Once Upon a Time in the West Movie Review

by Casimir Harlow
Movies & TV Shows Review
Once Upon a Time in the West Movie Review

Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the finest movies ever made, a truly epic Western which simply defines the genre that it is in. I can’t honestly imagine many people who have seen it could possibly think otherwise, so if, for some reason you have yet to experience it, I’d recommend you go out and rectify that matter straight away. Not yet convinced? Read on.

Three men arrive at a train station. They’re waiting for a train, but they’re not there to catch it. It soon becomes clear that they are all hired killers, waiting to ‘greet’ an arriving passenger. The man on the train is simply known as “Harmonica” – he’s coming to town to find and confront a hired killer named Frank. And Frank is out on his own mission, working for a nasty businessman named Morton. His job is to intimidate some landowners into giving up their land so that, when the railroad gets built, Morton becomes vastly rich. Frank doesn’t know “Harmonica”, or at least he doesn’t remember him. But he’s not taking any chances, and so that’s why he’s dispatched the three killers to meet the visitor. Not long after, there’s another new arrival in town, the newly-wed Mrs. Jill McBain, who turns up at her new home only to discover that her entire family has been slaughtered. The evidence would suggest that the murders were at the hands of a bandit named Cheyenne, and his gang, but it is evidence planted by the real assassins – led by Frank. As the quartet of disparate characters come together – the driven stranger, the wrongly hunted bandit, the far-from-innocent widow and the ruthless killer – a slow-burning ballet of revenge, betrayal, honour and violence takes place, one which will costs many lives.

“I saw three of these dusters a short time ago, they were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men. Inside the men, there were three bullets.”

Director Sergio Leone had already made his name with the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western “Dollars” trilogy, but with Once Upon a Time in the West he took everything he had done before, everything he had ever learned, or seen in other good Westerns – most notably the works of John Ford – and rolled it all up into a perfect package. The themes may be familiar, hell the story itself was far from original (even back in the 60s), bearing a striking resemblance to an earlier John Ford Western, Johnny Guitar, as well as drawing parallels with Leone’s own earlier, equally amazing masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – not least in its depiction of the three lead characters: a stranger with no name and excellent gun-fighting skills, an anti-hero bandit, and a wholly evil antagonist – but, despite the fairly common ingredients, the dish prepared was unlike any other.

Although after his Dollars trilogy, Leone planned to leave the world of Westerns, but since it was the only genre that Hollywood would offer him support in, he gathered together a crew to make what would become the first of his next trilogy, the so-called “Once Upon a Time...” trilogy, which would further include the less well-known Once Upon a Time... The Revolution (aka Fistful of Dynamite), and conclude with his seminal Once Upon a Time in America – and which would chart “three historical periods which toughened America.” The story for this, the first chapter, was devised by Leone and fellow grand auteurs, Bernado Bertolucci and Dario Argento, who basically sought to make a Western to end all Westerns – consisting almost entirely of references to all the great films that had come before it, and blending them together into a perfect, coherent whole.

“Tell me, was it necessary to kill all of them? I only told you to scare them.”
“People scare better when they’re dying.”

Adopting a different style to his previous, often more fun and frivolous (but top quality nonetheless) Spaghetti Westerns, Leone markedly blurred the lines in this new production, no longer painting characters in black and white, but instead in shades of grey. The narrative itself would also explore the world around the characters in far greater detail than ever before, with the backdrop of a new railroad encroaching on a small town symbolising the death of the Old West (in much that Once Upon a Time in America explored the changing times in that Age with the death of prohibition), and, in turn, the death of the Western itself. Of course, that would not actually be the end of it all – Eastwood would continue to do good Westerns for another couple of decades, culminating in his own powerful epitaph, Unforgiven; and the genre itself would have a few other noteworthy entries, including the underrated Open Range, with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner. But, back in the late sixties, Once Upon a Time in the West was still very much the end of an era, the end of all those clean-cut Westerns with clear heroes and irredeemable villains – obvious paths through the light as good people did good things and stood up to evil.

