The Age of Innocence on Trial

The title of Edith Wharton’s most famous novel is most likely derived from a popular painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The painting was created sometime between 1785-1788 (see below). Sir Reynolds did not actually title the painting, as the name was given to the work after his death. The painting was first presented to the National Gallery in 1847, and then to the Tate in 1951 where it remains today. It was a popular painting reproduced numerous times over.

ageofinnocence.jpg

Note the child’s bare feet, her bonnet, and the way the wind ruffles through her hair. She sits casually in a pasture, with a vast and open countryside behind her. Both hands sit loosely over her heart. She seems pensive as her gaze focuses off into the blurry distance. She is clothed in a billowy white dress caught by a particular light. We know very little about the painting – who is the main character? Why did Sir Reynolds’s decide to paint over his original Strawberry Girl? The mystery of the work persists.

At any rate, Wharton captures a certain degree of this mystery in her magnum opus, The Age of Innocence. She presents a complex glimpse of the past: one that is neither glamorous nor nostalgic, yet it is also not bitter. Wharton simply presents an epoch, an aristocratic age that was later destroyed by the Great War and its passing generation: the Gilded Age. This was the epoch in which Wharton was raised. She was a child of immense privilege, preferring to spend of her time studying and touring Europe. In adulthood, she lived lavishly as a socialite, and she was well-connected to some of the most influential men of her day (she much preferred the company of men to the idle chatter of women). She was fiercely conservative and a defender of the European way of doing things, which was different from the prideful upper-crust of Manhattan. She was erudite, witty, and always curious. It has been said of Edith Wharton that her one downfall was simple: she was not a pretty woman. She was married once, into a less than happy marriage. Their marriage eventually ended in divorce. It was even called a “sexless” marriage, an accusation which Wharton did not deny but which she blamed on her mother’s strict code of morality foisted upon her as a child. Wharton took one additional lover after her failed marriage, but otherwise she lived an independent life. Her lover was a famed bachelor, Walter Berry. No one knows the extent of their relationship because after his death Edith Wharton burned most their correspondences. However, what remains of their communication reveals a passionate love affair. Edith Wharton and Walter Berry buried beside one another at Versailles in France.


Published in 1920 following the death of Wharton’s close friend, Theodore Roosevelt, and amidst the fresh scars of World War I, The Age of Innocence takes place in the 1870s during the Gilded Age of old New York City – a city ruled by a cohort of elite families and their Victorian aristocratic values. It was the milieu in which Edith Wharton, herself, was raised, but she was not entirely fond of. Wharton writes the novel in the twilight of her life, as a reflection upon her upbringing. In a curious way, Wharton longs for the virtues of the old order, the way things were before the Great War. However, she does not truly wish to return to the Gilded Age. She merely captures the epoch now that it has passed. Her novel is an exploration, not a polemic.

Image result for edith wharton the age of innocence 1st edition

In the novel, we see Edith Wharton reflected in part by the role of the Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman seeking a divorce from her European husband. Olenska lives an independent life, which flies in the face of old New York conventions. She represents a new shift – a woman freed of her husband. In some ways, Edith Wharton splits herself between two characters: the Countess Olenska, and the main character, Newland Archer, a man who longs to transcend his stale social status in the hopes of finding the world alive and full of color again. Both characters seek to push beyond their moral confinements, however only Ellen succeeds, while Newland becomes trapped in his own duties and entanglements. Newland chooses familial duty, convention, obligation, safety and security instead of a love for Ellen that would, no doubt, cause great turmoil and public scandal.

