Once Upon a Time in the West

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I don’t think I would have watched this film if I hadn’t needed to for class, but I’m really glad I did see it. I’m not a big fan of westerns, but I really liked this one. Depending on who you ask, this is one of the greatest westerns ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far; I’m not an expert on the genre by any means, just counting I’ve only seen about eight westerns total. This film does have some problems, mainly that it’s a bit on the long side (even though I watched the short version at about two hours and twenty five minutes or so, the full version’s closer to three hours) and it takes awhile to figure out what’s going on. The most interesting part for me, and I’m sure for a lot of people, is that Henry Fonda plays the villain in this movie (what?!?!).

This film starts out kind of strange. I didn’t really have a good hold on what was going on until about the one hour mark, and then (and this is intentional) I didn’t really know the whole story until the very end. Clearly, you’re not supposed to know the whole story until the very end, but I’m talking more about the character’s motivations for doing what they are doing. It’s really unclear in the beginning, which makes it kind of weird to watch. However, by the time you get to the end and you understand why everyone is doing what they are doing, it’s really satisfying. Leone basically just gives us a couple of flashbacks during the stereotypical western shootout that explain why they are having the stereotypical western shootout. When it came, we were just like “oh…! That’s why he (the character) did all those previous things!” It’s interesting how Leone didn’t explain that until the end, and by the time it came around I thought it worked pretty well. It leaves you kind of confused at the start, but the ending is so much more meaningful with the flashbacks in there.

The film opens with, you guessed it, a shootout. Three mysterious guys, appearing to be members of Cheyenne’s (Jason Robbards) gang, try to kill the equally mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson). However, they fail and only end up shooting him in the arm. Then we go to the McBains, an Irish family living out in the middle of nowhere. Mr. McBain is waiting for his bride to get there (they have already been secretly married for a month, but since it’s a secret they’re going to get married again publicly), but before she does Frank (Henry Fonda) shows up and massacres his whole family. He was just supposed to intimate them into moving off their land, but as Frank observes, “people scare better when they’re dying.” Mrs. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) shows up, clearly off put by her husband and newfound family being killed. Cheyenne is once again framed for the murders.

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Frank’s boss, Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), is an old rich guy, crippled from tuberculosis, who desperately wants to see the ocean before he dies. Frank obviously resents him, and that fact that he has more money and therefore more power. It does take a genius to figure out this relationship is going to proceed. Morton lives on his train. He never really leaves it, and when he does it is because he is forced to and lets just say it’s not going to turn out well for him. He’s obsessed with getting to the ocean, I’m not really sure why, but it’s clear that he is. I don’t know if it’s progress for it’s own sake, or maybe he just really likes the ocean. There’s this one point where he’s just staring at a painting of the ocean, and I really felt the longing there. It’s not really anything Ferzetti’s doing; he’s not even in the shot I’m talking about. It literally is just an extreme close-up on the painting with some ocean sounds, but it really affected me pretty strongly. I can’t quite say why.

It turns out that there’s a reason for Morton sending Frank to scare the McBains off their land; it’s valuable, but in a very sneaky way. Harmonica tells Cheyenne why Frank and Morton want it: if McBain could build a railway station before the railroad reaches to that point, he’ll make a ton of dough. If he can’t the land is forfeit and he’ll be ruined. Well, he already is ruined of course, and not just because the station hasn’t been built. The railroad is getting closer and closer everyday, and whoever is going to take that land is losing valuable time. Of course, the land should belong to Jill; she’s the only surviving member of the McBain family. Once Frank learns this, he goes to work on her. She used to be a prositute, so she’s used to this kind of thing. She thought once she was married this stuff would stop, so she’s not that happy to be in this position once again. However, she’s willing to do what she has to do to survive, so Frank convinces her to sell the land, and she convinces him to let her live.

Auction scenes are always fun, and this one is no exception. Frank and his men intimidate everyone in there from bidding, so he can get it for the rock-bottom price of two hundred and fifty dollars. Jill doesn’t really care; she just wants to get out of there and put all this behind her. If she can get some money, fine, if she can’t, fine. However, Harmonica has other plans. He turns in Cheyenne for the bounty and buys the land for five thousand dollars. Frank tries to buy it back from him. This is about where the questions clicked in for me: who the heck is this guy? Why is he helping out Jill? Or rather, why does he want to get back at Frank so bad? Which is stronger? These are the central questions to the film, and they get revealed in interesting ways. The whole film draws to the end shootout, not just because we want to see a confrontation between the two, but because we all want to know what the heck is going on.

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As I mentioned before, this film is especially interesting for its casting. Most notably you have Henry Fonda playing a villain; I’m surprised the world didn’t explode from shock when this came out. He actually does a very very good job. He is suffiently menacing and his normal good guy presence distracts you from the fact that he is a villain, especially in the beginning. You kind of can’t get away from it in the end. I’ve always thought his voice is pretty calming; so in the beginning there I wasn’t sure if he was actually the bad guy. I knew he was in the villain’s position, but I though he might turn out to be a sympathetic villain or something. Not so; Fonda plays one of the cruelest villains I’ve ever seen. Charles Bronson is cast more typically as the hero, and it works very well. Leone originally wanted Clint Eastwood for the film, but he turned it down so he went with Bronson. I also really liked Claudia Cardinale here. I didn’t identify this on my own, but she also plays the princess in The Pink Panther. I knew she was familiar, but I had to look her up because I couldn’t quite figure it out on my own. She mostly does European films, so she’s not as well known over here.

