Once Upon a Time in the West comes to US Region Free Blu-ray with a “meticulously restored” 1080p High Definition video rendition, presented in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of widescreen 2.35:1. And, indeed, Paramount have done a tremendous job and polishing up this masterpiece – the end result being surely one of the best examples of a movie from this era currently available on the format. Detail is excellent throughout, with resounding clarity and no sign of any softness. Better still, there’s no overt signs of the digital tinkering and behind the scene magic that must have been applied to this newly-minted transfer – with edge enhancement non-existent, no noticeable DNR, and a decent layer of suitably filmic grain pervading the piece. Only occasionally do a couple of the shots exhibit a bit too much noise, but it’s really not invasive at all. And the image appears largely devoid of any scratches, pops or other defects – the kind of which you would expect to be fairly commonplace in a 40-year-old Western.
Fine texture detail is excellent, from the solid wood buildings to the dusty, weather-beaten clothing. The colour scheme is lovingly rendered here, with the beautiful, broad vistas coming to life (the Monument Valley shots leave you simply awestruck, making you wonder whether they could possibly be really) and the textured close-ups showing every sweaty pore on the lead characters’ faces (and there are plenty of close-ups!). Blacks are reasonably solid, with excellent shadow detail; even if the majority of the movie is day-set, in the sun-drenched desert locales, with only one scene actually set at night. This is a fantastic presentation of this Leone epic, easily demo-quality, and just shy of sheer perfection. Honestly, there’s no doubt that this film has never looked this good – and fans will be over the moon with the remastering effort.
On the aural front we get a powerful and atmospheric audio track remastered in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I’m sure purists will yearn for the mono track – and so that’s included too – but, in my opinion, the six-channel rendering takes everything that’s great about the original accompaniment and enhances it in every respect, honouring the frontal focus, but still creating a warm and lively atmosphere – you can rest assured that this is surely what Leone would have wanted, had the technology been available at the time. The dialogue – however gruff and mumbled some of it may, intentionally, be – comes across clearly and coherently throughout, dominating wherever appropriate.
The score is broad and engulfing, sweeping you up in the proceedings; lifting you up as the camera pans out across a broad vista; heightening the tension as the gunslingers face off against one another – a perfect accompaniment rendered perfectly. And the effects, which, as mentioned in the main body of the review, often are used to form a score, of sorts, in and of themselves – they are beautifully represented across the array. This isn’t a track full of whizzing directionality, thumping bass and explosive bombast – nobody could have ever expected that either – but it is a potent mix, with a brooding LFE undercurrent, active surrounds and powerful resonance; demo quality in its own way, now this is how to present a forty year-old Western.
A cursory glance would leave you thinking you’re in for a feature-packaged edition, besting everything that came before it, but actually the extras are identical to the Special Collector’s Edition SD-DVD release. Thankfully, these were pretty hefty in the first place, and covered all of the bases, but it’s a shame that we don’t get anything else. That said, the one dramatic difference has already been noted – this release includes the 166 minute International Cut, where the SD-DVD only sported the marginally shorter 159 minute International variation. For that alone, I suspect many fans will want to upgrade.
First up we get an audio commentary with multiple contributors, who were all recorded separately, speaking retrospectively about the production; including Directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox, writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci, film historians Christopher Frayling and Sheldon Hall, and cast member Claudia Cardinale. This is arguably the best extra, although, since some of the background trivia is also covered in the documentaries listed below – only in visual format – some might still prefer to absorb it that way instead. Here we learn from the various commentators, normally in turn (although some contribute far less than others), various facts about the production – from Leone’s use of natural sounds to score the opening credits sequence as opposed to the original Leone scoring they had, to the movie’s symbolism (out with the Old West, in with the industrialisation heralded by the railroad).
There’s plenty of detail: the jam used to attract the buzzing fly in the opening scene; Leone’s use of not only broad, panoramic shots (commanding the widescreen format), but also tightly-framed close-ups; comparisons with Peckinpah – especially with regards to portrayal of violence and ‘action’; discussions about the casting and characters (the shock of having Fonda play a villain; Bronson’s glacial, almost mystical demeanour); the locations used; the expensive sets and how they were built; the deleted scenes (including one where Bronson was beaten by the Sheriff and deputies, the scars from which can be seen on his face in the final cut); Leone’s slow, contemplative pacing, designed to ramp up the tension; as well as the numerous references to other Westerns – including the High Noon-derived opening sequence and the many parallels with John Ford’s Johnny Guitar.
Of the commentators, far too many of them offer up an almost audio descriptive track, literally describing the movie in the way you would to a blind person. They clearly know their stuff, but, since we’re watching the same movie that they are, they don’t need to be quite so condescending. Trivia’s fine, but actual description is annoying. John Milius’ offering is far too brief, which is made more annoying by the fact that he takes a much more personal approach, talking about his friendship with Leone and their mutual respect. Overall, it’s a tough task to listen to the whole near-three hour offering in one sitting, but, at least absorbed in more easily digestible segments, fans will likely find it mostly riveting and thoroughly revealing.
An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin and Something to Do with Death are three reasonably chunky offerings (ranging from 20-30 minutes) which, in both style and substance, all feel like they were culled from a much larger whole. Offering up video interview snippets from all of the participants who did the Commentary, shot in the same locations – some archival, some more recent – it’s clear that it’s one big Documentary which has been, somewhat randomly, divided into three sections. Loosely, the first one covers Leone’s project in general and its legacy today; the second looks more explicitly at the difficulties endured on set; and the third goes post-production with a look at the editing, scoring and so forth – but the three blur quite easily into one big, comprehensive offering. It’s great to hear from the late Henry Fonda himself talking about why he agreed to do the movie, or from Claudia Cardinale about the original introduction planned for her character; but the overlaps with the Commentary itself will probably mean that, whichever you watch first, you’ll find the second offering less valuable. Still, it’s nice to have the choice.
Railroad: Revolutionising the West is a 7 minute featurette looking at the effect of the railroad on the Old West from a historical standpoint, attempting to compare the events depicted in the movie with the real-life changes at the time.
Locations Then & Now is a variation on the standard Stills Gallery, offering up a comparison between some of the locations used at the time of filming the movie, and what they look like today (or at least a few years ago when this extra was created).
Production is a further Stills Gallery offering up on-set stills and promotional images from the production.
Finally there’s the original Theatrical Trailer, presented in HD, to round things off.
The Western to end all Westerns, Sergio Leone’s epic classic Once Upon a Time in The West is an operatic ballet of perfectly framed, perfectly timed shots, matched up to an amazing soundtrack which utilises both the natural environmental sounds and Ennio Morricone’s timeless score to create a majestic blend of audio-visual delight. Its story may be familiar, but that’s only to be expected, since the film was basically crafted as one giant homage to every classic scene from every classic Western before it – taking the best of the best and mixing it all up; adding in an eclectic cast of veteran actors, often playing against type; giving us some truly memorable dialogue; and blending it all together into a beautiful dish which stands out, even today, as the definitive Western.
On Region Free US Blu-ray, the film gets a fantastic, remastered video presentation, and a tremendous aural accompaniment, as well as all of the solid, comprehensive extras that were found on the previous Special Collector’s Edition SD-DVD release. We also get the longer international 166 minute cut, all of which should please fans no end and leave you in no doubt that this is a quality upgrade. Honestly, any decent film collection will not be complete without this absolute masterpiece, and this package truly does it justice. Highly recommended.
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