Even in terms of Leone’s own film history, he was entering dark territory, painting characters with much more authentic personalities, fully-rounded and realised; using known actors playing roles against type, surprisingly the audience with a project which seems so familiar, so natural for a Western – and yet so utterly different from everything that had come before it. I know that, originally, Leone had had his long-term protégé Clint Eastwood in mind for the lead role of “Harmonica”, and that, for some reason or another, Eastwood didn’t want to get further pigeon-holed in the ‘man with no name’ position that he had frequented so many times with Leone earlier in his career. I know this might have been the original plan – but I still can’t get over just how perfect Charles Bronson is in the part, and how nobody else would even be a contender for what is, in reality, a very different ‘man with no name’ than we had had up until that point. Bronson’s stranger isn’t cocky and scheming like Eastwood’s Dollars’ hero was – he’s just as cool, but in a more omniscient kind of way, this force of nature that blasts into town on a revenge mission; who knows his battleground, and his enemy, even before he steps off the train – and who drifts around town waiting for the day of reckoning. There’s a great scene where Harmonica actually helps his nemesis – the hired killer Frank – escape from an ambush; it’s a scene which pays tribute to many such encounters the Eastwood/Leone pairing may have had in their earlier time together, only here there’s something different. There’s no reluctant respect for one another; no hint of camaraderie amidst two almost-equally talented gun-fighters – Harmonica is merely doing it because he doesn’t want anybody to rob him of his own purpose in life: to kill Frank himself.

“You saved his life!”
“I didn’t let them kill him, and that’s not the same thing.”

The casting of Frank, at least at the time, was a real shock to audiences. Henry Fonda was a screen idol – not a pin-up, but a God-like figure of upstanding decency. He’d just played Abe Lincoln and, in much the same way as Gregory Peck, was regarded as one of those actors who played resolutely and unequivocally good, upstanding characters. In Once Upon a Time in the West, after the slaughter of an entire family, we suddenly see his figure, and then his face, appear – grizzled, dust-beaten and sun-drenched; his penetrating blue eyes shining through out of his dirty visage. The first time you see him actually pull the trigger must have really shook up audience’s perspectives of the man – this after already having seen previously familiar character actors Woody Strode and Jack Elam dispatched in the extended opening credits, with barely a word between them. Yes, Frank is evil. Yes, Henry Fonda plays the villain of the piece – a lost soul who has no way back from the hell he has made for himself; having crossed the Rubicon a long time back, he’s like Macbeth. There’s no salvation for him. And yet, even in portraying such an irredeemable character, Leone draws out of Fonda a sorrowful melancholy – a desire to change, to shrug off his hired killer trappings, even though they have now become an integral part of him.

The other two important characters are the newly-made widow, Jill McBain, who arrives just in time to see her entire new family laid out dead on dinner tables like some grotesque celebratory banquet. Initially we assume Claudia Cardinale’s widow is an elegant, naive big-city girl who is thoroughly out of place in her dusty new home in the middle of nowhere. The original script called for her to step off the train and immediately reveal to audiences that she was far from what outward appearances denote – that she was, in fact, wearing no underwear; a former prostitute who was moving on to new things but still could not escape her own past. Of course, that would have been a ludicrous opening shot – not just in the sixties, but even now. I don’t even know how it worked on paper. But, either way, having the reveal come later; having audiences slowly discover that this woman isn’t quite as innocent a victim as we initially assume her to be – it’s a work of genius.

“If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you're finished, all I'll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I'll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory.”

Then there’s Jason Robards, again a man who wouldn’t have normally been a first choice for playing this kind of role – essentially a differently developed variation of Eli Wallach’s “Il Brutto” from The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. Robards’ anti-hero rebel, Cheyenne, is hardly ever seen actually firing his gun – except during one exceptionally crafted stunt scene atop a train; a sequence full of clever use of sound, and showcasing some truly cunning trickery – and this only adds to his mystique of the character. He is the leader of a gang of feared rebels, after all, so we don’t always need to see what he’s capable of – his entrance a barrage of gunshots and death-howls, before he waltzes into a bar and reveals himself to have just busted out of the custody of the authorities. Robards’ Cheyenne is the surprising heart of the piece, another relic of the Old West who will soon be wiped out to pave the way for all those money-hungry railway businessmen who, literally, changed the American landscape forever.

If the unusual characterisation is pure genius, the real majesty in the epic production comes from the direction. Leone’s earlier efforts – not least the obvious one, A Fistful of Dollars (a reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s fantastic Yojimbo) – had always had that up-tempt, driven, taut and streamlined feel to them. Here he still pays tribute to the legendary Japanese auteur, only this time taking a much more Seven Samurai-style approach with regards to the pacing. Unlike some of his other movies (which, apart from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, only tended to dabble in longer, drawn-out focus-shots), here he was clearly not interested in just exploring the action and the violence itself. Some would say he was the antithesis of Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to release The Wild Bunch just a year after this film, Leone’s clear intention here being to focus on the slow, precise build-up to violence. Violence which erupts in a second and is over as quickly as it started. Honestly, if you ripped out all of the long, brooding facial close-ups, the film would be over in record time (turn to the extras part of the review for detail into the running time differences between the various versions) – but it’s these slow, contemplative observations that allow the characters to seep under your skin, with their purposeful but often trivial actions: catching a fly, whittling, cracking knuckles; telling you more about them than their punchy dialogue and violent actions ever could.

