“Once Upon a Time in the West” - Sergio Leone (1968)

After rounding out his famous “Dollars”,  (aka “Man With No Name”) trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – Sergio Leone’s intention was to move on from Westerns to other forms. However, American production companies only wanted to fund another “Spaghetti Western”.  So Leone set about erecting his epic commemoration of the Old West narrative: Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una Volta il West, 1968). 

The film was constructed to go beyond even the grandiosity of Leone’s big box-office hit, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  But when it was released, critics and the public alike found Once Upon a Time in the West to be confusing and ponderous. The film bombed at the American box office.  Over time, however, the film’s reputation has grown, and it is now considered by many people to be Leone’s masterpiece. 

In my view the film does have some serious flaws, but those are outweighed by the work’s considerable virtues.  Curiously, one could say that the sum of the film’s many wondrous parts amounts to greater than its whole.  In many ways, nevertheless, as I will try to explain, the film stands as a unique monument of cinematic expression.  One of Leone’s problems with the critics was that, like Alfred Hitchcock, he was sometimes dismissed as a hack showman who lacked artistic talent and subtlety. That was because Leone’s dramatic deployment of visual compositions and sounds was so emphatic and absorbing that the viewer felt overwhelmed.  Anyway, specific artistic accreditation is not the focus here; this cinematic work was the collaborative product of numerous talents.
  • The script was based on a commissioned story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argeneto, two young film writers who would go on to have considerable success of their own.  Bertolucci, at that time still only in his twenties, was an established film director even then, having already made La Commare Secca (The Grip Reaper, 1962) and Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). 
  • From that story the screenplay was written by Leone and Sergio Donati.
  • The breathtaking cinematography was handled by Tonino Delli Colli, who besides working on Leone’s films, also handled the cinematography for films directed by Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini
  • The music, always a crucial element to Leone’s films, was once again composed by Leone’s friend and former classmate, Ennio Morricone. 
The resulting tale that these creative talents put together concerns the fates of four principal characters who have distinct personality types that represent almost archetypal narrative character attitudes:

  • Harmonica (played by Charles Bronson)  is the iconic, taciturn, and mysterious “Man With No Name” in this story and is only identified by his frequent harmonica playing.  Indeed the original Man With No Name role in the Dollars trilogy had been offered to and rejected by Bronson before it was taken by Clint Eastwood.  But in some ways Bronson is the truly perfect embodiment of this character.  As a character type in the story he is the Relentless Avenger.
  • Frank (Henry Fonda) is the epitome of cruelty and evil, the Sadistic Narcissist. Casting Fonda, whose entire career was spent playing upright and morally self-assured characters, in this dark role was a stroke of genius.
  • Cheyenne (Jason Robards, Jr.) is an outlaw who becomes entangled in the story against his will.  As the Reflective Outsider, he offers assessments as to what is going on.  Another case of interesting casting, Robards’s raspy voice reinforces his commentary.
  • Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is the Pragmatic Cooperator. The inclusion of her role added depth and humanity to Leone’s story. 
The story itself has several concurrent threads and is sometimes obscure, partly because significant information is withheld from the viewer for the narrative purposes of slow disclosure.  In fact the narrative comprises a set of discrete scenes, most of which can stand on their own as fascinating and memorable mini-narratives.  Perhaps the best of such is the opening scene at the railway station.
1.  The Killings
The unforgettable opening scene of about 12 minutes, which is shown while the film’s title and opening credits roll across the screen, offers an extremely slow and deliberate buildup of tension.  Three armed men with murderous intent are waiting for a train to arrive at a remote railway station in Arizona.  The train arrives and a lone passenger, Harmonica, gets off looking for someone named Frank. There is a deadly shootout that results in the deaths of the three gunmen, but no motivations are given for what has happened.

The action cuts to another setting, a homestead where a widowed father, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), is preparing for his wedding party with his three children.  Frank suddenly arrives with some companions and, with a sadistic smile on his face, cruelly murders the defenseless family.  Again, no reason is given.

