With 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): ****/****