelling. Of course, if you want to shatter that, just watch this fascinating piece of film history preserved on YouTube:
They (who?) shot this with Harry Dean Stanton to play before a 1977 TV airing, in which the good lawman tells the Man with No Name to go sort out that little town of San Miguel. I realize its silly camerawork obscuring “Clint Eastwood’s” face and the lame dialogue mark this as decidedly low-rent, only taking away from the movie. However, knowing that he has some sort of plan going in at least gives you some insight into his thoughts during Fistful. It’s just a different way to watch the movie — and isn’t that what it’s all about?
The last thing to consider for now is whether, had Once Upon a Time in the West successfully cast Clint Eastwood as Harmonica, Leone’s first choice, we’d have to reconsider it as the true ending of the Dollars Quadrilogy. I’d say “No,” simply because Harmonica has a past. He’s very much the same sort of mythical figure, with a pronounced relationship to the frame itself (though perhaps Blondie has that, too), but it’s a different character. He’s got a mission, like Mortimer or Joe according to Harry Dean Stanton. Once Upon a Time in the West is barely a bookend to the Dollars Trilogy anyway, as it’s so much about the American western, and Fistful was about introducing the Italian vision. And then there’s Unforgiven, to which any of Eastwood’s earlier westerns can be the backstory.