This summer’s release of Seth MacFarlane’s Western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West may be just another attempt to send up the oft-forgotten movie genre in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, but the truth is that Westerns have been supplanted since 1992’s Unforgiven by the wave of comic book movies that have brought in young audiences.
There are some great Western movies out there, and some of the greatest were made by Italian directors. The king of the “spaghetti Western” is often cited as Sergio Leone, the director behind the “Dollars Trilogy” featuring Clint Eastwood as the “Man with No Name” and the classic Once Upon the Time in the West.
Sergio Leone’s films shifted the Western from a clear-cut world of heroes and villains to stories of moral ambiguity, often featuring episodic quests that let the characters traipse around the mythic Wild West, most often searching for money. Hence the “Dollars Trilogy.”
Featuring iconic close-ups and the musical magic of Italian composer Ennio Morricone, Leone’s Westerns left a profound impression on American pop culture. But how do these films stack up against each other? Which film, of the four investigated, top the list?
(Note: I’m not ranking Leone’s final Western, Duck, You Sucker, mainly because it’s not on Netflix right now. Sorry.)
4. A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Dollars #1)
Don’t get me wrong, A Fistful of Dollars is an all-around classic and deserves all the praise it receives. The outstanding quality of Sergio Leone’s Westerns means that one film has to be ranked last, and that film is the one that started the all. Why? Mainly because it kept on getting better from there.
Based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, (which was in turn based on Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel Red Harvest), the film introduces Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, a mysterious outlaw who rides into a town run by two rival gangs. It’s up to Eastwood’s character to pit the two gangs against each other (earning a fistful of dollars in the process). Ennio Morricone’s score and Leone’s style of close-ups have since become iconic, the foundations of Leone’s films that build up to grand proportions as the series progresses. Production value is not always so good – night scenes are filmed during the day and then dimmed, one of the more disappointing results of a lower budget. But the final showdown between the Man with No Name and Ramone sets up so many others – in this series and other media.
3. For a Few Dollars More (1965, Dollars #2)
For a Few Dollars More is often thought as the weakest of the Dollars Trilogy, but I think that this one is stronger in terms of composition and film quality – the bank robbery scene is one of the more exciting scenes in the series. The juxtaposition of the Man with No Name (nicknamed Manco in this one) with Lee Van Cleef’s mysterious colonel kind of makes this film a cousin to buddy-cop drama where Eastwood’s character gets a mentor to face off against the maniacal outlaw El Indio, (played by the guy who plays the main villain Ramone in A Fistful of Dollars. The colonel’s personal motivation for hunting El Indio offers more character development in the mostly static Manco, which makes this film darker and more powerful than its predecessor.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Once Upon a Time #1)
Following the American release of the Dollars Trilogy, Paramount hired Leone to make a Western for them – despite wanting to retire from Westerns, Leone agreed, because the studio offered him the use of his favorite actor, Henry Fonda. Once Upon a Time in the West makes full use of Henry Fonda as the film’s villain – a role as a cold-blooded mercenary that contradicted his typical role as the hero. As for the hero, the man with the harmonica, Charles Bronson him (Clint Eastwood declined – ironically, Bronson was the first choice to play the Man with No Name in Fistful of Dollars.) Though the film is long (just under three hours), it is beautifully shot, and a lot of it is shot in Utah’s Monument Valley (instead of Leone’s usual Spain). The film plays homage to countless Westerns, even as it mourns the end of the Wild West through the expansion of the railroad. The soulful performance of Claudia Cardinale as the widow of a would-be railroad tycoon and Jason Robards as the wise-talking Cheyenne keep the film grounded as the archetypal Bronson and Fonda square off. Much more weighed down in seriousness, the man with harmonica’s personal history with Fonda’s character lends an extra punch to the finale, but the film often feels too elemental and melodramatic in contrast to the upbeat, fun, quest-stories of the Dollars Trilogy. Case in point: the opening scene, in which Bronson takes out three outlaws at a train station, was at one point to feature Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach – the eponymous stars of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The cameos might have been hilarious, but they were not to be – Eastwood refused. Which leads me to Leone’s best film…
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, Dollars #3)
Set as an epic quest for $200,000, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the most well-known of Leone’s films and is also the most fun. Frenemies Tuco (“The Ugly,” played by Eli Wallach) and the Man with No Name (played by Eastwood and nicknamed “Blondie” and “The Good” in this one) struggle with Lee Van Cleef’s turn as the nefarious Angel Eyes (“The Bad”) in search of Confederate gold. On the way are a series of episodic adventures, including a death march in the desert, a Civil War battle, and comic-book like gunfights. At the end is one of the greatest showdowns ever put to film, an incredible Mexican-standoff between the three. Instead of being stuck in the same locale, as in Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time, the action is always moving. The character introductions are quite incredible and often spoofed, just like the film’s textured score by Morricone. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is not just fun, but it also sees significant character development for Blondie, who starts out as anything as clear-cut as “The Good” but grows as the film progresses. It’s a masterpiece and has rightly earned its way into the American consciousness.