Newland Archer, the complicated main character of the novel, is an upper-crust New York attorney. He is set to be engaged to the pretty but predictable May Welland. However, upon the entrance of Ellen Olenska, Archer is enamored. All throughout the book, he attempts to balance his duty to the rigid social mores of old New York by continuing to publicly court May Welland in the most proper and appropriate ways, without fully succumbing to his undeniable fascination and eventual desire for the new and independent woman, Ellen Olenska. In the end his commitment to the old world wins. He marries May Welland, while still captivated by Ellen Olenska. He hopes that his marriage will close the door on his yearning for Ellen. However, what ultimately forces him to commit fully to his wife is her unexpected pregnancy. From this moment on, Newland Archer never sees Ellen Olenska again. We see vague glimpses of his young and boring marriage as he slowly loses all interest in his wife, May Welland, though she was once clearly the proper choice according to old New York standards. The last chapter of the book is perhaps the most significant. It takes place many years later. Newland Archer’s wife, May, has passed away from an infection that developed into pneumonia. Newland is now in his 50s. His son is engaged to the child of the Beaufort family -Julius Beaufort was at one time one of the disreputable people courting Ellen Olenska. Since Newland and his son are now together in Paris, Ellen Olenska receives them both to bestow congratulations on the young Archer’s pending nuptials. However, when they arrive at her residence, Newland Archer decides not to go up and visit her. Instead he sits on a bench outside. “It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he tells himself. He prefers to keep the fantasy of Ellen Olenska alive in his head – only the memory of his love and their bygone era will remain. He sits on the bench for a while and then he walks back home. Perhaps he once loved nothing more than the idea of Ellen Olenska those many years ago.

A great deal of time has been spent critiquing the particular virtues and vices of old New York, and to some extent this was Edith Wharton’s intent. Early chapters in the book are painstakingly long and filled with absurd details about social faux pas and endless gossiping between well-to-do families. Every piece of minutia, no matter how insignificant, is studied and discussed by someone. The modern reader longs for transcendence from this Gilded Age. If only the era would have allowed people to confront their hopes and fears directly with one another, then perhaps Newland and May’s marriage would have been a greater success, rather than another “stay together for the children” situation. If only they could have transparently discussed Newland’s worries about boredom and his infatuation with Ellen Olenska rather than speaking in vague references only to mask the true conflict – anything to avoid an alarming and confrontational scene. We begin to sense this tension building into an explosive release with the coming world war. In the old aristocracy, everything is designed to appear perfect at all times. Is it Newland’s fault? The Countess Olenska? May Welland and her family? We cannot find one person to blame. Rather than putting the values of an entire age on trial, it is convenient to search for a villain in the novel – a story of an ‘almost affair’ that never actually happens. We look to blame someone for wrong-doing in the story. However, perhaps the best villain is Newland, himself, the man who marries a woman for political purposes while at the same time trying to bury his attraction for a more adventurous woman. ‘The age of innocence’ was not as innocent as one might have been led to believe, though it may seem naive in contrast to present troubles.

Perhaps the image most beautifully invoked in The Age of Innocence, is the feeling of nostalgia. First, we are brought deep into the political strife and conflicts of the old New York aristocracy, yearning to be free of these constraints; and yet, many years later, we become sober as the Gilded Age has ended, but we are left with a sacred feeling of melancholy. The novel concludes on a somber and reflective note as the flame of an old generation has been snuffed out, never to be reignited again.


The Pulitzer Controversy
In closing, there is an odd story about the 1921 Pulitzer Prize decision for The Age of Innocence. It was only the third book to ever receive the prize, and Edith Wharton was the first female to win. The Pulitzer Prize Jury had actually favored Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a satire of provincial American life, to win the award, but the Pulitzer Advisory Board overturned the decision, most likely led by Nicholas Murray Butler, the conservative President of Columbia University. He, among others, helped to usher in the revision of Mr. Pulitzer’s will from capturing the ‘whole’ of the American experience to the ‘wholesome’ American experience. This shift in values did not go unnoticed. Sinclair Lewis, while irate, wrote to Edith Wharton and congratulated her on the victory. In response she wrote the following:

“When I discovered that I was being rewarded — by one of our leading Universities — for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. Subsequently, when I found the prize should really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had ‘offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,’ disgust was added to despair.”

