Indeed, it was the latter group – that embodied the pinnacle of the film’s continuously fluctuating macho hierarchy – that most intrigued me. Throughout the film, the intensely phallic interplay between the infamous Manco or ‘Man with No Name’ (Clint Eastwood), Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and their principal target, El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) ranges from the playfully exhibitionist to the explosively homo-erotic. In what constitutes perhaps the most evocative display of hetero-masculine dominance in classic cinema, the trio constantly vie for phallic supremacy by attempting to out draw each other in relentless shootouts and standoffs (scenarios which now supersede the actual reputations of the films themselves).
In his article for The Film Journal, ‘Sex and the Single Gunslinger: Homoeroticism in Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns’, Dan Jardine claims that the solitariness, sparsity and relentless peril of the bounty hunter lifestyle are exhibited in an overtly erotic phallic interplay between the duo of protagonists – Manco, Colonel Mortimer and the central antagonist El Indio:
‘…what are the men to do with all [their] pent up energy? Why, they play with their guns, of course. That, and they light up. Constantly. The ubiquitous tobacco smoking vessels, whether cigars, cigarettes or pipes, and the lighting of same becomes a ritual that brims with either homo-eroticism or naked aggression’.
Jardine not only identifies the use of a firearm as an extension of masculine sexuality; the implication is that gun slinging, and its perilous competitiveness, is a display of repressed homo-erotic desire. Interestingly, he also refers to the puckish gun-tooting tomfoolery between Manco and Col. Mortimer as being not just a rivalry or even a friendship, but a ‘consummation’ of a transgressive relationship:
‘…the gun play… is essential to their identity and masculinity. The real man is quick on the draw, and shoots with deadly accuracy. Leone also has his characters use their weapon playfully-witness, for example, the first meeting of Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More, where the two men exchange opportunities to show off their talents with their weapons by blasting the other man’s hat all over the dusty streets of Sante Fe… Each impressed by the other’s dexterity, the two men soon become partners. How to consummate such a relationship? Why, light up, of course!’
Indeed, what better way to commemorate a homo-social partnership than engaging in the most intensely phallic of activities? Homo-erotic imagery abounds in this scene – perhaps more so than any other throughout the entire film. Thus ensues a relentless exchange of phallic marksmanship and we observe Manco’s sadistic glare as he watches Mortimer painstakingly bend over to reach for his hat, only to ejaculate a single well aimed shot at the last moment. This represents the ultimate phallic dictation on the part of Manco as he is able to both demonstrate his own phallic prowess whilst subjugating his rival’s machoism and masculine legitimacy. In this sense, Mortimer is forced (and to some extent submits) into the role of the masochistic phallicist, whilst Manco momentarily performs the role of masculinist patriarch.
As such, the implications of this sexually ambiguous mode of masculinity behove us to (or at least attempt to) deconstruct the hardy exterior of Eastwood’s archetypal anti-hero. Eastwood himself has stated that he ‘wanted to play [the role of Manco] with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement. It was just the kind of character I had envisioned for a long time, keep to the mystery and allude to what happened in the past…I felt the less he said, the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience’. Eastwood’s characterisation of himself suggests a desire to evoke the archetypal masculine binary of the lone, subdued and infinitely infallible male hero. Yet, his particular emphasis on the vitality of the audience responsiveness and expectation suggests an intentional move to evoke an existentialist realisation of idealised masculinity, rather than a sole reliance on methodical performativity.
Intriguingly, against the backdrop of what he terms ‘the last masculine frontier’ Eastwood has also explained how he views the role of the ‘Western’ protagonist as being that of ‘the pioneer, the loner operating by himself, without benefit of society. [His existence] usually has something to do with some sort of vengeance; he takes care of the vengeance himself…’ But what, I wonder happens to those on the loosing end, their bluff call out and their cards played to the last?
Perhaps it is as Eastwood’s Manco tells Tuco in the final scene of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’:
You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend…
…those with loaded guns, and those who dig.