Sergio Leone single-handedly directed seven movies, and five of them were westerns.
Sure, John Ford is probably the more prominent director when it comes to the western genre (there's even a whole book written about the subject called John Ford Made Westerns). But, it's hard to deny that Leone shouldn't also be put in GOAT consideration when it comes to directors of the western, especially with movies like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on his resume.
Well, I've actually watched all of the Sergio Leone movies, and, as I am wont to do, I am going to rank the westerns. Cue the Morricone soundtrack!
5. Duck, You Sucker! (1972)
As I mentioned in my article on 7 great westerns that aren't traditional at all (which also, I might add, included the Coen Brothers’ most underrated movie), Duck, You Sucker! centers around an outlaw, played by Rod Steiger, who bands with an expatriate bombs expert (James Coburn), and they form an unlikely friendship during the Mexican Revolution.
I think it's important to note that this is technically known as a Zapata Western rather than a Spaghetti Western, since it takes place during the Mexican Revolution. This makes the film feel somewhat different from Leone’s four other westerns, with this one somehow feeling less grounded (and oftentimes, more fun) than the other movies on this list. My favorite moment features a dining car scene with extreme close-ups of people eating.
However, even though I might enjoy Duck, You Sucker! more than some of the other films on this list, it also feels the most throwaway of Leone’s westerns. A great film, no doubt, but probably the weakest.
4. A Fistful Of Dollars (1964)
The film that popularized the Spaghetti Western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, basically asked the question, what if a samurai movie like Yojimbo was turned into a western? Of course, the western genre pulling from samurai films was nothing new (See–or don’t see–The Magnificent Seven), but A Fistful of Dollars did it so perfectly that Clint Eastwood’s steely-eyed gaze practically created a new archetype for the western genre as a whole.
The film is about a wanderer gunslinger (Eastwood) who plays two rival groups against each other in order to profit off of both of them. The stranger (who actually DOES have a name – it’s Joe – despite this being the first in “The Man With No Name Trilogy”) is a true antihero as he’s definitely not a good person, but he’s also not a total villain, either.
If this had been a one and done movie, I’d still think it would have been a star-making flick for Eastwood. But, given that it’s the weakest of a phenomenal trilogy of films, it will have to settle with being lower on this list.
3. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Clocking in at a staggering 166 minutes, Once Upon a Time in the West is definitely the most epic western in Leone’s catalog. Starring Henry Fonda (As a bad guy!), Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale, it's almost hard to summarize, there’s so much going on.
In a nutshell, it’s about a new railroad, a wronged woman, a murderous henchman, and a mysterious stranger (known as “Harmonica”) who has a debt to settle. All of this is interspersed through much longer, slower shots than seen in Leone’s other westerns. So, in a way, it almost makes this, rather than Duck, You Sucker! the oddball in his filmography, as it’s pretty somber.
But, by substituting the lighthearted tone found in Leone’s other westerns for something much darker, it almost makes it feel like a more modern western in the process. Overall, if you can sit through its long runtime and slower pace, Once Upon a Time in the West has a lot to offer!
2. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
When it comes to the greatest westerns of all time, I would definitely put For a Few Dollars More very high on that list. Starring Clint Eastwood (this time with the name Manco), Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volonte as one of my favorite villains ever, El Indio, the film's about two badasses who should probably be enemies, but band together for the common good of wiping out a vicious criminal.
What makes it so special is just everything about it. I know everybody goes wild over Morricone’s theme for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but the theme in For A Few Dollars More is my favorite in the entire trilogy. And, it just gets even better from there, as Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef make a killer team. The gunfights and pacing in this one also never let up, making for one of the most enjoyable westerns you will ever see.
Honestly, I sometimes think For a Few Dollars More is Sergio Leone’s best western, but then I come to my senses, because there can only be one best Sergio Leone western.
1. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966)
According to Quentin Tarantino, this is the greatest Spaghetti Western of all time. And, you know what? He’s right. In fact, it’s probably the greatest western of all time, period. When I pitted it against Unforgiven (which is another one of my favorites), it just made me think about how perfect the film is in every conceivable way.
Starring Clint Eastwood (The Good), Lee Van Cleef (The Bad), and Eli Wallach (The Ugly), the film is about money buried in an unmarked grave, and the three men who want to find it. Unlike For a Few Dollars More, where Van Cleef and Eastwood pair up, they’re enemies in this one, always trying to get one step ahead of the other, while Wallach’s character, Tuco, just seems to be along for the ride.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is epic like Once Upon a Time in the West, but it’s never boring. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more engaging, fun, and enjoyable film than this, which, no matter how many times you watch it, sweeps you up into its story and characters. For that reason, I deem it the best Sergio Leone western, and possibly the best western of all time. It’s certainly the most iconic.
Do you also sometimes put For a Few Dollars More at the top of your Sergio Leone list? For more news on all things westerns, be sure to swing by here often!