Image result for sinclair lewis pulitzer letter

The Columbia University trustees praised The Age of Innocence for portraying the “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Several Pulitzer Jury members protested in strongly worded articles that were published in the New Republic. Wharton invited Sinclair Lewis to her home and they developed a budding friendship out of the ashes of the Pulitzer controversy. So much so, in fact, that Lewis dedicated his next book Babbit to Edith Wharton (feel free to read my review of Babbit here). It, too, would be nominated by the Pulitzer Jury, but again overturned by the board of trustees. In 1926, Lewis finally won the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith (read my reflections on the novel here), a convoluted satire of American medicine, but he declined the prize, noting his distaste for the Pulitzer Board’s employment of the word ‘wholesome.’ Wharton and Lewis continued to correspond, but eventually their relationship soured.

The Age of Innocence was made into a memorable film in 1993 directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. To read my review of the film click here.

Image result for edith wharton

Less than ten years after winning the Pulitzer, Edith Wharton mocked the award as the “Pulsifer Prize” in her 1928 novel, Hudson River Bracketed.

I close with a passage from the final chapter of The Age of Innocence:

“…His days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in his lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died – carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child – he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.” (Book II, Chapter 34).  


Who Is Edith Wharton?

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born “Edith Newbold Jones” on January 24, 1862 into a well-to-do Gilded Age family who made their money in real estate. In fact, the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her family. In fact, Edith could trace her lineage back to the original land grants of the Dutch colony of “New Netherland” prior to the British acquisition of Manhattan. In the mid-19th century, the Joneses lived in a lavish three-story brownstone at 14 West 23rd Street in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood of New York City. The Fifth Avenue Opera House sat a mere block away, and the palatial Shakespearean Booth’s Theatre opened just around the corner on Sixth Avenue. In Edith’s day, this was a cultural hub for high-class New Yorkers until the family left this stately brownstone in the 1870s. Over a century later, it has since been transformed into a string of retail chains. Today, a Starbucks Coffeeshop sits on the ground floor of Edith Wharton’s childhood home.

In her youth, Edith was educated by a string of tutors and governesses. She led a well-cultured life, spending summers in France or Italy, befriending well-known socialites, and learning several languages. However, her mother forbade young Edith from reading novels until she was much older and married. Nevertheless, she proceeded to write short stories and poetry. She was a keen observer of New York social customs and came forward publicly as a debutante in 1879. She was engaged to Henry Leyden Stevens, but her family did not approve, so the marriage was called off and Edith married a Bostonian gentleman named Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton. They bought a house dubbed “Land’s End” in Newport and a home at 884 Park Avenue. However, Teddy soon suffered from severe, crippling depression which forced them to relocate to their vast estate which was designed by Edith dubbed “The Mount” in Lenox, Massachusetts. The estate has since become a public landmark in the United States.

Around this time, Edith Wharton began an affair with Morton Fullerton, an author and foreign correspondent for The Times of London. In addition to publishing her well-celebrated novels, Edith Wharton was regarded as a respected guide for high-brow tastes at the time, particularly with regard to interior design, art, fashion, and gardening. In her later years, following her divorce from Teddy, Edith relocated to Paris where she rubbed shoulders with notable writers like Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and befriended elite socialites. When World War I broke out, Edith refused to flee the city of Paris and remained an ardent supporter of French imperial efforts. It was here in France that she wrote The Age of Innocence in 1920. She returned to the United States only once after the war to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923. Along with her Pulitzer Prize, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times in 1927, 1928, and 1930.

In 1937, she collapsed of a heart attack at her home in France. She was celebrated as a war hero in France for her efforts. Throughout her prolific writing career, Edith Wharton’s bibliography was rife with great novels like The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), as well as classic short stories and novellas like Ethan Frome (1911). She also wrote extensively about home and garden and fashion trends and she even published a notable collection of poetry and ghost stories. She never again married and had no children.


Wharton, Edith. Three Novels of New York: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence. Penguin Classics; Deluxe, Anniversary edition, February 29, 2012. 

