Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****

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The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Writing reviews about World War II, I’ve watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII’s outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They’ll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), ‘Heroes’ is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn’t yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a “nice” factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. ‘Heroes’ is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There’s no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it’s about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, ‘Heroes’ doesn’t have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard’s Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there’s little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He’s prim and proper and interested in the bottom line — the success of the mission — more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint.

The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson’s right-hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy HerbertGraham StewartJohn Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newley, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, ‘Heroes’ follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England…..dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed ‘Cockleshell,’ as Stringer’s team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It’s here where I started to question. If I didn’t know this was in fact a real mission, I’d say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I’ve always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <—documentary (1955): ***/****

Rio Lobo (1970)

rio_lobo_1970Late in a career that spanned 6 decades (1920s through 1970s), director Howard Hawks went back to the well for what he knew audiences liked. Well, maybe what he liked too. After directing the classic 1959 western Rio Bravo, Hawks more or less remade the film 8 years later with El Dorado. He tried a third time, but didn’t wait as long for the trifecta with 1970’s Rio Lobo.

Late in the Civil War, a Union officer, Col. Cord McNally (John Wayne), is unable to stop Confederate raiders from stealing gold shipments being used for payrolls. He thinks one of his own men is selling information to the Confederate raiders, including Capt. Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Sgt. Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum), but the duo won’t tell him who until after their war. Once the war ends and the men go their separate ways, Cord hears from Cordona that he’s found one of the traitors in Texas. Cord heads for the town of Rio Lobo looking to find his man and get some answers (read = revenge). That’s not all though as Cord, Cordona (and some friends) get caught up in a range war with land and water deeds on the line.

Rio Bravo is untouchable in my mind. El Dorado, it’s pretty good but not quite as good. And Rio Lobo? It’s got more of a B-movie touch, a smaller budget, and is more interested in just being an entertaining western overall. There are good and bad, some obvious flaws, but it is damn entertaining. If you’re comparing the three like-minded movies, ‘Lobo’ borrows from both, but it leans more toward ‘Dorado,’ especially with the range war element. It was filmed on location in Old Tucson — where both previous films were at least partially filmed — with literally the same street being used for 2 different towns. There’s also a memorable if underused score from the always reliable Jerry Goldsmith. If there’s a flaw, it’s what Hawks once said about his films; characters are more important than story. He took that to heart in a big way, apparently rewriting the script during production.

A good counter to that? By 1970, John Wayne could have done a role like this in his sleep. Thankfully, he didn’t. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with a character with a twist. Not many Duke characters were looking for revenge! 63 years old at the time, Wayne even pokes some fun at himself, passing the love interest off to Rivero’s Pierre Cordona. The running joke becomes that old man Wayne is “comfortable” with men. In other words, he’s safe and won’t make a move on them. Rivero’s accent is a little much at times, but he has decent chemistry with Wayne. Mitchum is underused as the second banana, but he’s a likable on-screen presence, much like he was a year later when he paired with Wayne again in Big Jake.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss. A sex symbol of the 1970s, Jennifer O’Neill plays Shasta Delaney, a young woman with a checkered past searching for revenge. This is not a good performance to the point it is actually painful at times. The script does no favor for any of the female characters — Sherry Lansing and Susana Dosamantes — who aren’t given much to do and tend to overact/overdo it anyways. Still, for a lack of a better description, the babe factor is increased for a John Wayne western! The always welcome Jack Elam doesn’t show up until the second hour but hams it up as the shotgun-wielding Mr. Phillips. The villains — Victor French, Mike Henry, Robert Donner — make virtually no impression. Also look for David Huddleston, stuntman Dean Smith, Jim Davis, Edward Faulkner and Hank Worden in smaller parts.

A little slow at times and without much action, ‘Lobo’ doesn’t have much of a sense of urgency. The highlight is the first 35 minutes, a train heist with a unique twist unlike anything I’ve seen in a heist movie. The story goes the more traditional route after the first half-hour or so. It’s a touch disjointed blending the two and then adding another storyline, but it’s never dull. A bit of a guilty pleasure overall, but a worthwhile western just the same. Especially worthwhile for the Duke delivering a fun, even comedic part at times that balances out with the more action-heavy Duke. Also, see how many times you can spot Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson in different roles!

Rio Lobo (1970): ***/****