If you ask me my opinion on the best western ever made, I would say Sergio Leone's 1966 classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. On the other hand, if you asked me what is the coolest western ever made, I would say Sergio Leone's 1968 follow-up Once Upon a Time in the West. However, even though West may have been a “cooler” film, it falls far short of its predecessor, even though it was made by the same filmmaker, in the same period, in the same genre, and even shares the same PLOT TYPE (The Reconciled Rivals). West has a lot of stand-out features: that haunting harmonica motif, Henry Fonda's out-of-character turn as a psychotic villain, and some of the most quotable dialogue ever found in the genre; but in terms of plot and structure, it seems to lack much of the qualities which made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so great – especially in its late second and third act. If they were basically the same film, with the same plot type, helmed by the same master of the genre, why did West score only an in-field double while Ugly was a home run? If everything seemed to be going so right for Leone on his follow-up, why did it not match or even exceed the success of his previous film?
It all comes down to a simple mistake in structure in terms of plot type. Both Ugly and West fall into the same category of plot: the Reconciled Rivals. As a refresher, the Reconciled Rivals is a story where:
“Two sympathetic characters, one or both of them protagonists, come into a personality conflict. The plot develops as the two are forced into a situation where they must work together to achieve a mutually desired goal. Obstacles and complications test their ability to cooperate, forcing the characters to overcome their inter-personal conflict in order to succeed.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a perfect example of this. It features dual protagonists, one the hero Blondie (Clint Eastwood), and the other the antihero Tuco (Elli Wallach). Though these two characters dislike each other, even openly wish to kill each other, they must unite their efforts and work together to reach a mutually desired goal, opposed by a single antagonist (Lee Van Cleef).
Once Upon a Time in the West upsets the balance of this classic structure by attempting to throw something extra into the mix. While Ugly is a traditional two-way Reconciled Rivals, West is a rarely-seen attempt at a THREE-WAY version of the same plot type. That's right, Once Upon a Time in the West is a story with THREE protagonists. There is the Harmonica Man (Charles Bronson), Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), and then Cheyenne (Jason Robards). (Do not be foolish enough to assume that Harmonica is the sole protagonist simply because he is the most charismatic character or is played by the biggest star. Just as you should not assume the same about Blondie. Protagonist status is decided by which character takes the actions which advance the plot and develop the Story Spine.)
The addition of a third protagonist complicates West's narrative development threefold. While Ugly had only the relationship between Blondie and Tuco to deal with, as well as their mutual relationship with the antagonist Angel Eyes, West must take the time to establish and develop three individual relationships between Harmonica & Jill, Jill & Cheyenne, and then Cheyenne & Harmonica... as well as the three separated relationships each seemed to have with the antagonist Frank (Henry Fonda). West does quite well at getting all these relationships up and running, but the unfortunate side effect is that it takes up half of the movie's running time to do so. The second and third acts then become compressed for time, and are thus not allowed the amount of development or number of dramatic turning points that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has in spades. This becomes most noticeable at each film's climaxes. Both films end in shootouts, but West's climax does not deliver even close to the same amount of tension or emotional release as found in Ugly due to its significantly smaller amount of dramatic buildup to the event.
West's plot development is further hampered by the fact that its three protagonists are not unified in their action. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, both Blondie and Tuco want to accomplish the same thing: to find the buried Confederate gold. In West, all three protagonists pursue their own individual lines of action. Harmonica wants to kill Frank. Jill wants to honor her murdered husband by fulfilling his lifelong dream. And Cheyenne... well, it is never exactly clear what Cheyenne wants. The only thing that connects these separated lines and encourages all three characters to work together is their mutual antagonistic relationship to Frank. Because of this, Once Upon a Time in the West actually operates as three different plot types operating (and conflicting with each other) within the same film. Harmonica's line follows the Vengeance Narrative. Jill's line is a Small Man/Woman Rises. Cheyenne follows a Taking on the Mantle. This creates a muddy and confused second act. In fact, to find any clarity in the film's third act, the film must wrap up Jill and Cheyenne's storylines early and give the third act to Harmonica and Frank alone. (The turning point that begins the third act actually occurs very late. The third act takes up only eighteen minutes in the nearly three-hour film, beginning after Jill and Cheyenne's conflicts have been resolved.)
The conclusion? Once Upon a Time in the West may have been a far stronger film in terms of plot and structure if it had eliminated one of its protagonists. Its story may have reached success equal, or even than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly if it had been the story of simply Harmonica/Jill, Harmonica/Cheyenne, or Jill/Cheyenne united in a common goal against Frank. This would have given the narrative far better focus and allowed much more time to develop the main conflict.
West also loses clarity points due to a bit of antagonist confusion. Frank is obviously the meanest, most despicable character in the story, but for much of the film he is acting only as the henchman of railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Frank's acts of violence are done under Morton's supervision, often by Morton's orders. This confuses the audience over who exactly is at the top of the antagonist food chain and adds ambiguity to the main conflict. It also adds yet another independent inter-character relationship (the Frank/Morton relationship) to a narrative that is already overstuffed. Compare this to the simple clarity found in the force of antagonism in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There is only one man opposing Blondie and Tuco: Angel Eyes. It is crystal clear to the audience that Angel Eyes is the apex predator of the story and the only serious force to be reckoned with.
Despite all this, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has its own flaws that keep it from being a perfect film. The first is the film's misplaced inciting incident. If you look at the point which the inciting incident is expected to occur in most films (generally after the first 1/8 of the film's total run time) we are given the moment when Blondie breaks off his partnership with Tuco and leaves him in the desert. This event may incite Tuco's hatred for Blondie, but the blood feud between the former partners is not the focus of the narrative, nor does it establish the protagonists' main story goal. Ugly is the story of two men working together to find a stockpile of Confederate gold. This means the Story Spine does not begin until the protagonists learn of the gold's existence, an event the storytellers have mistakenly placed at the end of its first act. Blondie and Tuco's murderous rivalry is merely extended setup material. In fact, one could walk into the film an hour late and still be able to follow the film without missing out on anything terribly important.
Ugly's second major flaw comes from execution of character. As a Reconciled Rivals, Blondie and Tuco are supposed to be co-protagonists, equal actors in the eyes of the story. However, even though the script gives Tuco equal screentime and narrative weight, even going so far as to provide material intended to make the audience feel sympathy for Tuco, the audience never accepts Tuco as Blondie's narrative equal. In the audience's eyes he remains nothing but an important supporting character. The primary reason for this is that unlike Blondie, Tuco is... never anything but a total dirtbag. Tuco is supposed to be a co-protagonist. However, to be accepted as the audience as a protagonist, a character must meet three qualifications: 1. The character must be humanly relateable. 2. The character must be worthy of the audience's interest. 3. The character must be worthy of the audience's respect. Tuco, unlike Blondie, falls short in the third qualifications. Therefore, he never takes on full protagonist status in the eyes of the audience, and is always Blondie's lesser. Therefore, his scenes lack the same kind of audience appeal as those of his rival.