or reasons mentioned HERE, every year like clockwork I watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. As a Western placed in the Civil War, it is as sprawling and vast as a huge budget can make it. But when I was watching the heroes get past their final object, two armies poised over an idiotic bridge, I began to wonder.
In a nutshell, the Good and the Ugly (reunited after a series of parched misunderstandings) are bootstriding their way towards their final goal, a military graveyard (poetically named the Sad Hill Cemetery) and bumble into a Union Army. They are facing off against the Confederacy over a long rickety bridge which both sides seek to secure. Every day, there is clockwork bloodbath. The Union commander curses the bridge, wishing he could blow it up. Finally, Blondie and Tuco sneak down in the bloody confusion following one bloodbath, lay charges under the bridge and blow it sky-high (a magnificent shot). The bridge is gone, the armies shoot at each other for a while then decamp to fight elsewhere.
As a viewer winding this thing up at 2am, I rather wondered about this scene – everything else in the movie focuses on the strategies and interactions of the three protagonists. This whole side-adventure makes no sense. They arrive, they interact with a strange but resolvable situation and depart without gain, loss, or point. It seemed odd.
But then I remembered Chekhov’s gun.
Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed; elements should not appear to make “false promises” by never coming into play.
It loosely refers to a play where, if a gun is placed on a mantle in act one, it had better be used by act three. Everything strange and interesting in a story requires a point. You can’t write about a hardboiled detective and then describe him grocery shopping (unless he sees something that clicks in his brain about the current case). Pointless side trips and meaningless actions are out.
So why this side story? Then I realized that this entire movie was set in the Civil War. We’d seen troops marching. We’d been inside a Yankee prison camp. We’d suffered indirect bombardment. And yet, other than some guys in blue and some in gray (and some, hilariously, in gray-dusty blue) we had no direct involvement with the Civil War itself. So the director decided that he had to put us into a battle, a crazy ranging battle with thousands of men, shooting, screaming, bleeding, and top it off with a massive detonation of something, the brilliant physical manifestation of resolution, to satisfy us. He could not have placed the Civil War, with all its struggles, on the mantelpiece and not use it.
It was, quite possibly, the most amazingly vast example of Chekhov’s Gun I’ve ever witnessed.
If you’ve never seen this flick, you gotta watch it, if only as an exercise in storytelling.
p.s. Interesting factoid – with the bridge wired up by the Spanish Army (who were also suited up as background actors for the sprawling battle), a fumble on the set walkie talkies resulted in the bridge being blown up (fully and completely) with the cameras not rolling. There were screamings and firings, but then the level-headed Spanish Commander calmed everyone down, had his men rebuild the set in record time, and blew it up a second time, all for your enjoyment.