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:

  • They are both epic three-hour Westerns.
  • They are both included in IMDb's list of the top 25 films of all time.
  • They were both made in the late sixties.
  • They were both directed by the same man, Sergio Leone - an Italian who did not speak English!

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!

  1. (8.09) - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  2. (8.09) - The Searchers (1956)
  3. (7.96) - My Darling Clementine (1946)
  4. (7.88) - Stagecoach (1939)

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.


Ford Leone
  1. (8.19) - The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
  2. (8.09) - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  3. (8.09) - The Searchers (1956)
  4. (7.96) - My Darling Clementine (1946)
  5. (7.89) - The Quiet Man (1952)
  1. (8.80) - Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Il (1966)
  2. (8.70) - C'era una volta il West (1968)
  3. (8.30) - Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
  4. (8.09) - Per qualche dollaro in più (1965)
  5. (7.80) - Per un pugno di dollari (1964)

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:

1. I mentioned earlier that Westerns are not really my thing. There are not really anybody's thing these days, yet four of Leone's five great films are Westerns, placing him in a "who cares" category.

2. His one brilliant non-Western was released in the United States in a butchered version that was incoherent and, frankly, awful.

3. His three best movies are all very long. The shortest is Once Upon a Time in the West at 165 minutes.

4. Not only are his movies long, but they come from a time when pacing was more leisurely and directors took a long time to establish tension in scenes - and Leone was more deliberate than most. His three hour movies seem more like five.

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 skill and attention that has been put into this disc sets the benchmark for the restoration of movies for DVD."


The DVDs also have some nice extras.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

  • Commentary by: film historian Richard Schickel
  • Newly restored, extended three-hour version
  • "Leone's West" making-of documentary
  • "The Leone Style" documentary
  • "The Man Who Lost the Civil War" documentary
  • "Reconstructing The Good, the Bad & the Ugly": documentary on the audio rerecording
  • "Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly": featurette on the composer
  • Deleted scenes. (Including one lost scene which is partially reconstructed from fragments.)
  • Collectible theatrical mini-posters from around the world
  • Souvenir booklet: essay by Roger Ebert.

Once Upon a Time in the West

  • Commentary track with contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian (& Leone biographer) Sir Chirstopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, and comments from cast and crew members
  • A new feature-length "making-of" documentary in three parts: "An Opera of Violence," "The Wages of Sin," "Something To Do With Death."
  • "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West" featurette
  • Location & production galleries. (This is fascinating. A look at the locations Leone used in 1968, and the same locations today. Evocative, and sad.)

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.

  • A rag-tag band and a makeshift choir of Civil War prisoners are rounded up to create some music while The Bad, in his avatar as a vicious Union martinet, is torturing The Ugly, an alleged Confederate. (Of course, none of the other soldiers except The Good know that the torture is about mercenary matters and has nothing to to with the color of their uniforms.) The supposed purpose of the chorus is to drown out the screams of pain, but the prisoners are men beaten down and starved by war, so they can only play and sing quietly and sadly, thus creating a mood which actually intensifies the terror inflicted by the brutality. Very strong scene. Haunting and memorable. Will bring a tear to your eye.

This is the heartbreaking song they sing:

Bugles are calling
from prairie to shore,
"Sign up" and "Fall in"
and march off to war.
Drums beating loudly,
Hearts beating proudly
Match Blue and Grey
And smile as you say Goodbye.
Smoke hides the valleys
And fire paints the plains.
Loud roar the cannons
'Til ruin remains:
Blue grass and cotton
Burnt and forgotten
All hope seems gone
So soldier march on to die.
There in the distance
A flag I can see,
Scorched and in ribbons
But whose can it be;
How ends the story,
Whose is the glory,
Ask if we dare
Our comrades out there who sleep.


  • The three men end up having a three-way showdown in the cemetery.  Another brilliant scene in which the suspense becomes unbearable. How can three men have a gunfight? Well, they're not sure either. You'll have to watch it to find out how it gets resolved.
  • There is a scene in which The Ugly first sees the cemetery. After all their trials and tribulations, he is so ecstatic to be close to the gold that he runs joyously through row upon row of graves, while a powerful symphonic score drives him forward. The term "horse opera" seems to have been concocted just for this moment.

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!



  • see above



There is no female nudity in either film.

You can see Eli Wallach's butt briefly in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert gave Once Upon a Time 2.5/4, but BBC awarded the full 5/5. Average: 3.25 on a four star scale.

  • Rotten Tomatoes indicated 96% positive reviews for Once Upon a Time (Ebert is the lone dissenter!)

  • Roger Ebert gave The Good, the Bad 3/4, but BBC again awarded the full 5/5. Average 3.5 on a four star scale.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 8.8/10. It was a box office bonanza as well. It cost only a million dollars to make and grossed $19 million in the USA alone. That's equivalent to 18 million tickets - more than $100 million at today's ticket prices.
  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score Once Upon a Time in the West 8.4/10. It was made for $5 million and grossed $5.5 million in the USA
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, these are C+ movies, two of the best genre films ever made, but without a lot of crossover appeal. (They run three very slow hours, and I would hesitate to recommend them broadly.) In my own opinion, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is sheer, crazy, over-the-top genius; a flawed masterpiece, to be sure, but with so many positives that it is indisputably a masterpiece, and you should give it a try even if rambling movies bother you.

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