“What’s he doing?”
“He's whittling on a piece of wood. I've got a feeling when he stops whittling... Something's gonna’ happen.”

The score is another work of genius, the legendary Ennio Morricone – a long-time Leone collaborator – producing some of his finest work here, used arguably better than ever before since he composed it to the original shooting script, leaving Leone compelled to actually shoot his film in time with the music. Whether it’s the superb pauses in Jason Robards’ dialogue, or the long sweeping pan upwards to see the massive town (which Leone actually had built – costing itself more than the entire budget of A Fistful of Dollars – just for that one masterful shot), the music is perfectly in tune with the film, richly infusing the broader landscape shots (although filmed predominantly in Italy, you almost wouldn’t know it, as Leone took many of the cast and crew to Monument Valley in the States to film just a couple of brief but integral vistas) and building the tension significantly during the more personal moments. The only segment of the film that is completely lacking in Morricone’s score – the long, drawn out opening credits sequence (perhaps the longest in film history?) – is cleverly set to the ambient noises in the scene: a creaking windmill, the persistent drip of a leaky roof, the buzzing of a pesky fly. Morricone simply excels in his mastery of beautifully interconnected images and sounds; perfectly framed vistas set to an operatic melody. It’s a work of genius. Hell, the whole damn film is a work of absolute genius.

It’s a real joy to revisit this all time classic. It’s strange because, unlike many other classics, this one wasn't designed to break genre-restrictions (even though, of course, it clearly does). Instead, it is purely engineered to be the best Western ever – the Western to end all Westerns. And, arguably, that’s exactly what Leone succeeded in crafting, even if personal taste often leaves many preferring Leone's own, earlier epic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For me, it's a struggle between the two – I do love the Eastwood/Van Cleef/Wallach triptych, so much so that I might even favour it in terms of pure enjoyment factor, but Once Upon a Time in the West goes beyond all that came before it, and remains the perfect epitaph for the genre of the Western. So sit down, you’re in for an epic, atmospheric ride, where for three hours of your life you’ll actually be transported to the Old West, to experience the powerful, poignant end of an era.

“So, you found out you're not a businessman after all?”

“ Just a man.”
“An ancient race. Others will be along, and they'll kill it off.”

Theatrical Cut vs. Restored Version

Once Upon a Time in the West, like many of director Sergio Leone’s works, was heavily cut to cater for ADD audiences in the States, abbreviated by about half an hour minutes to remove a fair number of dialogue scenes, and ‘slow bits’. International audiences received much longer versions, but even the longest of these were still missing a few minutes of footage from the original 175 minute Italian ‘Director’s Cut’. And the edition presented here on this release is basically the longest International Cut available, dubbed here the ‘Restored Version’. It’s the most complete (166 minute) English-language version available – I don’t think that there are any longer prints available which include anything other than the Italian audio.

Now, the confusing thing is that there is the option to play two versions on this disc – the ‘Theatrical Version’ and the aforementioned ‘Restored Version’. Fans would be forgiven for assuming that ‘restored’ meant that they finally had access to the 175 minute version, and that the theatrical cut was the one we’d all been used to. Instead, both of the versions included on this release are nearly identical in runtime. There’s only about 40 seconds’ difference between the two – both represent the longest English-language cut, but, at the time, there were a couple of brief shots which included an actor who was blacklisted in Hollywood at the time – and so they had to be removed. He’s a non-entity, an insignificant character who has just a couple of minor lines, but, for the restored version, they’ve seamlessly re-integrated the shots.

It’s a shame because, not only do we not get the longest version available (justifiably because of language restrictions, but it is still a shame that we don’t have the technology to create new audio for these scenes), but we also don’t get any of the previously available shorter cuts for comparison (the Special Collector’s Edition SD-DVD sported an even shorter 159-minute cut). I would think that it’s fairly universally accepted that the 140 minute US cut is completely redundant, so there’s no love lost in not including that in this package, but some fans might argue that it would have been nice to have the alternative 159-minute International Cut included here for a truer comparison (which, most notably, did not include the moment where Harmonica gets up after being shot, and which therefore implied some kind of otherworldly power in his appearance later on - a nice touch which Leone was begged to change because the studios feared that audiences would walk out after seeing Bronson get shot, and not get up). Honestly, I don’t really mind as we do technically still get the definitive English-language edition, but to offer a so-called ‘restored’ and ‘theatrical’ version, only for fans to find out that the two are almost indiscernibly different, is just a big tease. They should have just released it as one version – or given us a completely different alternative.

Where to watch Once Upon a Time in the West

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