Once Upon A Time In The West


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Once Upon A Time In The West
"This is what Westerns, and movies as a whole, are all about." | Photo: Paramount Pictures

A remote, sun-scorched railway station in the American West. Three men arrive to wait for a train; two of them are played by well-known Hollywood ‘cowboy actors’. As the longest credit sequence in movie history unfolds, with a soundtrack consisting entirely of ambient noise, the camera follows them so closely that by the time the train arrives we feel we’ve lived with them for days. Within seconds they’re all dead...

Sergio Leone died 20 years ago, aged 60. His death came far too early, not just for the films we might have seen had he lived longer (the Don Quixote adaptation, the epic about the siege of Leningrad) but because, at the time, his reputation was somewhat in the doldrums.

Copy picture

That may seem amazing now, with everybody from Quentin Tarantino to Christopher Frayling proclaiming his genius and his influence; his trademark effects are referenced or parodied in virtually every contemporary Western, as well as other movies, adverts, music videos, sketch shows and sitcoms; and of his core canon of six films, at least half regularly make the ‘best ever’ lists.

But at the time, I remember the reaction being along the lines of: "The Dollars films were fun but he’d not done much for ages and his last film was a bit of a mess." He was blamed for the entire spaghetti western genre, with its hundreds of cheap imitations, his films had frequently suffered brutal cutting which rendered them almost nonsensical, and opportunities for repeat viewings of his work were limited to arthouse cinema screenings, grainy video releases and butchered TV showings.

Thankfully, all that’s changed now. But even today there may still be a few people who wonder just what the fuss is all about. They now have the perfect opportunity to find out. Once Upon A Time In The West, his finest work, is being released at selected cinemas nationwide in a new restoration. I’m no expert, but the picture and soundtrack quality do seem pretty spiffy. And, frankly, any opportunity to see scenes like that memorable opening on the big screen is to be welcomed.

It’s a perfectly choreographed piece of action cinema, a character study, a poetic meditation on the landscape and a simultaneous celebration and subversion of the Western genre. And every single scene that follows is equally peerless.

The plot, devised by Leone and his co-writers (two of whom would forge illustrious directing careers in their own right), is simple. Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a young woman from New Orleans, arrives in the town of Flagstone to meet a widowed rancher, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) who wooed her while on a business trip.

But he, and his family, have been murdered by a group of gunmen led by Frank (Henry Fonda). They work for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a crippled railroad baron whose line is cutting a swathe through the area and wants everybody’s land by fair means or foul.

The locals believe Jill will simply return to city life. But she reveals that she and McBain have already married and decides to stay on and take possession of his isolated ranch. Morton uses Frank and his men to put pressure on her, but she finds two unlikely allies. One is Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a local outlaw whom Frank tried to frame for the McBain killings; the other is a mysterious stranger (Charles Bronson) who constantly plays the harmonica. It was he who killed Frank’s three henchmen at the station, and it soon becomes apparent that he and Frank go back a long way...

To say much more would be to give too much away, save to say that the final reveal is THE great pay-off in cinema history. And this isn’t really a film about plot. All the Dollars films (even the majestic The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) were essentially event-driven crowd-pleasers. This is an altogether more stately, sombre and thoughtful piece, its focus firmly on character.

As Jill finds her destiny intertwining with these three very different men, it becomes clear that all the protagonists are trying to cope with lives blighted by destiny and their own character flaws. Jill has concealed a shady past from McBain; Harmonica’s life is defined only by revenge; Cheyenne sees his way of life being annihilated by the progress that the railroad represents; Frank is desperate to embrace the new era and become a respectable businessman but is at heart a killer for hire – who loves his job.

Leone and his writers often spoke of the genre classics that inspired this film – John Ford’s silent masterpiece The Iron Horse, Robert Aldrich’s melodrama-gone-west The Last Sunset and Nicholas Ray’s, frankly bonkers, Johnny Guitar – but I’ve always been struck by its resemblance to Far From The Madding Crowd. A strong female character, dictating the actions of three men in a society changing from agrarian to industrial? A media studies essay too far, perhaps – but I bet Thomas Hardy would have worked in a gunfight or two if the publishers had let him.

And the fact that Leone puts Jill centre stage is what gives this one pride of place, for me. Up until then, his women had been victims or floozies; A Fistful Of Dynamite, his Mexican Revolution epic, doesn’t have a single significant female character and his last masterpiece, Once Upon A Time In America, is blighted by a nasty strain of misogyny. But Jill is a rounded, independent survivor, stronger than the men around her in some ways and ready to do whatever is necessary to defend herself and her new home.

Not that the chaps are exactly negligible, either. Fonda’s Frank is a towering performance; Leone had wanted him for A Fistful Of Dollars and makes full use of his iconic presence, in a gleefully subversive way. Fonda had played bad guys before (Warlock and Firecreek spring to mind) but nowhere is the dark side of his clear-eyed, driven charisma better exploited than here.

And Bronson’s stone-faced impassivity is used to full effect, as well as his gift for laconic humour. But Leone also coaxes subtlety and poignancy from a role that could have been formulaic. Harmonica is a world away from Eastwood’s blank, invincible killing machine. Often wounded and outwitted, you constantly wonder if he will be able to take his revenge – and if he does, what it will do to him.

Robards’ Cheyenne is probably the closest link to Leone’s earlier trilogy, a philosophising loveable rogue with more than a touch of Tuco in his DNA. But he, too, has his moments of pathos and insight. And there’s a whole swathe of classy supporting turns and guest slots, from Ferzetti’s driven tycoon, symbolising the (Italian-American?) immigrant desire conquer the West, to Wolff’s Irish labourer turned rancher, whose land harbours a secret which is the key to the story.

Add to that some truly majestic cinematography (mainly shot in Spain but with some stunning work in Monument Valley, Utah, where Leone’s hero John Ford filmed nearly all his Westerns) superbly detailed set and costume work (if you have an image of spaghetti westerns as cheapjack and amateurish think again; this one at least was done by professionals) and a beautifully melancholy Ennio Morricone score (composed before a single scene was shot) and you have a masterpiece.

Leone, unlike his imitators, didn’t simply want to make films that looked like other films. He was as much in love with the European traditions of folk tale, opera, fine art and classical music. Here he fuses elements of all these into his story, just as the original pioneers did when they came to America. That’s what makes it the finest Western ever.

It does take its time, and some aspects of the plot don’t bear too much scrutiny. Some of the non-American performers way down the cast list are a little on the ‘broad’ side and you’ll spot the dubbed bits. And, of course, if you regard the entire spaghetti genre as a vulgar travesty that tainted the sacred Technicolor majesty of the old western with blood and grit, this won’t convert you.

But for me, this is what Westerns, and movies as a whole, are all about. Every time I’m tempted to take off a fraction of a star for its minor flaws I remember a beautiful image, a great line of dialogue, a snatch of Morricone’s score - or a combination of all three - and I stick it right back on again.

If you’ve seen this film before, you won’t need me to tell you to go and see it again – you’ve probably hightailed it to the nearest participating cinema already. If you haven’t, I envy you. You’re about to experience not just the finest Western ever made, but one of the finest films, full stop.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2009
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Restored version of Leone's epic western.
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Director: Sergio Leone

Writer: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati

Starring: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson

Year: 1968

Runtime: 165 minutes

Country: Italy, US


Tribeca 2008

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