Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 11, 2009  | 
Paramount (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 Enhanced). English DD 5.1, German DD 2.0, Spanish DD 2.0, French DD 2.0. English, English (FHI), Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Romanian, Turkish Subtitles. 159 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Frank Wolff, Lionel Stander
Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone
Country: Italy/US
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The Western is a film genre almost totally devoted to depictions of exaggerated masculinity. Regardless of whether it's John Ford or Howard Hawks shoot 'em ups like Rio Bravo, aspirations to the American ideal a la High Noon, or depictions of something nastier and darker lurking under the surface as in Bad Day At Black Rock, The Searchers or Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, in American Westerns the men are men (heroes or villains with nary a grey area to be seen), the women are women (whores or saints), and the notion of duty, whether to family, friend or country, is paramount. Honour and justice (or vengeance, depending on how you see it) must be maintained. It's odd then that this hyper-American genre was so successfully kidnapped by the Italians in the 1960s. The American sensibilities were retained, but augmented by a more cosmopolitan feel, given more passion, more violent action and definitely more bloodshed.

By the early 60s, the Western seemed to have almost run its course in the States, until Clint Eastwood came riding into town as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, and the 'Spaghetti Western' was born. Helmed by Italian directors like Leone, these films were violent, sometimes sleazy mini-operas of vengeance, betrayal, violence, bloodshed, honour and general manliness. The heroes (either up-and-coming Italian actors like Tomas Milian, Fabio Testi and Ray Lovelock, or more tried and true contenders like Franco Nero – or US tough guy actors like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood, who'd already made a name for themselves in Westerns, and who an Italian audience would be more than happy to see waving a six-shooter about) were of a mysterious past, laconic to the point of silence, spoke between clenched teeth, delivered excellent tough guy dialogue when they spoke at all, shot straight, treated women in a decidedly average manner, and displayed all the emotional range of a rock.

Once Upon A Time In The West is the distillation of all of that. A commercial flop in the States when it was released, despite its stellar cast, auteur director and God among composers on the soundtrack (look to the left, if you don't believe me), it was reviewed in one publication as, "Tedium in the Tumbleweeds", due to its deliberate pacing, the practically static lead-ups to the violent action and it's original, rather daunting 165 minute run time (cut by 20 minutes in the States after the initial poor reaction, rendering some parts of the film mystifying bordering on the incoherent). Leone had gone against the whipcrack pacing, irreverent take on the Western and quirky humour of his "Dollars" trilogy, producing something darker, more serious and post-modern, and audiences in 1968 didn't really want that from their Westerns, except in Europe, where Once Upon A Time In The West was a smash hit, the full cut of the film playing in one Paris theatre for an unbroken 48 months, as the print gradually deteriorated.

In writing the film, Leone had help from two different sources – on one hand film critics and Western fans, later directors themselves, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento to help compose the story the script eventually became, and on the other, to help with the pacing and prevent the film from being 5 hours long (Leone had already had problems with running times on his previous Western, the Civil War epic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which had to be substantially cut prior to cinematic release), Sergio Donati as co-screenwriter. In some regards the film is a pastiche of many older US Westerns, look at the film closely enough and you'll see evidence of visual references to The Searchers, High Noon, Duel In The Sun, The Last Sunset, 3:10 To Yuma, The Comancheros, Johnny Guitar and a bunch of others (funny how people assault Tarantino for doing the same thing these days – he even references this film, kinda, in Inglourious Basterds, with the section "Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France" - but no-one would have a go at Leone for a similar approach, despite his lack of subtlety). That would kind of make it a Western about Westerns – it's also a film about the death of the Western myth, and the new America that railroad tycoons like Morton (Ferzetti) helped to create, for good or bad.

That all said, given the four or five different threads that go to make up the plot, the one that's always interested me the most is the revenge aspect embodied in Charles Bronson's character, eventually dubbed "Harmonica" by the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards playing against type very well indeed). Harmonica (a role initially offered to Clint Eastwood, who turned it down, and James Coburn, who wanted too much cash) is a man with a dark and mysterious past, like all the best Spaghetti Western protagonists, and one who wants vengeance against cold-blooded killer Frank (Henry Fonda in a role unlike any other he ever played – this veteran of the good-guy role plays a psychotic killer very believably indeed, his ice blue eyes radiating the coldness of the character scarily well), the right-hand man of rail baron Morton, a rich businessman with a degenerative bone disease living inside his luxury train carriage, who wants to complete the building of a coast-to-coast rail-line before he dies.