This film is considered one of the greatest westerns ever made, and it’s easy to see why. There are a lot of western conventions that get played out here, but the film has a grittier feel than some of the other westerns I’ve seen. I wonder if this is just because the director is not American; the romance and idealism stuff that a lot of Americans feel just isn’t here. Well, there’s some of it, but somehow it feels less like a formula and more like what the characters would actually do. Maybe I’m just being too nice, but I’d be interested to see some more spaghetti westerns to test out my theory. It also could just be the sixties versus the fifties though. The pacing is really slow, which bothered me in the beginning but not as I got more into it. It gives you lots of chances to take all westerniness in. But here you have a lot of close-ups on eyes staring people down, dusty western landscapes, and tension waiting for the next shootout. Definitely a western.

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Also worth mentioning is Morricone’s score for the film. It gives each character his or her own theme and brings out their personalities. As Harmonica is named for his habbit of introducing himself or passing the time playing his harmonica (for very significant reasons), it is only fitting that Morricone gives us a harmonica piece for him. It’s not just your everyday harmonica tune though, it’s like a harmonica tune on steroirds. I’m not even sure if it’s actually a harmonica playing; it might be something else or a harmonica that’s been altered or something. It’s very forceful and forboding, perfect for Harmonica’s character. The dialogue is relatively sparse here, giving more time for the soundtrack to shine. It’s a truly epic soundtrack for a truly epic film; it enhances the film instead of simply accompaning it.

I really enjoyed Once Upon a Time in the West. I don’t know if I’d say it was the best western ever made, but unlike something like The Searchers (which is funny because it references it at the end), I can see why some would catergorize it as such. I’m definitely eager to track down some more of Leone’s films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America. I really like his casting decisions and the story he helped create along with fellow Italian directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. The way they hold back Harmonica’s exact motivations until the end of the film is interesting, and brilliant I think. This film exudes the western genre, but is also more interesting and grittier than some of the genre’s other offerings.

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“How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

12 responses to “Once Upon a Time in the West

  1. It’s between this or Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as my favorite western. Great review of an amazing film.

    • Nice. I really have to see that one. I liked what Leone did here and I want to see some more of his stuff. Plus it’s so famous in it’s own right.
      Thanks for the compliment, ck!

  2. Whenever I watch Once Upon a Time in the West I’m always taken by the symbolic moment when Cheyenne (Jason Robards) draws his last breath just as you hear the train entering Sweetwater. The end of the old west and the start of the new!
    This film has a memorable opening title sequence too. It must be the longest I’ve ever seen.

    Great article, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on Leone’s work.

    • Oh yeah, nice. That’s great symbolism there, for sure.
      That title sequence was really long! I remember watching it and then thinking “is this title sequence still going on?” and it was! It didn’t really interfere with anything though, so I was fine with it I guess. I liked how at the end he had the title spin around like that; it was cool.
      Thanks! I’m looking forward to watching and writing about them!

  3. I know a cousin of Jason Robards, H. Neal Glanville from Moffat County. Neal looks like Jason.

  4. Top 15 Westerns (in no particular order and in my humble opinion):
    Shane
    The Searchers
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    Once Upon A Time In The West
    Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
    The Magnificent Seven
    Dance With Wolves
    The Wild Bunch
    Tombstone
    3.10 to Yuma (the original with Glenn Ford)
    Rio Bravo
    Silverado
    The Last of the Mohicans
    Gunfight at the Ok Corral
    No Country For Old Men (definitely a Western).

    Check those out Hunter…..you won’t regret it!
    The opening scene in Once Upon A Time In the West is pure cinema. No music………just image and sound……….The windmill…….the water tower…….the fly in the gun barrel……the train…….then the loud gunfire. The suspense is amazing. Then you get the shootings of the family at the ranch and the camera pans up the legs of the killer and OMG…….it’s Henry Fonda……the greatest nice-guy in American cinema. Those lovely blue eyes are the eyes of a ruthless killer (of children as well). This all happens in the first twenty minutes of a very long film. A masterpiece of cinema!
    The ending/wrap up (hanging) of why Harmonica was after Frank has been perfectly stolen in “12 Years A Slave”!

    • Butch Cassidy is my favorite, not a super traditional western but I love it anyway. A friend of mine really really likes Tombstone so I’ve seen that as well, along with The Searchers, Dances with Wolves (not a fan personally), and No Country for Old Men. John Ford’s Stagecoach is preferable to The Searchers in my opinion; I absolutely love that movie. I watched it two times in a row it was so good.
      I LOVE Henry Fonda’s casting here, it’s one of my favorite bits of against type casting ever! So genius, and he pulled it off so well!
      I never connected that to 12 Years a Slave, nice!

      • The ending of Dances With Wolves where his friend is screaming out, “You will always be my friend!” over and over again, gets me every time! Tears well up!
        Check out “Shane,” a super film……..just incredible!!!

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