If you like Westerns even a little and are a fan of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and as a director, then you've more than likely seen the Clint Eastwood classics, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Unforgiven. The former is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Spaghetti Westerns of all time, and the latter is one of the very few Westerns to ever win Best Picture. The former is the crowning achievement of Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy, and the latter is quite possibly Eastwood’s crowning achievement as an actor and as a director.
That said, even though both films are beloved by millions of people around the world, which one is the better Western? Now, I’ve tackled which is the better Ari Aster film, which is the better Indiana Jones sequel, and which is the better Back to the Future sequel, but I think this vs. bout may be my toughest yet since my opinion on which is the better Clint Eastwood Western could change on any given day (and sometimes, it’s neither, and my favorite Western of his is The Outlaw Josey Wales).
Even so, I guess somebody has to do the dirty work, so, out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Unforgiven, which is the better Clint Eastwood Western? Well, you’re about to find out.
Every Western needs a sturdy plot, so which Western has the sturdiest?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Plot
Depending on whom you ask, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly acts as a prequel to A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More. The story concerns a man nicknamed “Blondie” (The “Good,” played by Eastwood), who bands together with a rogue named Tuco (The “Ugly,” played by Eli Wallach) in a scheme to make them both money.
“Blondie” is supposed to shoot Tuco down from a noose, and does so for a while, but then gets tired of it, and leaves Tuco in the desert, who of course now wants revenge. Meanwhile, a mercenary nicknamed “Angel Eyes” (The “Bad,” played by Lee Van Cleef) gets tangled up with “Blondie” and Tuco in a search for gold that’s buried by a Union soldier in the desert. It’s really good!
After a prostitute has her face cut up by some cowboys, her fellow ladies of the night scrounge up some cash to have the cowboys murdered. An aged gunslinger named William Munny (Eastwood) accepts the bounty and goes off to kill the men, but he has competition from another bounty hunter named English Bob (played by Richard Harris).
All the while, the town’s sheriff (Gene Hackman) wants none of it, since he believes the law should handle things. It’s also really good!
The Plot’s Winner: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
It’s such a tough call since they’re both SO good (I especially like how Unforgiven is a meditation on not only the Western genre, but also Eastwood’s entire career), but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, just has so much more going on, and it handles it all so well, so it gets the victory.
Every Western needs some interesting characters, so which film has the most interesting ones?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Characters
As mentioned, you have the Good (Eastwood), the Bad (Lee Van Cleef), and the Ugly (Wallach), and they’re all great and very distinct. That said, I honestly think Tuco steals the show, and all of his manic energy kind of overshadows Eastwood’s and Lee Van Cleef’s performances, if I’m being completely honest.
Eastwood steals the show as a mourning bandit who has never fully escaped his past, and he’s wonderful. But I feel like I also need to bring up Morgan Freeman and Jaimz Woolvett as Munny’s two partners, Ned Logan and The Schofield Kid, respectively, since they act as a reflection of Munny in both his present and his past, and how they both feel like they’re men out of time. Gene Hackman is also phenomenal as “Little Bill,” and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work. It’s just an amazing cast, top to bottom.
The Characters Winner: Unforgiven
Sure, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has interesting characters, but Unforgiven’s characters are much deeper and they feel like they have much more to say.
Some Westerns are made legendary by their scores, so which Western has the better music?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s music
I feel this is kind of cheating, but well, submitted for your approval is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme song. And how legendary is this theme, you ask? So legendary, that I played it for my students (Yes, I’m also a teacher who loves school movies), and at least 50% of my students had at least heard the theme before. Whether it was mimicked in one of the cartoons they watched, or their parents played it for them, for whatever reason, many of my Seventh Grade students knew the tune as soon as I turned it on. If that’s not a testament to the song’s legacy, then I don’t know what is.
Like the story itself, Unforgiven’s music is dark at times, introspective at others, and longing throughout. It’s a great score that compliments its movie well. That said…
The Music Winner: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
With a score by the legendary The Hateful Eight and The Untouchables composer, Ennio Morricone, the mere fact that people know the theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly without even watching the movie speaks volumes, so it gets the victory.
Sweeping vistas and vast desert land are staples of the Western genre, so which film has the better cinematography?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Cinematography
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a film that needs to be seen on a big screen. Director of Photography, Tonino Delli Colli, made the wide shots feel massive with plenty of desert and bodies, but Leone would also zoom the camera way up in the actors' faces, so we would get nothing but shots of shifty eyes ready for shootouts. It’s really dynamic cinematography that makes the film feel fresh, even today.
Jack N. Green was nominated for the cinematography in Unforgiven, and I can understand why. Unforgiven’s whole aesthetic is somber with dark hues and gritty tones. Eastwood almost feels like he’s both out of place in the scenery, and also a part of the scenery itself, which gives the setting a character of decay all on its own.
The Cinematography Winner: Unforgiven
The cinematography in Unforgiven is very different from that seen in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Whereas The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’s cinematography is bright and one might even call it playful, Unforgiven’s is bleak, but also beautiful at times, like the scenes with the blood red sky. This category is also tough to call, but I admire Unforgiven’s cinematography more and more every time I watch it.
Both westerns are highly revered and well-known, but which Clint Eastwood Western has the more lasting legacy?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Legacy
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly came out in 1966, and we’re STILL talking about it. It’s probably the most well-known “Spaghetti Western” there is, and for a lot of people, when you say the word “Western,” Clint Eastwood’s steely-eyed gaze in this film fills their mind palace. It’s that iconic.
As mentioned earlier, Unforgiven is only one of three Westerns to ever win Best Picture (the other two being the terrible, Cimarron, and the pretty good, Dances With Wolves), and so it has that going for it. But, while people definitely still talk about Unforgiven, it’s more of a deconstruction of the Western, rather than what many would consider the quintessential Western like they do The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Legacy Winner: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I think I prefer Unforgiven, but most people would rather see The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and that’s just facts.
The Overall Winner: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
It was a tough battle, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly nabs the victory as the best Clint Eastwood Western. But what do you think? For news on other great Westerns (Even from recent years), make sure to swing by here often!
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.