For whatever reason, I’ve never really enjoyed westerns as a film genre. I’m not quite sure why. Especially since some of my favorite films and TV shows have been influenced by westerns, some more overtly — like “Firefly” — and some more subtly — like the Star Wars original trilogy.

I’ve watched a number of different westerns over the years, but none of them really managed to capture my imagination. Yet I’ve kept trying, wondering if it was simply a case of not watching the “right western.” My husband told me I might like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and even though I was skeptical, I decided to add it to the “Better Late than Never” blog series and watch it with an open mind.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is quite different from the films I normally watch. It’s not a “fun” film, and it is, at times, bleak, violent, and depressing. And yet, I can absolutely see why it’s labeled as a masterpiece, and considered by many critics to be one of the greatest westerns ever made. And though I wasn’t necessarily expecting to, I really loved watching it.

The Man with No Name

Clint Eastwood stars as “The Man with No Name,” a bounty hunter and con man who wanders across the wild west. He pretends to turn over a criminal named Tuco to law enforcement and then collects the reward money. Except, on the day Tuco is scheduled for execution, Eastwood shows up to rescue him, and then repeats this stunt in another town. It’s a rather ingenious scheme (though not exactly a morally praiseworthy one), and it seems to work pretty well for the two men, who always split the reward money afterwards.

However, they inevitably reach a point where they try to double-cross each other, and they end up chasing each other across the desert. They switch back and forth between allies and antagonists as they get caught up in a scheme to steal some buried Confederate gold. They try to avoid both the Civil War battles going on around them, and the mysterious man in black — known as “Angel Eyes” — who is also searching for the gold.

If you’re looking for a western with noble lawmen in bright white Stetsons or good-natured cowboys with hearts of gold, you won’t find them in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood’s character is “the good” character referred to in the title, he’s not a spotless hero. The film is gritty and full of shades of grey, with Eastwood starring as an anti-hero who sometimes does the right thing but is mostly looking out for himself.

The western deconstructed

Although “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is still stylized, it most definitely does not present a glamorized version of the west, like many of the other westerns I’ve seen. After watching the movie, I did some research about the background of the film, and learned that director Sergio Leone actually intended this to be somewhat of a critique of the standard western.

I was surprised to learn that this movie was released in 1966; it seemed more like a late 70s/early 80s-style movie to me, and it feels ahead of its time. There’s some really great camera work in this film. I particularly loved the standoff between Eastwood, Tuco, and Angel Eyes at the end of the movie. I love how Leone builds suspense by quickly switching between camera angles: a wide shot showing the standoff, then a close-up of the guns, then a close-up of the characters’ eyes, and so on.

The scenery is stark and sometimes drab, but it works with the tone of the film. There was also less music in the film than I was expecting, but the music that is used is fantastic. Even though I’d never seen the movie, I’d definitely heard some of Ennio Morricone’s famous themes before, which are as iconic as the film itself (or, even more likely, part of the reason why the film IS iconic).

Enduring legacy

I’ve often heard “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” referred to as one of the greatest westerns of all time, so I found it super fascinating that it wasn’t an immediate critical success. It had a far more mixed reception than I would have guessed. I’m wondering if maybe it deconstructed “the western” at a time some viewers weren’t quite ready for that (or the violence it depicted). However, it’s certainly well regarded today, and I think it does manage to capture some of that “western mystique” while also feeling more authentic than some of its peers.

I don’t know if I’ll rewatch “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” a bunch of times, just because it is a rather bleak movie (and it is also fairly long). My response to it was a lot like my response to Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”; sometimes it’s hard to watch, and the characters aren’t always sympathetic, but it’s definitely a cinematic achievement.

And despite its violence and cast of anti-heroes and villains, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” isn’t completely devoid of humanity. Although Eastwood’s character probably has his own wanted poster hanging up in a sheriff’s office somewhere, you can see flashes of the better man he could have been (and perhaps still is deep inside). At one moment, he stops beside a dying soldier; he can’t really do anything for the soldier at this point, but he lays his coat over him to comfort him and lets him smoke his cigar. It’s a small spot of kindness and an unexpectedly emotional moment in the film.

Based on what I saw in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I definitely want to watch more of Sergio Leone’s westerns in the future. I think, perhaps, I have finally found the “right western” for me! 🙂