Tied up in all of this is Jill McBain (Cardinale), an ex-prostitute from New Orleans who has married land-owner Bret McBain, who has a property at a farm called Sweetwater, land that the rail line Morton is building will need to go by, as it has one of the few natural deposits of water in the area. McBain knows this, and has built a large homestead, preparing to build a depot for the imminent arrival of the trains as well. Morton sends Frank out to scare McBain off the property – he and his gang massacre McBain's family in a scene that's as brutal as it is beautifully shot, and memorably iconic. Once we've established Frank as the kind of bastard who'll gun a small child down in cold blood, we immediately fix our loyalties on Harmonica, despite the fact we've already seen him gun down three men in the film's visually arresting and unbearably tense opening scene – when the violence occurs it's almost a relief, but then Leone was never so much concerned about the violence itself, it's the lead up to the violence that's important. Think about it: what's more important, the actual gun firing, or the two guys in the deserted street trying to work out who's going to draw first (cast your mind back to the final show down in For A Few Dollars More if you don't believe me)? The tension comes from the wait, not the action. Again, in Once Upon A Time In The West, this idea raised in Leone's previous Westerns is privileged.

When Jill gets off the train at Flagstone (a faux-town Leone had made to his specifications on location from photographs of similar places from the mid-to-late 19th century – he demanded 100% accuracy), she's understandably confused as to why nobody's there to meet her, having no idea that her family-to-be have just been turned into colanders by Frank's gang. Heading out there in a carriage, Jill's driver insists on pulling over at a roadside store in the middle of nowhere. It's kind of a Wild West 7-11, part-stable, part-blacksmith, part bar, part-general roadside services. And it's where Cheyenne puts in his first appearance after a shoot-out we hear, but don't see – the reaction to violence being more important than seeing the violence itself. Cheyenne's gang have freed him from the guards who have him in irons (he's still in cuffs when he enters the room), but Harmonica, lurking at the back of the store, isn't so sure that Cheyenne's men weren't from the same gang as the men who tried to kill him at the station, wearing the same kind of dusters. There's a lot of tough guy alpha-male machismo going on in this scene – it practically oozes it, and the interplay between silence, the individual characters' themes and the dry as dust bravado maintains the level of tension beautifully. Something about Harmonica disturbs Cheyenne, but he can't put his finger on what it is.

Jill arrives at Sweetwater to find that the party for her arrival has become a funeral. However, Morton's plans to get the land have gone awry, as Jill was married to McBain one month earlier in New Orleans, and is determined to stay. Yet Frank has covered his tracks well, planting flase evidence that Cheyenne's men are responsible for the massacre. A lynch mob immediately convenes. Once Upon A Time In The West tries to show the dichotomy between the old Wild West and the new emerging America, and elements like this kind of frontier justice, and Frank's ability to act violently with carte blanche, backed by big money tend to straddle that divide – in the former case, the old school West comes to the fore, with justice being swift, ill-thought out and frankly illegal, in the latter the scenario seems more familiar from more modern situations, with the killing coming from an impersonal drive for money and power – it didn't matter who was on that farm, that wasn't a personal killing (as we'd be more used to from older Westerns), like in any good Mafia film, that was business. Horrible business, yes, but business all the same. And Harmonica knows that Frank did it, giving a further indication that he's had dealings with Frank before, and knowing about his criminal methods. We're not given great big chunks of expository text, just little clues, and even from the little we're given, we get the idea that there's a score to settle between them.