Remarkable efforts have been made to digitize Edith Wharton’s private library at “The Mount,” her home in Eastern Massachusetts: http://sheilaliming.com/ewl/home.html

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my review of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.

Thoughts on Iphigenia in Tauris

The title of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris can literally be translated as ‘Iphigenia Among the Taurians’. The term Tauris is not actually a place, but it refers to the Greek word for the Crimean Peninsula (Taurike). The Iphigenia story has fascinated and horrified artists since antiquity. Several later versions of the Iphigenia story were created, including one by Goethe, among others, and Euripides also wrote another play about Iphigenia, believed to be his last play or even published posthumously, called Iphigenia at Aulis.

Who is Iphigenia? Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra of Mycenae (recall their downfall in Aeschylus’s masterful Oresteia). The story of Iphigenia becomes relevant as Agamemnon is en route to the fight in the Trojan War. He offends the goddess Artemis, there are conflicting stories throughout mythology as to how exactly he offends Artemis – some claim she is angered at all the young men who will surely die in Troy, and others claim Agamemnon committed an affront to Artemis by slaying one of her sacred animals. At any rate Agamemnon and the armies of Hellas are prevented from reaching Troy, by great winds and plagues, unless Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia. In one version of the story she is sacrificed on a pyre and dies, however in another version of the story Iphigenia is rescued by Athena and replaced at the last moment with an animal so no one would notice. This latter version of the story is the one Euripides employs in his play.

Euripides’s play begins ‘among the Taurians’ as Iphigenia laments her family’s fate as she believes Orestes has died, per a recent dream. She has been rescued by Athena and placed in captivity on this remote island. However, two foreign men from come ashore from Hellas, later revealed to be Orestes and his associate, Pylades. Iphigenia questions them until eventually Orestes concedes, in lament, and identifies himself as Orestes. He tells the story of the fall of Troy and the subsequent misfortunes that befell his household, the house of Atreus. Once they realize they are brother and sister, Orestes and Iphigenia hatch a plan to escape together back to Greece on Orestes’s ship. However Thoas, king of the Taurians, soon discovers their plot but it is too late. Athena appears to Thoas and waylays his concerns so Orestes and Iphigenia can escape. Thus concludes a summary of the play.

The plot is wholly similar to Euripides’s play Helen. Both plays offer the story of a woman honorably banished to a remote part of the world, convinced that their hero is dead, only to find moments later that he is alive when he rescues her. Together they escape the wrath of a jealous king who is prevented from chasing them by divinities.

Iphigenia is more of a romance or a comedy, and less of a tragedy. It presents a more hopeful version of the Iphigenia story, and offers a pleasant ending to the house of Atreus – a subject that Euripides was apparently fascinated with in later life. The play is presented as a tragedy, but it diverges from the standard formula: the tragic fault or tragic choice (hamartia), the punishment of hybris, the conflict of characters, inevitable rivalries and jealousies. These can be disregarded in Iphigenia. Instead, Euripides is interested in the ‘How’ rather than the ‘Why.’

The examination of meter in Greek tragedy instructive. By metrical analysis scholars like Richmond Lattimore believe the play was written somewhere between 410 BC-414 BC. The date is important because of the internecine war, the Peloponnesian War, which lasted roughly from 431 BC-404 BC. Euripides decided to drop the patriotic, pro-Athenian themes of his earlier plays (i.e. HeracleidaeAndromacheThe Suppliants) and instead embrace then new wholly Greek identity, the love of broader Greece and Greek culture. This key change in the Greek way of life will cultivate the soil for a broader Hellenism under Alexander “The Great” of Macedon.


For this reading I used the Anne Carson translation.

