An empty landscape, an endless, desolate (and TechniScope-horizontal) landscape...
... suddenly replaced by another enormous sun-baked landscape, and the long shot is instantaneously transformed into a close-up of...
... a human face, staring into the camera -- and, by extension, into the distance off-camera. It's a variation on the signature Leone shot, and for him these faces (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach -- and in other movies Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Woody Strode...) were landscapes, and landmarks, as characteristic of his stylistic world as the buttes of Monument Valley were for John Ford. -- JE
We've had several excellent appreciations of how the opening shot of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" works, each with its own unique angle, if you will. Here are a few -- beginning with Roger Ebert's 2003 Great Movies review:
A vast empty Western landscape. The camera pans across it. Then the shot slides onto a sunburned, desperate face. The long shot has become a closeup without a cut, revealing that the landscape was not empty but occupied by a desperado very close to us.
In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots.
There is a moment, for example, when men do not notice a vast encampment of the Union Army until they stumble upon it. And a moment in a cemetery when a man materializes out of thin air even though he should have been visible for a mile. And the way men walk down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, maybe because they are not in the same frame with them.
Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie clichés, using style to elevate dreck into art. When the movie opened in America in late 1967, not long after its predecessors "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), audiences knew they liked it, but did they know why?