Cheyenne pays the widow McBain a visit, claiming his innocence in a round about fashion, but curious about motive as to why he's being framed. But if Jill's going down, she ain't going down without a fight – she's a tough lady, and again the expectation of the audience shifts between what we expect from a Western ma'am and what we get as a more modern woman contemporary to when the film was made. At the same time, Frank is chastised by Morton for having massacred the McBains, although his qualms aren't moral ones, more business oriented. But shrewd businessman that he is, Morton also realises that Frank is looking for an out from being a hired goon – he wants part of the action. Morton isn't long for the world, and Frank wants to secure his own future before the crippled businessman goes toes up in his luxury rail car. Frank represents the old West trying to merge into the new. He can tell that the times, they are a-changing, and he knows that he needs to change with them, with his weapons becoming dollars, not shootin' irons.

Harmonica turns up to the widow McBain's homestead, too (popular gal, this Jill), and after telling her flatly that she shouldn't leave (he seems to have inside knowledge about why Sweetwater is such a valuable commodity), almost as an afterthought kills two of Frank's men who've been sent to keep watch over Sweetwater, without breaking a sweat. Cheyenne sees this little tete-a-tete, and starts wondering ever more about our mysterious harmonica-playing, sharp-shooting chum. Jill, on the other hand, is getting all kinds of interested in Frank, and wants to meet with him, trying to use the same go-between that Harmonica did, which would strike me as a pretty poor idea.

An extremely poor idea as it happens for Harmonica, who follows the go-between and gets captured by Frank on top of Morton's rail car. Harmonica is tied up (having an unclear flashback that we'll see a lot more of as the film progresses; Frank has no recollection of the man), the go-between shot (Frank earlier questions how much he can trust a man who wears suspenders and a belt, "A man who doesn't even trust his own pants!", shooting the poor fella through his suspender straps and his belt buckle), and we see that Cheyenne has hitched a ride in the undercarriage of the train. It's a little too early in this sprawling epic for a showdown, but we know that something's got to happen. Morton sends Frank out after Jill, when it's revealed that Harmonica's killed his lookouts, and when he quizzes Harmonica as to what his name is, our boy calmly recites a list of dead men's names, the names of men that Frank has murdered. He's getting quite curious about the identity of Harmonica all of a sudden, but it's business first, so he rides off after Jill, leaving some of his henchmen to "look after" Morton – there's no honour among thieves, I guess. Not too much intelligence, cunning or shooting skills either, as Cheyenne's rescue of Harmonica would prove (an ingenious use of a boot, it must be said).

Jill's finding out a fair bit about her erstwhile husband, like his plans for Sweetwater, given the fact that the local depot has enough lumber and building supplies which McBain paid for before his untimely demise to build a small town with... Hey wait, what a good idea! Unfortunately, Frank pays her a visit first – he's starting to hold all of the cards, and Morton's hold over him is slipping fast, as Frank starts to understand that he's very much in the driver's seat.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch – no, seriously, back at Sweetwater – Harmonica, Cheyenne and his gang are starting to uncover more of McBain's secrets, like the fact that he'd already squared off land for a train station, post office, church, all the the essentials for the beginnings of a small town, maybe it's isolated right now, but when the railway comes through, well, that'll be somewhat different, which is exactly what McBain wanted, and wanted Jill to be a part of, before Frank and Morton decided that he oughtta just get the hell out of Dodge. But the town needs to be built before the railway tracks are laid, otherwise Jill loses her option to keep the land. So, in a rare moment of public spirit, Cheyenne has his men begin work on building the station.

Jill, however, has problems enough of her own. She's in Frank's clutches, and boy, do I mean clutches – women always have an appalling time in Westerns at the hands of the scum – and loss of property probably seems in an immediate sense to be of little interest to her. Jill lets Frank get his freak on with her, and he reveals that he knows all about her past as a hooker. In an odd moment of self-evaluation Frank briefly posits marriage to Jill as a way to get the land, but strangely seems concerned about the fact he'd be no good as a husband – nope, he needs a quicker, more direct route to getting some of that fat cash. An auction seems to be the way to go...

Mind you, the auction seems to be a bit one-sided for a while, what with Frank's gang leaning on anyone who tries to make a bid. Meanwhile, Morton is becoming increasingly concerned that he won't make his dream come true of seeing his railroad get from the Atlantic to the Pacific, trapped as he is in his rail car, under guard by more of Frank's men, and so decides to use the only weapon he has left open to him – money, the new weapon of the West – in order to buy Frank's men's loyalty. Frank's men seem to think that their boss's bid on Sweetwater - $500 – is going to win, but Harmonica has a card up his sleeve: Cheyenne. Turns out the reward on the bandit is $5000, and Harmonica puts him up as collateral.

