Calum Marsh: The point is to enjoy the movie as it was meant to be enjoyed, as Sergio Leone intended
Not long ago, Will Ross was in Photoshop, carefully erasing a cannonball.
In the original theatrical version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western masterpiece from 1966, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a cannon firing on the Confederate outpost where Tuco, the Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, is preparing to hang Blondie, the otherwise unnamed hero played by Clint Eastwood. But on home video, the shot’s been trimmed slightly, and there are critical milliseconds missing of the canon seen without the firing ball in frame. Ross is doing what someone tasked to restore the movie should have done a long time ago. He’s trying to fix The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, honing it scrupulously, one frame at a time.
A filmmaker, editor and sound designer based in Vancouver, Ross has been fine-tuning a private restoration of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Devan Scott, a cinematographer and colourist, for several months now — although the idea of taking it upon themselves to perfect a film left otherwise to languish has been on their minds for years.
Leone’s stylized epic is something of an obsession for the pair. Ross and Scott discovered the film at different times in their lives, but a shared affection for it was the foundation of their friendship and collaboration. They named their filmmaking studio, Sad Hill Media, after the fictitious cemetery where Blondie, Tuco and Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes have their protracted duel at the climax of the picture. A few years ago, they mounted an arduous pilgrimage to the real-life plain in southern Burgos in Spain, near Santo Domingo de Silos, where the scene was filmed, and recreated the famous shootout with astonishing accuracy. Their journey — an €80 taxi ride into the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains — was extensively featured in the Spanish documentary Sad Hill Unearthed.
With the expedition out of the way, the Sad Hill guys were ready to get down to more serious business. “Since going there, there were two items left on the checklist as fans,” Scott explains. “One was to successfully lobby for an accurate release of the original cuts of the film. Two, in the absence of the first, was to accurately recreate those cuts ourselves, using a melange of different home-video releases.”
The first seems more and more like a pipe dream. The second is nearly done. “We are more or less finishing up our reconstruction,” Scott says. It might have proven to be more labour-intensive than even their crusade to Spain. But whatever it takes, Scott and Ross want to see the film fixed.
Most people don’t know The Good, the Bad and the Ugly needs fixing. It’s one of the best-known and most celebrated movies of all time; it’s widely available on DVD, Blu-ray, online and it appears regularly on cable television, in high-definition and with Dolby sound. This is not one of cinema’s lost classics, like the director’s cut of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, nor is it one of the countless curios underserved by the video market, such as Wavelength or The Mother and the Whore, long unavailable to own and possible to see only in roughshod bootleg. You can buy The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and its two predecessors, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, together as a box set on Blu-ray right now on Amazon, for $37.99. And for most people, it’ll do the trick.
But Ross and Scott are not most people. The versions readily available are not good enough for them, nor for anyone who cares, who feels the desire to see the movie as it was meant to be seen. That Blu-ray, in common with every other Blu-ray, DVD, VHS and digital version of the movie on the market, is compromised, bowdlerized, watered down. It doesn’t accurately reflect the movie made by Leone in 1966.
“What you have is an iconic film. The title is in the cultural idiom. Everybody knows the theme music,” Ross explains. “But you have rights holders and distributors who are not doing their due diligence in presenting it.” The studio, the Leone estate, the people whose job it is to release movies on video and make sure they look and sound good — these people, in the eyes of fans, have failed a great film. They don’t care that it isn’t right.
Preparing a movie for release on home video is not as simple as stamping it onto a disc. For a top-to-bottom restoration and release like the ones MGM conducted for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 2002 and 2014, technicians create high-resolution digital scans from the original 35mm negative, which are a bit like the studio masters used to produce new copies of recorded music. Because film deteriorates over time, there’s a certain amount of rehabilitation involved, too: Scuffs and scratches have to be removed, often frame by frame, while colours that have faded are resaturated and images that are damaged or weather-beaten are cleaned up and refined.
There is a creative element in all this. A film print can’t just be ported onto a DVD, the way you tape something from TV. It has to be translated, and that translation involves decisions about how things look, sound and feel. For most of the history of the medium, movies were made to be projected in a cinema, on film; when you digitize them and squish them down for home video, to be shown in a living room on a television, what you want is for it to look as much as possible as it did on the theatre screen. The ideal is not necessarily the sharpest image or the most eye-popping colours. (Although that is sometimes the impulse of distributors who want to make striking products.) It is, or ought to be, the most faithful approximation of the way it was shown in cinemas when it was first released.
In the case of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that ideal is complicated by certain unusual factors. For one thing, the movie was an Italian production, shot partly in Spain, with a cast of Americans and Mexicans. For another, Italian movies of the era were almost always dubbed, in part so that actors of different backgrounds could read their lines in their native tongue. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was therefore always intended with both an American and Italian audience in mind.
“The core thing you need to know about the film is that two versions were prepared and approved by its director, Sergio Leone,” Ross says. “One of them was the initial 1966 cut. It was dubbed in Italian, which was common in Spaghetti Westerns at the time, and ran just shy of three hours. And a year later Leone prepared the 1967 international cut, for which he supervised the English dubbing along with all of the cutting and additional music editing. That version runs about two hours and 42 minutes.”
Two versions: One in Italian and one in English, the latter cut down a little for international sensibilities. (Some of the more violent action in the film was tamed for British and American audiences, particularly the torture of Tuco at the hands of Angel Eyes midway through the film.) You cannot see either of these versions as they were seen at the time anymore. They don’t exist, and outside of their time on screen in the late 1960s, they never have. “Unless there is some extremely obscure VHS release that I don’t know about,” Ross says, “there has never been an accurate depiction of either of those definitive cuts.”
