The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
“When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk.”
Tuco, "The Ugly"
Each of these movies is good enough to merit a separate page, maybe several pages, but it makes sense to discuss them together because they have several things in common:
Leone joins John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock as the all-time greatest directors of genre films, and he joins Hitchcock in an even more exclusive club. Among the directors with films widely circulated in the States, they are possibly the two greatest directors never to win an Oscar. Leone, despite having #11, #23, and #116 on the IMDb all-time list, was never even nominated for an Oscar! Hitchcock was nominated six times but never won. John Ford won many Oscars, but always for his serious dramas, never for his Westerns. The closest he came to winning an Oscar for a Western was in 1939, when he was nominated for Stagecoach. He might have won for that film in some years, but the competition was stiff in 1939, to say the least. It was probably the high water mark in American cinema history. Nobody was going to take the major Oscars away from Gone With The Wind, but there were many other notables to contend with, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. If Ford had made Stagecoach a year earlier, he might have won the race against a weaker field, which was topped by Capra's You Can't Take it With You.
So it goes.
Anyway, there is no doubt that Ford was a great director. He won four other "best director" Oscars for non-Westerns, and he might have won many more if Oscar voters had believed that Westerns were suitable for the awards. You can certainly make a very good case that Stagecoach, Ford's only Western to be nominated for an Oscar, is not even among Ford's best three oaters! IMDb voters rank it only #4!
But as great a director as Ford was, and despite the fact that he directed many serious dramas as well as genre films, his top five films are not rated as high as Sergio Leone's at IMDb.
The greatest difference between the accomplishments of the two men is, of course, that Ford's list keeps going on forever with more films about as good as those five. He has 37 more films rated above 6.0 at IMDb. Leone, on the other hand, has two. Leone's list above represents virtually the sum total of his career accomplishments. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not many men could stand side-by-side with John Ford and come up on top, as Leone does above. With two films in the top 25 at IMDb, Leone is in exclusive company. The only other directors who can lay claim to two or more on that list are Peter Jackson (3), Steven Spielberg (2), and Hitchcock (2), and Jackson's three are basically just three parts of the same movie, so you might fairly say that the holy trinity is Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Leone.
I tend to agree with Leone's enshrinement. Westerns are not really my thing, but his great non-Western, Once Upon a Time in America, is among my three of four favorite movies, and it is the film I will name if you absolutely force me to name the best film I have ever seen.
Yet Leone gets little respect outside a narrow band of avid film buffs. When TV documentaries talk of the great directors, does his name come up? Hell, no. Intercept 100 people coming out of a movie theater and ask them to name as many great directors as they can. I would be surprised if Leone gets even a single unprompted mention. Maybe not even if you prompt the people with a "yes or no" checklist. I'm not sure why that is, but I can throw out some ideas:
Whatever the reason, the point is that Leone is respected by film buffs and genre fans as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. If you are a student of films or a lover of films, you really need to own these two Westerns. They have been restored to absolutely gorgeous pristine condition. My hat is off to Paramount and MGM for the loving attention they gave these restorations.
BBC expressed it quite accurately in referring to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:
The DVDs also have some nice extras.
The Good the Bad and the Ugly
Once Upon a Time in the West
I lumped the two films together because they have important things in common, but they are also quite different in many ways.
Once Upon a Time in the West is more of a traditional Western, although it lacks a "good guy." It has a straightforward narrative which makes complete sense, and is filled with events which might reasonably occur within the given time frame. The script was written by Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci - three giants of the cinema - and they managed to accomplish two things. First, they placed all the individual pieces of the script together properly. Second, they did not make all of the connections and transitions explicit, and they resisted the temptation to have the characters explain every little detail with dialogue. You have to figure some things out for yourself, although all the necessary clues and suggestions are present. That's a good touch. It makes the film more involving than if it had been more explicit.
