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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Good, The Bad and La Forza

Verdi's opera meets (and inspires) the "spaghetti" Western.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
L.-R.: Il buono (Clint Eastwood), il brutto, (Eli Wallach) il cattivo (Lee Van Cleef)
© 1966 United Artists Pictures.
Last night, very late, I was watching The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, Sergio Leone's masterpiece and the third movie of the trilogy starring Clint Eastwood as "The Man With No Name." About an hour in, just as a random cannonball demolished the second story of the hotel where Tuco (Eli Wallach) had Clint at gunpoint, I started thinking about Verdi--specifically his 1862 opera La Forza del Destino.

Forza (as it's known to opera lovers) is the bastard child among Verdi's mature works, held as either the highest level of genius or a mishappen mess. It is frequently criticized for a total lack of Aristotelian unities, a plot held together by happenstance. A century later, Leone's so-called "spaghetti" Westerns faced the same criticism, mostly from American critics.

A quick recap: Don Alvaro, eloping with Leonora di Vargas when they are confronted by her dad. Alvaro surrenders his weapon. It goes off, killing Vargas. Carlo di Vargas (the son) swears vendetta. Leonora becomes a hermit. Alvaro enlists, only to find Carlo in his regiment. Returning to Spain, Alvaro becomes a priest. Carlo shows up. They duel. Alvaro mortally wounds Carlo. Leonora is killed by a dying Carlo and dies in Alvaro's arms.

Part of what makes Forza remarkable (if bewildering) to newcomers is its reliance on supporting characters in addition to the main trio. Part of that is because Verdi conflated two sources for the libretto: Rivas' play Don Alvaro and Schiller's Wallensteins Lager, which contributed the battle scenes in Act III. This is Verdi's war opera, and he fills its battlefields with memorable figures: the Mayor of Hornachuelos, the gypsy turned military recruiter Preziosilla, the muleteer Trabuco. This vast canvas of humanity serves as comic relief and much-needed contrast to the drama of the three leads.

Leone's film also centers on a triangle. But his three gunfighters: Blondie, ("The good": Eastwood), "Angel-Eyes" ("The bad": Lee van Cleef) and Tuco ("The ugly": Eli Wallach) are more interested in gold than revenge. They're interested in revenge too (and that drives the sub-plot between Blondie and Tuco)  but their goal is $200,000 in gold coins buried in an unknown grave.

Set in the New Mexico territory during the Civil War, the three men seek the lost gold of the one-eyed Bill Carson. The war interrupts the plot repeatedly, as with Forza. Union and Confederate soldiers are both portrayed--the Confederates starving, the Union cruel or drunk. The final act plays out the vendettas between the three main characters, culminating in the final confrontation in the graveyard. The whole is set to Ennio Morricone's most memorable score, with a hyena-howl theme that appears with the same frequency as the three fatalistic chords that open Verdi's opera.

Leone populates his Civil War landscape with memorable secondary figures. There's the terrified gun merchant who helps Tuco assemble a custom weapon from three different revolvers--and then gets robbed for his trouble. The Confederate sergeant stewing empty corn-cobs to feed his men. The thug who helps run the prison camp. The small banda of captured Rebel soldiers in the prison-camp forced to play music to cover the sound of torture. The drunk Union captain who knows that getting his soldiers soused is the only way to make them fight. The priest Father Pablo, who turns out to be Tuco's brother. The confrontation of the two siblings recalls the sniping between Padre Guardiano and Fra Melitone, Verdi's "good" and "bad" monks.

The final gunfight is very much like the last scene of Forza. Both take place in stark locations: a wild mountain pass in Spain for the opera, the vast cemetery of Sad Hill (built for the film by the Spanish Army) for the film. Leone shotsthe gunfight with close-ups on the three men, their faces, their hands, their eyes. When the guns finally roar, it is like the crash of cymbals in a Verdi score.

A final point: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is set during the American Civil War. Verdi's opera was written during that war. It premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1862. Coincidence? Or the force of destiny?

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