Weekend Film Recommendation: Once Upon A Time in the West

After Sergio Leone completed the ‘Dollars’ trilogy in 1966, the studios granted him the license to make a Western without fear of studio intervention. The film that resulted, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is this weekend’s movie recommendation.

The film is set in a time of rapid industrialisation, when the railway barons raced to connect the coasts of America with iron track. The prospect held fabulously lucrative promise, and Leone constructs a world in which the laws governing the realisation of that prospect were frighteningly flexible. One such baron is particularly ambitious, and reluctantly hires a henchman with higher designs – ‘Frank,’ played by Henry Fonda – in order to help him get the job done Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.58.42before tuberculosis denies him satisfaction.

Don’t expect to see the moral probity of Juror Eight, Wyatt Earp, or Young Abe Lincoln in Henry Fonda’s performance. Instead, Frank is a terrifying, psychotic character with an appetite for child murder, corruption, and an unquenchable thirst for power. Charles Bronson appears opposite Frank as an enigmatically taciturn gunslinger. He is identified by the only thing about himself he is willing to reveal from his past – his hauntingly played ‘Harmonica.’ Harmonica cherishes his instrument with as much attention as he does his burning desire to kill Frank, for reasons that he’s willing to divulge “only at the point of dying.”

Frank’s and Harmonica’s stories coincide in the town of Flagstone. There, they meet Jill and Cheyenne, played respectively by the stunning Claudia Cardinale and the charismatic Jason Robards. Jill is an ex-prostitute trying to restore her reputation as an honest woman of means, and Cheyenne is keen to clear his name for the murders – perpetrated by Frank – for which he has been framed.

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.54.15

Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack assigns a stirring leitmotif to each of the principal characters. The music matches each character’s idiosyncrasies beautifully: for Frank, the music is loud and jarring; for Harmonica, it’s un-placeably morose; for Cheyenne, it’s strangely whimsical; for Jill, the melodic soprano seems dissonant in the barren wasteland of Flagstone.

The feature of Leone’s work that I find especially compelling is his ability to construct a believable history for almost every one of his characters. There are very few character ‘props’ without personalities – Frank’s venal henchmen, the licentious bartender, and the exasperated sheriff officiating the auction – all are believable.

Make no mistake: Once Upon a Time in the West is brutally violent. Clocking in at almost three hours, it will also swallow a sizeable chunk of your weekend whole. It is an exhausting experience, but as the pinnacle of the spaghetti Western genre, it is deeply rewarding. Watch it if you want to see where the clichés come from: my favourite is the way the camera captures an extreme close-up of piercing eyes appearing from under the hat-brim as the head lifts, but you’ll surely notice countless other examples. Just remember that while they may seem dated, Leone is justly credited with having made them the ice cool hallmarks of dramatic cinema that they are today.

For trivia purposes, I think I’m going to play this one a little differently, given that Once Upon a Time in the West is already such well-trodden turf. I’m going to ask people to contribute instances where they think the film has been directly referenced by other films in the comments section. It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide a long list, especially given the love of Leone’s work by just about every director since (Tarantino in particular is a huge fan). The rules are that you must provide clear information detailing the reference between the new film and what scene or aspect of Once Upon a Time in the West to which it refers. Simply naming a film won’t do. Buona fortuna!

31 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Once Upon A Time in the West”

  1. I would modify “Watch it if you want to see where the clichés come from.” to: “Watch it if you want to see a movie that visually quotes where the clichés come from.”

  2. Apologies, this comment is off-topic.

    Would anyone else here like it if there could be transcripts posted, for all the video posts? Is this easy to do now, tech-wise? I don’t like to watch videos, they take too long on my PC. But I’d like to know what people are saying.

    If anyone else would like this, could somebody forward the suggestion to Steve the web guy? I didn’t see how to do that.

    1. The only recent video post that comes to mind is the bloggingheads post. So far as i know there is no transcript available, but there is an audio podcast that might have fewer technical issues for you.

      1. Oh, thank you. That’s good to know. Even with the slowness of my system aside, I do prefer to read things for some reason. I guess I have the illusion that I am less easily manipulated that way. I will play that podcast right now.

  3. Also a bit off topic, but maybe suitable for a blog post of its own someday.

    Topic: “Books that I can’t believe haven’t been made into movies; is someone just sitting on the book rights or what?”

    Examples: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
    Earth Abides by George Stewart

    You would think that there would be a market for good post-apocalyptic films like the ones that could be made based on these two books.

    It is a good bet that many RBCers could suggest other titles.

    1. BBC Radio 4 Extra did an audio drama adaptation of book one of A Canticle For Liebowitz a few months ago. It worked fairly well. I can envision a solid television version being made, but it’s too much of a downer for mainstream film, and it’s basically a talker: it largely lacks car chases and the like.

