Like Kubrick, I cannot really review any of Sergio Leone’s movies. It has been countless times by much better people. What can I say? They are masterpieces. But why are they masterpieces?
Many people (and I mean many) rush out to proclaim any film that affects them in an emotional way to be a masterpiece; even long time critics succumb to this habit. Yes, there have been movies that affected me emotionally but not intellectually. These films are not “masterpieces” or even that good. Indeed, these can be the most frustrating of all films. They know how to engage their audiences but do not know how to truly stimulate them. The Sergio Leone trilogy works the same way. It stimulates the audiences emotionally-the trilogy is full of testosterone fueled scenes that will allow any man to stand up applauding. But is it as stimulating to the mind?
The answer is yes. The film is, essentially, a deconstruction of Christianity and how lawlessness extends to a sort of Hobbes/Locke version of the state of nature. The movie El Topo does the same thing. Well, Leone did it first. It is like measuring the art of Hitchcock and Lynch-there are many more similarities than you might think.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is often referred to as Leone’s masterpiece. And it is-at least in terms of scale. Yet A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More both are as good. They are ultimately about God answering the prayers of man-in his own way. A Bounty Hunter gets vengeance on an old enemy. Two rival gangsters are destroyed. A poor con man becomes very rich: all due to their association with the “Man with No Name” (Clint Eastwood). He is not a hero. He is not an anti hero. He is something much more than that. He is a sort of mythological figure. He barely speaks, instead choosing to observe the action. Two gunfights end on a portal to the afterlife. Often, man, God, and Satan fight over their own destinies. It happens in For a Few Dollars More and is repeated in The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.
This sort of obsession with morality is something that never becomes condescending. Leone never tells audiences who is correct. This is why The Man with No Name is morally ambiguous. If God exists, surely he is tempted to make fun of a creation that tries to understand him. Those who work with him never understand him, even if they can guess his motives. Him riding away is a triumphant figure of a job well done-ultimately, the people do get what they want and evil is punished. But it is done in such a way that few would ever realize it. The western took the longest to evolve. That is why I have had little regard for the genre-they stuck to the Hayes Code long after the Hayes Code was abolished. Leone’s steps may seem gradual to the modern audiences but they were giant leaps forward when they were released.
How many films did Leone direct? Six. And yet, his reach extends far beyond other directors with far more films to their name.