Once upon a time, Hollywood was king of the Western and the idea of anybody over in Europe making a movie about the American Southwest as successful as something like High Noon was laughable. Italian-produced films about the west, or Spaghetti Westerns, were largely low budget knock-offs where fading Hollywood stars went to die after their careers had peaked. But the work of Sergio Leone changed that viewpoint. His “The Man With No Name” trilogy wasn’t just a worldwide financial success upon release, the films have gone on to be seen as some of the greatest Westerns produced anywhere, throughout the history of film.
And the final installment of that series, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, has especially become an important part of the fabric of pop culture. More than any other Western I can think of, it’s stood the test of time and achieved a level of awareness that rivals any other classic film in any other genre. Often it’s referred to as not just the definitive Spaghetti Western and Leone’s masterpiece, but as the definitive Western, period. That’s all fine and good, because I think The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is largely a great film; but I think he actually improved two years later when he made Once Upon a Time in the West, my pick for the greatest Western of all time.
What do they have in common?
They’re both Sergio Leone Westerns. That means they have a lot in common, both stylistically (oh, the close-ups!) and in content (oh, the soul crushing immorality!), and even in the influence they’ve had on all of the Westerns that have come after. Leone paid tribute to a lot of great Westerns that came before him, but when modern audiences think about classic Western tropes, they’re largely referencing stuff they’ve seen in his works.
Why is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly overrated?
The most glaring problem with this movie is a technical thing; it’s that half of the actors were performing in Spanish and the other half in English, so it’s full off really obvious dubbing that takes you out of the film. You see, instead of synching his sound, Leone goes back and inserts recorded dialogue later. This isn’t as much of a problem in something like Once Upon a Time in the West, where everyone is performing in English and the dubbing matches up enough with the mouth movements to be ignored, but here it keeps going back and forth from matching to not depending on whether the actors are performing in English or not, and the transition is jarring every time. It’s a constant reminder that you’re just watching a movie and not really living the story.
That’s a pretty minor complaint though; there are some more fundamental issues I have as well. One of the big ones is Eli Wallach’s performance as The Ugly. He plays things so much more manic and slapsticky than everyone else that it sometimes feels like he’s in a different movie. You’ve got Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef giving very minimal performances, and then this guy hamming it up in the background, acting like he’s in a Three Stooges short. He just doesn’t fit in, and I would have liked to have seen someone else take a more grounded, yet slimier approach to the character. The action can get a bit out of hand as well. The kills just come too easy. There’s one scene where Eastwood and Wallach pretty casually walk through a town and mow down about 100 attackers, and it reaches Commando levels of ridiculousness. For a movie that’s so intensely dramatic in its presentation, the over the top, almost cartoony violence can feel out of place.
My biggest complaint though, is that for a movie that’s regarded as such a classic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is pretty thin on story and character. Our three title characters exist mostly as archetypes, we’re never told much about their backstory or given any indication of what makes them tick. And nobody goes through any changes or gets developed over the course of the film either. This is just a movie about a man with a moral code, a man with no moral code, and a guy who’s a little bit off his rocker all racing for a cash reward, and little else. This movie is big and gorgeous, and it builds to its three-way Mexican stand-off near perfectly, but it lacks a human element. The outlaw point of view is the only one we get; and money is the only motivating factor for any of this taking place. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an expertly presented story, but a rather slight one.
Why is Once Upon a Time in the West underpraised?
The story we get here is quite a bit broader than a simple look at outlaws looking to score. Once Upon a Time in the West starts off very small, with a scene that just boils down to a man vs. a fly, but by the time it ends things have opened up to include not only vengeance among outlaws, but family life out on the frontier, and a look at the battle for the development of the West. The stories here are more personal, with histories that we’re let in on. We’re smack dab in the middle of this wild place that money and industry are trying to tame and we’re left to question what it’s going to take for the people living here to get through the process of building a new world and not come out the other end morally bankrupt.
While I had a complaint or two about the acting in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I find all of the performances here to be pitch perfect. Henry Fonda is shockingly chilling playing against type as the heartless villain. Charles Bronson is grizzled and mysterious as the stranger coming to town figure, Harmonica, in a way that only Charles Bronson can be. Jason Robards is so charming as an outlaw who gets mixed up in the whole mess that every time I watch this one I’m reminded I need to seek out way more Jason Robards performances than I’ve seen. And Claudia Cardinale… what can be said of her? She is just an exquisite creature and her luminous presence is one of the driving forces that keeps this story moving forward. She’s teetering between strength and despair for much of this movie, and the big question at the center of everything is which way she’s going to fall. Without an actress so beautiful, with so much vulnerability in her expressions, none of it would have been half as engaging.
Scope and performances are just the tip of the iceberg as far as this film’s greatness goes though. Once Upon a Time in the West deserves to be looked at as the greatest Western of all time simply because of how peerless the filmmaking is. The opening scene is a masterclass in building tension. It’s just a group of men sitting quietly on a train platform, but from the squeaking of a windmill, to the dripping of some water, to the buzzing of a fly… you just know something awful has to come along and break the silence. And the movie just leaves you there, sweating it out. By the time a gunshot rings out, the tension is at a fever pitch. And this isn’t a movie with any Schwarzenegger-esque super hero stuff either. Our protagonist takes a bullet in the first shootout, and he gets by on wits rather than superhuman shooting skills. There’s a scene where Robards climbs around on the outside of a train slowly picking its occupants off one by one that rivals the silent film greats in pacing and choreography. And there’s another where a group of men come to kill Fonda, but he’s able to survive thanks to Bronson sitting in the background and manipulating the scene like a puppet master. This isn’t just a breakneck shoot ‘em up. Every move everyone makes is meticulously staged, and it makes it all count for so much more.
Evening the odds.
One aspect of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that most would agree has no peer is its Ennio Morricone composed score. It’s so memorable and so iconic that even people who’ve never seen a Western in their lives would still be able to hum it. But Once Upon a Time in the West has an astounding Morricone score as well. And I would argue that it’s a little more versatile, a little more interesting than the Good, Bad and Ugly score. It’s got a lot of fun, colloquial cowpoke stuff, it’s got a sweeping romantic theme, and it’s got that amazing “shit’s going down” theme that’s too badass for words. It may not be quite as memorable as the Good, Bad and Ugly music, but it’s richer, more rewarding upon multiple listens, and I think the same thing can be said about the films as a whole.