    2. I first read “A Canticle for Leibowitz” when I was fifteen or so, and loved it so much that I re-read it another three or four times in the next three or four years. I haven’t read it again in the four intervening decades, but it has always remained a part of my mental furniture. If they made a film out of it, I doubt I’d want to see it.

      (When I think back on how often I have re-read books, it sometimes surprises me how I’ve managed to read so many different ones.)

    3. John Brunner’s two amazing magnum opi of the 60s, “Stand on Zanzibar” and “The Sheep Look Up” both are not only eerily, eerily, frighteningly prescient, both would make great films in the hands of Terry Gilliam or Ridley Scott.

  4. The biggest shock in the movie, for those of us who saw it when it first played in theaters, was Henry Fonda casted against type.

  5. pacing of old movies (I can call it old if it’s older than I am) is something that can never fly these days.
    Duration, on the other hand, is something that the LotR movies have down.

  6. Great pick Johann, a truly operatic Western that never gets old no matter how many times one watches it.

  7. I watched (maybe only 2 of the 3), and did not particularly like, the “Dollars” movies.

    What should I conclude about whether I will enjoy this one?

    1. I can’t attest to the predictive value of your tastes regarding Leone’s previous films — but I will say that I enjoy “Once Upon a Time in the West” *far* more than any of the “Dollars” films.

      I will also say that if you don’t enjoy “West,” then you can say with some confidence that you don’t like Spaghetti Westerns as a genre. While others may differ on this assessment, in my mind this film represents the best that Spaghetti Westerns have to offer.

      1. I am with Johann on this, Once Upon a Time is leagues above the other Leone films in quality, and really in a different tone. I could imagine someone loving the Dollars films and NOT liking Once Upon a Time in the West because it’s just…different. I wonder bymotov, if you liked Yojimbo. I loved it, which probably set me up to love Leone’s remake with Clint. But my enjoying the dollars films was not a pre-condition of really admiring this film, which is I think a substantial piece of art (which the dollars films were not, even though they were fun.

    2. I don’t like “Once… West” and you probably won’t, either. But watch it anyway for the opening scene — it’s not only the best thing in the movie — it’s a really good opening scene by any standard. Only trouble is, it should be seen on a large screen (this is definitely a for-the-big-screen movie).

      1. Opening scene is an obvious reference to High Noon. The redheaded kid is an obvious reference to Shane. Part of how much you appreciate the movie depends on knowing the genre (and I only know some of it).

          1. Leone’s original plan was to have Lee Van Cleef, Eastwood and Eli Wallach be the three gunman but he couldn’t pull it off.

            But the best scene is the final confrontation between Fonda and Bronson, with the peerless Morricone music setting the tone.

  8. A few years ago my daughter gave me Once Upon a Time in Italy by Christopher Frayling, a retrospective look at Sergio Leone. He actually gives five pages of references to other films from this one – but I won’t spoil!

    Just one – Harmonica’s exit after his leavetaking of Jill resembles John Wayne’s famous exit at the end of “The Searchers”. The dialogue echoes “Sergeant Rutledge”.

    Leone has such a distinctive style that so many hommages could never be considered pastiche.

    I recommend the book for any Leone admirers. Interviews with all his famous actors and film crew.

    1. Concur, but it must be the “real” one, almost four hours long, not the hacked up “made for America” disaster.

      BTW, an interesting hypothetical–how would The Godfather have turned out if it had been made by Sergio Leone?

  9. The title itself — there have been “Once upon a time in … ” the following

    – America
    – Mexico
    – Anatolia

    1. And a whole series of kung fu movies starring Jet Li: “Once Upon a Time in China” — the first of which is phenomenal.

  10. Back on topic:
    While not a direct lift, the Slim Pickens death scene in “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (over which Dylan sang “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) is reminiscent of Cheyenne’s death in this movie.

  11. I have always felt that it stands as one of the greatest Westerns ever made (not just spaghetti Westerns). I remember reading an interview with Fonda where he named it as his favorite role of his career, because it was the only time he was ever allowed to play a pure, unadulterated, unapologetic evil character.

    I saw a film a couple of years ago called “Australia”. It was pretty much a direct remake of OUATITW, but moved to Australia. It had Hugh Jackman in the Bronson role, Nicole Kidman instead of Claudia Cardinale, and David Wenham (Faramir from LOTR) as the Fonda equivalent bad guy. The race that drives the action involves delivering a herd of cattle to the British Navy instead of building a station town for the railroad, but the underlying plot structure is almost identical.

  12. Decades ago, my college film society screened an unabridged version of OUATITW that ran over five hours. Not the 145 or 166 minute version. Not sure where they found it. Fabulous and well paced, but an intermission would have been comforting.

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