Zemlaya (Earth) (1930) Review

Zemlaya (Earth) (1930) Director: Alexander Dovzhenko

★★★★☆

Zemlaya is silent Soviet propaganda film, and it is generally considered Dozhenko’s best regarded film in the West. Zemlaya is part three of his Ukraine trilogy (he only personally directed seven films during his lifetime, before deciding to focus on writing novels instead). Zemlaya is an impressive movie in my view, primarily for its beautifully extensive shots of the rolling, wind-blown wheat fields of Ukraine, or the closing shots of rain gently falling on fruit. However, the quality of the film has unfortunately deteriorated and the plot is difficult to engage with. It is remembered for its controversy, and as for its blatant use of propaganda at the behest of an authoritarian regime, though the film is very different from some of the Nazi propaganda films.

The story loosely follows a family of farmers in Ukraine during the controversial process of Soviet collectivization. After the October revolution that brought the Bolsheviks into power, the Soviet Union underwent a thorough process of de-privatization of all business, however a group of farmers in Ukraine, called the Kulaks, resisted and were allowed to keep their farms until the era of Stalin, in which the “rich farmers” were wiped out. The film portrays the story of a Kulak peasant family – the elder generation opposes the collectivization, while the younger generation embraces the new ways. The film gives a positive view to the new collectivization effort, showing the old ways to be decaying and insufficient. This film was released during the height of the conflict between the Soviet government and Ukrainian peasants over their rich, fertile land. Thus, it was criticized by the Soviet government, despite its supportive views of collectivization. The transliterated Russian word “Zemlaya” can also be translated as “soil” or “land.” The most celebrated scenes in the film occur when the new tractor arrives in town, and new machinery like airplanes are praised by the crowd. The movie closes with beautiful and simple scenes of fruit growing while rain beats down from above.

Along with The Battleship Potemkin (1925), Zemlaya is broadly considered one of the finest and most important Soviet propaganda films. The film was later alluded to in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as the first in a double-feature that his character goes to see at a theatre.

Alexander Duvzhenko (1894-1956) is one of the most enduring Soviet filmmakers, along with Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov. He was raised in Ukraine where he worked as a teacher and then served in the Red Army until his capture as a prisoner-of-war. He directed only seven films and became a novel writer when he returned to the USSR. He died in 1956 of a heart attack in the Soviet Union.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) Review

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) Director: Sergio Leone

★★★★★

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is perhaps the most famous “spaghetti western” of all time. It is the third and final episode in the Dollars Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, with A Fistful of Dollars (1962) and For A Few Dollars More (1965). Sergio Leone later asked Eastwood to work as the star of Once Upon In The West (1968), but he refused, angering Leone who criticized Eastwood’s acting. Most of the actors spoke Italian in the film, and were later dubbed over in English, excluding Clint Eastwood. The film was internationally produced in Europe and the United States, and much of the shooting took place in rural Italy and Spain.

