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After six years of waiting, MGM’s John Kirk finally got the good news that the restoration of Sergio Leonie’s classic, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly could go ahead. Bad news was he only had seven weeks to do it, as he tells Andrew L. Urban while visiting Australia.

It was good news and bad news day for John Kirk, back in October 2002: “The good news is,” MGM’s Glenn Erickson told him, “we’ve got outside finance [from a tv network] to do the restoration on The Good The Bad and The Ugly. The bad news is you’ve got seven weeks to do it.” [The network wanted it for its schedule.]

Kirk was delighted and horrified. “I love to visit Italy for vacations, but to go there working on a tight deadline can be very pressured,” he laughs. “So I knew it was going to be tight,” he says as we catch up by phone, but it was also the culmination of over six years of waiting and hoping. Although Kirk admits for the first time in public that, despite a lifetime of movies, from age 5 when his mother took him to cinemas - he had never seen the film. “Until now…”

Kirk, in Melbourne for the restored film’s first Australian season at the Astor (Sydney season at the Chauvel to follow in early 2004), is an experienced restorer, having found the lost ending of Kiss Me Deadly and 13 crucial minutes from Francois Truffaut’s Mississipi Mermaid. He also worked on restoring three of Billy Wilder’s great films, and is now going to start on the pre-Bosnan James Bond films, to be ready just before the 21st Bond feature due, out late in 2005.

"a special project"

But this, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Sergio Leone’s 1966 classic western, was a special project. 

The film had been released in two versions: Italian and English. The former version had been restored, including 20 minutes that was missing from English version. Kirk had to find missing footage, which could be sourced from Italy, but more importantly, he had record some additional dialogue with Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. The latter is dead, so that was a task for voice specialist Simon Prescott, “who sounded more like the real Van Cleef that Eastwood and Wallach sounded like the real, younger them,” says Kirk with a chuckle.

He admits to minor tampering with the new lines the actors, now 35 years older, recorded. “They talk a fraction slower now, so I speeded up the tape just a notch…” 

Eastwood popped into the studio and recorded his six lines in less than an hour. Wallach, with considerably more, (“he’s the chatterbox in the film,” says Kirk) was recorded in his home New York sometime earlier, with funds previously made available by MGM itself.

But that’s as far as Kirk will go with digital mischief. “There is one scene in which the negative has a few spots on it,” he says “but I’m dead against digital video processes, so I let it stay as it is. It’s more natural…”

Although 20 minutes seems a lot, in fact there are only a couple of scenes that were completely missing. Most of the extra footage comprises parts of scenes. “One scene I feel that was important that we inserted back in,” Kirk explains, “shows Tuco (Wallach) recruiting three collaborators before going after Blondie (Eastwood). Without this scene, it looks odd when Tuco suddenly turns up with these guys. But also, it shows Tuco isn’t as stupid and silly as he sometimes seems. So it adds to his character.”

Another piece of film that was not in the English version was a section of the scene when Blondie and Tuco prepare to blow up the bridge which is then prize in a battle between North and South in the Civil War that rages around the three men on their deadly treasure hunt. 

"Even a lip reader couldn’t make out the lines"

If the missing dialogue was a problem solved by willing (and living) actors to record it, Kirk had a bigger problem: what were the lines? “There wasn’t a single copy of the shooting script anywhere to be found. Clint Eastwood didn’t have one, MGM didn’t have one…. And even a lip reader couldn’t make out the lines because the actors were moving around so much.”

So Kirk, luckily a student of Italian, translated the Italian script. “But then we found the translation wasn’t quite right. So we made it up as best we could.”

Rest assured, though, the classic lines are the real thing. They weren’t missing.

“This is absolutely the best of Leonie’s The Man With No Name trilogy,” says Kirk. “I watch a lot of films, and even some of the Oscar winners don’t stand up to too many repeat viewings. This one, I can see again and again, even at three hours, and find it as entertaining as ever.” 

Published August 28, 2003

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