Once Upon a Time is not rambling. It has four main characters and it sticks to the main story involving them during a fairly short period of time. A women (Claudia Cardinale) comes out West from New Orleans to live with her new husband. She arrives to find her husband and her three step-children slaughtered by gunmen. She is not immediately aware of who did it or why, but we know that it was done by a cold-eyed gunslinger named Frank (Henry Fonda), who was carrying out the orders of a railroad baron. The railroad wanted to build through the property, and the husband/rancher would not sell, so ...
Once the gunslinger finds out that the rancher had a wife (a fact previously unknown to the community), he realizes that he'll have to kill her as well. She has no idea how much danger she is in. Fortunately, she has two other men watching over her. The first is Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a revenge-driven drifter whose only goal in life is to kill Frank the gunslinger for a past infraction. The other is Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a wanted criminal and all-around ornery sidewinder who gets involved in the widow's life for two reasons. (1) When Frank the gunslinger killed her family, he made the murder appear to have been done by Cheyenne's gang, so Cheyenne has to clear himself. (2) He falls in love with her, in his own ornery, rootin'-tootin' desperado way, consarn it.
Cheyenne and Harmonica realize that they have a common interest, and end up developing a mutual respect which is as close to a friendship as these hard, taciturn men ever get.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a very different kind of movie, more avant-garde, more artistic. Leone was not concerned with the penny-ante details of plot consistency or plausibility. Instead, he was creating a Shakespearian tragedy in spurs, or maybe a songless opera, a grand story played out against the even grander backdrop of the Civil War, all punctuated by an eccentric and truly memorable score. Three men vie for a $200,000 treasure which is buried in a cemetery. Only one of them knows which grave it is in. Only one of them - a different one - knows which cemetery. All three are ruthless killers. On their way to the gold, they are waylaid by various battles and other war-related obstacles. At one point, two of them end up in Confederate uniforms, as prisoners of war, only to discover that the iron fist who rules the POW camp is none other than the third guy! He tortures the weak "reb," finds out the location of the cemetery, then partners up with the strong "reb" and deserts his post completely.
The essence of the Good the Bad and the Ugly consists of brilliant set pieces. The opening scenes establish the relationship between The Good and The Ugly. Ugly is a wanted criminal. Good turns him in for the reward. We do not realize that they are partners. As soon as the reward is paid and The Ugly is in the hangman's noose, The Good shoots him down, whereupon they escape together, split the loot, and move on to the next town to repeat the scam. Not only is this portion of the film a tightly-scripted little short film on its own, but it also has some very funny material going on in the background. If you watch the film, be sure to listen closely to the litany of charges against The Ugly, which is being read in the background while two characters speak in the foreground. It sounds as if it had been written by Mel Brooks. It included just about everything except "stampedin' a herd of cattle through the Vatican."
There are at least three other brilliant set pieces in the film.
There are many other great moments in the film. Many. I could keep typing for a long time, but you'll have more fun if you see it yourself. The film does seem to ramble at times, and elements of the plot don't always make sense but it is filled with action, tension, humor, and even tragedy. Plus it has one of the all-time kick-ass endings.
If you can only see one of these movies, which should you see? Depends on what you like. They are both terrific films. They are both long and deliberately paced.
If you like more conservative, sensible, tightly-plotted material, and want to see a more traditional Western, it's Once Upon a Time in the West, which even has a romantic triangle and looks like a John Ford movie. (Some of it was filmed in Monument Valley.)
If you like the outlandish and larger-than-life, and you enjoy it when filmmakers cut loose and really go for it, it's The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Big ideas, big music, big Eastwood, big Civil War battles, big everything. It looks and feels nothing like an American Western. It was filmed in Spain, and is filled with Spanish and Italian extras, many of whom were not actors and were hired simply because they looked like they could have lived in small towns and farms during the Civil War. There are men with very ugly faces, and a man with no legs (The Bad calls him "half-soldier"). There is no love story. There are virtually no women at all. Characters are generally so immoral that a merely amoral man is considered The Good. The musical score is one of the ten most memorable in screen history, maybe THE most memorable. If you really have to have all the little details add up, or you require a fast pace, this is not the film for you, but for all its flaws, I love this movie!
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