Director Sergio Leone noted that the film's main theme is its emphasis on violence and the deconstruction of Old West romanticism. Like many of his films, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was considered by Leone as a satire of the Western genre. Critic Drew Marton described it as a "baroque manipulation" that criticizes the American ideology of the Western, by replacing the heroic cowboy popularized by John Wayne with morally complex antiheroes. Negative themes such as capitalism and greed were also given focus, and were traits shared by the three leads in the story. Many critics have also noticed the film's anti-war theme. Taking place in the American Civil War, the film takes the viewpoint of people such as civilians, bandits, and most notably soldiers, and presents their daily hardships during the war. Although not fighting in the war, the three gunslingers gradually become entangled in the battles that ensue (similar to The Great War, a film that screenwriters Luciano Vincenzoni and Age & Scarpelli had contributed to).
In its depiction of violence, Leone used his signature long drawn and close-up style of filming, which he did by mixing extreme face shots and sweeping long shots. By doing so, Leone managed to stage epic sequences punctuated by extreme eyes and face shots, or hands slowly reaching on a holstered gun. This builds up the tension and suspense by allowing the viewers to savor the performances and character reactions, create a feel of excitement, as well as giving Leone the freedom to film beautiful landscapes. Leone also incorporated music to heighten up the tension and pressure before and during the film's many gunfights.
In filming the pivotal gunfights, Leone largely removes dialogue to focus more on the actions of the characters, which was important during the film's iconic Mexican standoff. This style can also be seen in one of the film's protagonists, Blondie (aka The Man with No Name), which is described by critics as more defined by his actions than his words. All three characters can be seen as anti-heroes killing for their personal gain. Leone also employed stylistic trick shooting, such as Blondie shooting the hat off a person's head and severing a hangman's noose with a well-placed shot, in many of its iconic shootouts.