For one; THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY is a much harder-edged, cynical film. By comparison, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is not only more elegiac, but also romantic. While Eastwood’s Man With No Name with an essentially amoral gunslinger, only made heroic by the sheer badness of those he went up against, both Robards’ Cheyenne, and Bronson’s Harmonica are truly heroic, and in Cheyenne’s case, selfless. Perhaps this romanticism also has to do with Leone’s choice of protagonist, who’s neither Robards nor Bronson, but rather Claudia Cardinale, as the ex-prostitute Jill. While Jill does have a minor romance with Harmonica, theirs is not a full-blown love affair. Rather, the romantic aspect comes from the fact that Cheyenne and Harmonica are almost knight-like in their protection of Jill, although Harmonica’s vendetta against Frank takes precedence over everything.
Robards, Cardinale, and Bronson are all superb, but the film really belongs to Henry Fonda, in one of the most successful instances of casting against type that I can think of. Fonda’s legendary for his heroic roles in John Ford westerns, where he played Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln, in addition to his many other heroic roles, including THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, and MISTER ROBERTS. Here, he’s a real SOB, with our first glimpse of Frank showing him shooting a young boy in the back. Here, he’s evil incarnate, even more so than Lee Van Cleef in THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY.
And let’s not forget the score by Ennio Morricone, which is my choice for the finest ever composed. I actually have a well-worn copy of the soundtrack on vinyl, and it’s an album that’s truly close to my heart. On its own, Morricone’s work would be a masterpiece. Paired with the film, it’s transcendent.