Having a celebratory drink after winning his auction on behalf of Jill, or something of the sort, Harmonica is interrupted by Frank, who turns up yet again to buy the farm from Harmonica and again ask the question: "Who are you?" The response is another list of dead men, men killed by Frank. Harmonica has a slightly clearer vision from the past, and also sees that if he walks outside the saloon they're talking in, he's likely to be perforated. Frank sees the same problem, but chooses to deal with it head on. The bullets aren't for Harmonica, but oddly he decides to be Frank's guardian angel – after all, you can't take revenge on someone who's already dead.

Frank, realising who his would-be assassins were and having a pretty good idea of why they may well have switched sides, decides to pay another visit to Morton, finding all of his men around the train, dead, along with a bunch of Cheyenne's men. Morton himself, badly wounded, is crawling, dying, towards a puddle, hardly his grand vision of the Pacific Ocean.

At Sweetwater, the town building is in full swing, and the railroad is going through town as well. Cheyenne's men have proven remarkably adept at wood-working, and somehow Cheyenne has escaped being sent to the prison at Yuma. At this point all of the major players are brought together, well, besides Morton, obviously, and I reckon that it's time for you to close the blinds for three hours, put your feet up and watch how Once Upon A Time In The West pans out. Frank and Harmonica have a score to settle – although Frank doesn't quite know it yet himself, the reasons for Harmonica's revenge will soon become readily apparent, and certain characters are going to have to pay the piper; after all, you can't live a life of violence, betrayal and opportunism and be thinking you'll get off scot-free – and Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica are all guilty in one way or another. The Old West might be dying slow, replaced by the New West symbolised by the railroad industry, dragging America kicking and screaming into the modern age, but there are some of its codes to do with manliness, honour, justice and above all vengeance that are still very much alive and kicking.

It's worth talking briefly about the score, always a highlight when Ennio Moricone is responsible for it. Soundwise, the film is largely constructed from four motif themes – one apiece for Jill, Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica – which are blended to construct tension at certain parts of the film, and altered to fit mood, tone and situation; sometimes this is achieved through pace, sometimes through key change, sometimes through switching the instrumentation between themes. Apart from this, the score sometimes moves in between diegetic and non-diegetic, most notably with Harmonica's theme (after all, he gets dubbed "Harmonica" by Cheyenne in the first place for his playing of the instrument). The harmonica theme is the most memorable in the film, being eerie and haunting, usually swelling in the non-diegetic score with more full orchestration, and a snarling fuzz-tone guitar. The score generally moves between haunting and elegaic, only really becoming lush with Jill's theme. The diegetic sound is also used to full effect in order to create tension admirably, exaggerated on the soundtrack – the opening scene has no soundtrack for eight minutes, excluding a squeaky windmill, a buzzing fly and dripping water from a tank, as Frank's men wait at the station for Harmonica. The screech of breaks as a train enters shot almost has the audience jump. The use of silence is just as important as the use of sound in this film.

I mentioned above the set design, this also was laboured over by Leone. He wanted things to look gritty, realistic and dusty (he even imported dirt from Monument Valley to Italy, once the shoot had moved to doing interiors at Cinecitta), a West without the glamour often attached to it. To this end as well, the heavy use of make-up gave the men particularly a sunburnt, weathered and beaten look.

The open landscape is further used to create a sense of isolation – not only are the characters isolated from the big cities, from civilisation, they are isolated from each other, either willingly so as to disguise their motives from their so-called allies, or as a form of defence. The open landscape also acts as a counterpoint to the dusty, dark confines of many of the interiors, too – claustrophobic man-made structures imposed upon the countryside where fellas huddle within to escape the heat they've willingly brought themselves into, whether for monetary gain or revenge.