The film’s history on home video is extensive, owing to its fame and popularity. There were some versions of tape in the 1980s. In 1990, it was put out on laserdisc, and in 1998, it was put out on DVD, as a hybrid of the Italian and international versions, with “some shots added, some subtracted,” the guys complain. In 2002, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer unveiled a spectacular new restoration of the movie, which they touted as “The Extended Cut.” The goal of this cut was to add the scenes missing from the 1967 international version, only with the proper English voices, as until then they had only been seen dubbed. To accomplish this, they brought in Eastwood and Wallach, as well as a soundalike for Van Cleef (who died in 1989), and had them record the missing dialogue, 35 years later.
“They got 70-something Clint Eastwood, 90-something Eli Wallach and someone who was not Lee Van Cleef to dub the audio,” Scott says. “And it sounds like two very elderly men and someone who is not Lee Van Cleef voicing everything.”
The restoration had other problems. Several scenes that MGM alleged were from the original Italian cut actually differed in key respects; the Tuco torture scene, in particular, had been radically changed. For the sake of really extending the movie, they added an entirely new scene that Leone had shot but left, by choice, on the cutting-room floor — the “worst scene in any version,” Scott insists, which “Leone never approved of” at all. (It’s the scene in which Tuco recruits his brothers in the cave after Blondie leaves him to die, and it does seem out of place, even to novice eyes.) Plus, MGM’s much-vaunted new 5.1 audio mix was an outrageous hack job. “They took all the sound effects, especially the gunshots and the cannon shots, and replaced them with completely modern sounds that didn’t sound like the originals at all,” Scott says. “It’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly, but it’s mixed like Master and Commander. It’s bewildering.”
It was around this point, Ross says, that “fans started getting uneasy.” In the late 2000s, at the dawn of another technological change, there was a Blu-ray release of the 2002 restoration. Then in 2014, there was another restoration, this time with the original mono audio track. Still, problems persist. “They’re still using the bastardized extended cut, and there’s no 1967 version anymore anywhere,” Ross says. Added to which is another new issue altogether: In an effort to address the colour, they added way too much yellow, turning every passing cloud in the sky into what Ross describes as “washed-out tufts of urine.” The sound, meanwhile, though thankfully mono, sounds “tinny” and “bizarre.”
“Fans were so frustrated that finally, in 2017, a boutique Blu-ray label called Kino announced they’re going to put out their own edition,” Ross says. “Fans were excited, because they said they’re going to include the 1967 cut, they’re going to include a proper mono audio track, they’re going to fix the yellow.” Things seem like they might be right at last. But somehow, devastatingly, Kino screws it up.
“It’s the worst-looking version of the film ever released,” Scott says, downcast. “I was shocked.”
Which doesn’t leave admirers of the film with much faith that it will ever be done properly, by anyone. “Fans have begged,” Ross says. “There are fans who own excellent quality 35mm prints who have called distributors and offered to let them use it as reference. I don’t know what’s holding it up. Why not listen to such a vocal fanbase? This is Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movie. What’s happening?”
Distributors can’t get it right. Studios can’t get it right. The men and women tasked to restore the thing can’t get it right. But who might? Well, guys who obsess over the film — guys like Devan Scott and Will Ross. Which is maybe why, without anything remotely resembling permission to do so, they have decided to do the impossible and fix The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, even if only for themselves. They’ve begun to cobble together the ideal version of the movie using the materials at hand.
They started with the laserdisc. They bought one on eBay. “It’s the closest thing we can find to the 1967 version,” Scott says. “Luckily, it only has one deviation, which is a close-up of a cannon—”
“No, it’s not a cannon, it’s a wall exploding,” Ross interjects.
“Right! A wall exploding after a cannon fires.”
Scott and Ross took the laserdisc to a local arts collective that happened to have a laserdisc player. They hooked it up to a wall projector, and hooked the audio up to a sound recorder, and then recorded the audio and taped the movie off the wall.
With this copy as a visual reference, they took images from the restored Blu-rays — some from the 2014 MGM Blu-ray, some from the Kino version, some from “an obscure 2009 Italian release” that had a couple of images the others did not — and assembled a makeshift “original” cut. Over the years, the movie has undergone enough restorations and high-definition releases in different versions that a savvy eye can pick and choose the best components from each: a shot that was done well here, a reverse-shot done better there.
Some of the most pernicious gremlins, such as the bogus Tuco recruitment scene Leone never wanted, have been deservedly excised from the Scott-Ross cut. Shots have been trimmed or expanded to be as consistent as possible with the original theatrical version. In some cases, as in the shot of the cannon with the missing frames (they could see them in the laserdisc copy), they resorted to Photoshop and did the restoring themselves, by hand. They have spent countless hours lingering on the details most people wouldn’t notice. Their diligence, their super-zealous rigour, is what elevates their work above the amateur tinkering of the hobbyist and into the realm of serious care.
The result, they feel, is very good. Although “it’s not perfect,” Ross concedes, “it’s close — within a few seconds of the original cut.” With the means and raw materials at their disposal — a few hundred thousand dollars, give or take, and the original negatives or a few good-quality 35mm prints — they could do the whole thing from scratch and perfect it definitively.
To diehards like Scott and Ross, this has been more than a mere passion project. The point is to enjoy the movie as it was meant to be enjoyed, as Sergio Leone intended — not how some distributor decides it ought to be seen. They are reclaiming The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the people who have proven incapable of doing it justice.
Though they don’t have the rights to release their version, there’s a certain cosmic justice simply in knowing that it’s been done. They only hope someday a distributor does it too.