The plot takes place during the American civil war, in the southwest. It follows three gunslingers as they seek $200,000 of Confederate gold buried in the ground, while trying to avoid the Civil War battles of the New Mexico Campaign in 1862. The audience learns of each of the three primary characters: First, “Angel Eyes” (a.k.a. The Bad) who is hunting down the confederate gold for a man named Bill Carson, killing those who stand in his way. Second, Tuco, a Mexican Bandit (a.k.a. The Ugly), is constantly finding himself in trouble. The film actually opens with a brief scene where two men approach an old pioneer town when they come upon a third man (the audience believes they will duel) when suddenly at the last moment they enter a building, shots are fired, and Tuco escapes having shot the three men. Another cowboy, “Blondie” (a.k.a. The Good, wearing a signature Poncho, which Eastwood later gave to a friend in Carmel who owned a Mexican restaurant where it hung for years), rescues Tuco from some bandits, only to turn him into a local sheriff for his $2,000 reward, but also frees him so they can move from town to town claiming the reward and saving Tuco from the noose. Eventually, Blondie gets tired of Tuco’s whining and abandons him without water in the desert. In seeking revenge, Tuco tracks Blondie to a town being vacated by Confederate troops and tries to force Blondie to hang himself, but Blondie is rescued by a bombshell from Union forces which destroys the building, allowing him to escape. However, again Tuco catches Blondie and forces him to march through the desert where he nearly dies of dehydration, however a stage coach filled with dying Confederate troops comes upon them, and one (named Bill Carson) speaks the location of the burial site of the $200,000 in gold – he gives the location to Tuco and the name on the gravestone to Blondie. Thus, the two must travel together if they are to find the gold, despite their hatred of each other. Tuco takes Blondie to a nearby mission called “San Antonio” where his brother is a friar and they allow Blondie to heal. Together, they leave the mission in old Confederate uniforms they find, only to be captured by Union forces. At roll call in the Union prison, Tuco identifies himself as Bill Carson, however “Angel Eyes” is now disguised as a Union sergeant. He tortures Tuco for the name and location of the gold, but Tuco reveals that only Blondie knows the true name of the location. Angel Eyes makes an agreement with Blondie for them to ride out together to find it, while he handcuffs Tuco to one of his guards and sends him away on a train to be executed. Blondie and Angel Eyes arrive in a burnt out town, Tuco frees himself by leaping off the train with the guard and breaks the cuffs when an oncoming train approaches. He arrives in the same town as Angel Eyes and Blondie. Tuco is caught by surprise while taking a bath by a bounty hunter, whom he promptly kills. Tuco and Blondie resume their old partnership and kill all Angel Eyes’s men, while Angel Eyes escapes. Tuco and Blondie head toward the Sad Hill cemetery where the gold is said to be buried, but they are interrupted by Union forces who are in conflict with Confederate troops opposite them. A bridge divides them. The three cowboys decide to wire the bridge with explosives and blow it up, freeing them from the ensuing armies. In the ensuing chaos, Tuco crosses with a horse and heads to the cemetery to take the gold for himself, finding the grave of Arch Stanton, which Blondie told him was the location while they were wiring the bridge, in case they both died. However, Blondie shows up and tells him to keep digging, but then Angel Eyes shows up and demands that they both dig at gunpoint, however Blondie refuses because there is no gold. He says only he knows the true name, and that he will write it on the back of a rock, and they can duel for it. He places it in the middle of the vast cemetery. The film closes with a paranoid and suspicious shoot-out scene which builds the tension amidst large spacious views, followed by tight close-ups of faces and increasingly quick cuts. Blondie kills Angel Eyes in the famous three-person Mexican stand-off and then he slowly approaches Tuco, who realizes his gun has no ammunition, from Blondie. Blondie forces him to dig at the “Unknown” gravestone next to Arch Stanton’s grave, where the gold is buried. Tuco digs up all the gold, 8 bags full of them, but Blondie hangs a noose and makes him stand on the grave and ties the noose around his neck. He takes four of the bags and leaves, while Tuco fears for his life and screams after Blondie. Shortly before the end, Blondie shoots the noose, freeing Tuco as he once did in their various plots to claim money for Tuco’s arrests. The film ends with Tuco cursing Blondie while Blondie rides off into the distance.

Image result for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

While Hollywood Westerns were very polished and clean at the time, Spaghetti Westerns were more gritty, dirtier, more violent, and they often featured anti-heroes, like Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, who is clearly the “good” hero, but also he ironically kills the most people in the film (11 kills), while Tuco kills only 6. We are left to ask, what exactly is “good” about Blondie? The film challenges a number of stereotypes of the traditional western film, and it delivers masterfully.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time, but also one of the greatest films of all time. The sweeping landscapes of Spain and Italy, styled as the American West, are extraordinary; the iconic soundtrack of Ennio Morricone is unforgettable; and the cinematography is as unique as it is powerful with its huge open views of the west, and the ability to slowly build interest and tension until something unpredictable happens. Throughout the movie the audience is intrigued and left guessing. The tone is lawless and greedy, amidst a backdrop of the great American Civil War, yet The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is playful and even picaresque. The film belongs on every list of great films.