Further to this is the cinematography, which is non-pareil. You rarely get to see such a sublime use of the camera, such a full understanding of how to use the visual effectively, whether in the close-ups, or in the shots where Leone makes full use of the depth of the screen – foregrounding certain objects and backgrounding others to give a real sense of being part of the action. Similarly, the colour palette is used to great effect, the earthy tones of everything you see bringing the landscape into the picture, making the characters one with it (when Frank dons black garb towards the tail end of the film, the fact that his kind – the Old West – no longer fit in is more than apparent). The visual symbolism is a little heavy-handed with water (rebirth, cleansing), the trains (the New America being born from the old) and guns (the Old West, the romanticising of the violent past by the film industry), but I guess it makes its point well enough.
Fucking superb. I honestly can't think of another way of putting it. It's anamorphic cinemascope, digitally remastered and positively leaps off the screen at you. Given the fact that Leone was an outstanding director with a keen eye for the visual, this really is one of the best-looking films you will ever be privileged to see, and this release of it does it all kinds of favours.
Oddly, still in the original mono. That doesn't harm it, but given the fact that at nearly three hours running time you don't watch this film so much as build a relationship with it, the experience could certainly be enhanced with the timely addition of a surround track – particularly when given the emphasis on natural sound (think about the opening scene at the railroad station), and when spaghetti western soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone has just given you one of his very best soundtracks EVER (and that is really saying something), more could have been made of it.
Extra Features
Well, this is a two disc special edition, so you basically get plenty of bang for your buck. Revel in this, as there are plenty of shoddy bare bones vanilla discs out there, more than likely a few in your own collection – here Paramount have given something back to crafty consumers like you and I. To begin with, the commentary track that plays alongside the feature has contributions from directors John Carpenter (do I even have to tell you who he is?), John Milius (Conan The Barbarian, among others) and Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, The Revenger's Tragedy) – these are some fellas who know their way around a camera. Also, Leone's biographer, Sir Christopher Frayling, who is obviously a fella in the know, film historian Dr Sheldon Hall, and cast and crew members Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti and co-writer (now highly respected director in his own right) Bernardo Bertolucci. THAT is an impressive line-up of talent and knowledge right there in one commentary track.

Zip over to disc two and the goodness just keeps on being given to you lucky people. There are three featurettes, each dealing with different aspects of the film: An Opera of Violence - This is a brief history of Leone's career leading up to West, with an obvious emphasis on Westerns, looking at the development of the film from writing to casting, becoming quite specific as it progresses.

The Wages of Sin - Here we look at the actual production of the film – set design, locations (it's impressive that Leone made such seamless transitions between Cinecitta studios, Almeria in Spain and Monument Valley, Arizona), filming and such. Okay, this may appear to be trainspotter material, but to a fanboi like myself, I was left wanting more.

Something To Do With Death – And here we get the sound design, the post-production, the initial and eventual reactions to the film, the cuts made on various releases, and a general round-up and appreciation of the film, and Leone.

These featurettes include new interviews with Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernardo Bertolucci, the film's cinematographerTonino Delli Colli, as well as some archival interviews with Henry Fonda and Sergio Leone. Carpenter, Milius and Cox turn up again, too. If West is a film you dig – you NEED to see these featurettes. These have been put together for the real cinephile, and the Leone fan, not for the casual viewer. They're all reasonably substantial in terms of run time, but I would've liked to have seen them spliced together as one big kick-arse feature-length documentary.

Then there's another featurette, Railroad: Revolutionising the West, the title should give a clue as to what it's about, if the film itself hadn't made the importance of the railroad obvious enough. There are two sets of stills galleries – some from the production of the film, others comparing the locations then and now. Rounding things off we get text cast profiles of Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and Gabriel Ferzetti, and the original trailer. All up, that's a big thumbs up to Paramount for a tidy package of pretty exhaustive and informative goodness.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Monumental. This is a film Wagnerian in its epic scope and emotional range, veering from all that's noble and brave about the human race, to its very murky depths. Long? Sure it is. Slowly paced? Yep. Driven by character rather than action? Uh-huh. Brilliantly shot and directed, magnificently acted and chock full of vengeance, one-upmanship, back-stabbing, double-dealing and driving a stake through the heart of America's romanticising of its Wild West past, while still mailing a love letter to the Western genre? Now these are the reasons to be watching Once Upon A Time In The West. This is a fine film and one that should definitely be a part of your collection.

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