Jill McBain, the new second wife of the father just killed, arrives by train in Flagstone and arranges to travel by horse and buggy to the McBain homestead, known as “Sweetwater”.  On the way there, as her buggy is shown passing through Monument Valley in Arizona [1], her driver stops at a way station saloon which at that moment is also visited by Cheyenne, an outlaw gangster who has just escaped from jail.  Harmonica is there, too, and accuses Cheyenne’s men of being behind the assassination attempt on his life in the opening scene, because those men wore the long duster coats characteristic of Cheyenne’s gang.  Jill then goes on to Sweetwater and learns that her intended family has been massacred.

At this point we are 50 minutes into the film and have been introduced to the four main characters, but they are all disconnected and there are many unanswered questions.

2.  Connections
In this section of the film a few connections between the main characters are made. Framed for the Sweetwater killings and trying to find out why, the outlaw Cheyenne goes to Sweetwater and talks to Jill.  Neither he nor Jill knows what Frank’s men were after, but we do at least learn that Cheyenne likes coffee and that Jill used to be a prostitute in New Orleans before meeting Brett McBain.  The scene cuts to an isolated railway car luxuriously outfitted to hold the mobile office of a terminally ill and crippled railway baron, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), who is in a discussion with Frank.  The ever-westward spreading railroad line has so far only reached Flagstone (we periodically see shots of new railroad track continually being laid down by workers extending the line west of Flagstone).  In this connection Morton has hired Frank to get hold of the Sweetwater property that lies a little further to the west.  Meanwhile back at Sweetwater, Cheyenne departs, but Harmonica shows up and guns down two more of Frank’s assassins who had apparently come to kill Jill.

There are now, halfway through the film, three principal locations for further actions: the town of Flagstone, Morton’s railway car, and the Sweetwater homestead.  We still don’t know
  • why Morton and Frank are after the McBains
  • why Frank and Harmonica want to kill each other
  • what Cheyenne is doing in this story.
3.  Some Answers About Sweetwater
Separately seeking answers, Harmonica and Cheyenne sneak over to Morton’s parked railway car to spy.  Harmonica is captured by Frank, but on the urging of Morton, Frank passes up the chance to kill his mysterious nemesis and merely has him tied up while he rushes away on horseback to deal with Jill McBain, himself.  Cheyenne then makes his presence known and kills all four of Frank’s men guarding the tied-up Harmonica, whom he frees.

Back at Sweetwater, Harmonica explains the mystery of Sweetwater’s importance.  It has the only water well in a region west of the built railway, and therefore its land is a highly valuable site for a future town.

4.  The Sweetwater Auction
Meanwhile Frank captures Jill and forces her to have sex with him.  This is a further revelation of Jill’s character – she will cooperate in whatever way necessary in order to survive.  Frank forces her to sell the Sweetwater property at a rigged auction in town.  However before the final gavel comes down, Harmonica shows up (he has this practice of mysteriously showing up at critical moments) holding at gunpoint Cheyenne, whom he turns over to the town sheriff for the reward money, which he uses to win the auction.  Cheyenne is then to be sent back on the railway to a jail in another town.

Afterwards at the town bar, Frank and Harmonica confront each other once more, but again they only exchange words, not bullets.  There is then another assassination attempt – this time on Frank by four of his own men who have been bribed by Morton to kill him. But with the unexpected help of Harmonica, Frank escapes, and his attackers are all killed. 

Frank rides out to Morton’s railway car and discovers the results of another deadly shootout: 10 more dead bodies, plus Morton, who is dying of a mortal wound, much to the grinning delight of the sadistic Frank.

5.  The Coming Together
The scene shifts back to Sweetwater, where Harmonica watches the relentless laying down of railway track that is now within sight of Jill McBain’s new train station and surrounding town under construction.  Cheyenne arrives (so we must infer, at least in the version of the film that I saw, that he somehow escaped his jailers) and has another coffee chat with Jill.

Frank arrives for what we know will be the final confrontation with Harmonica.  But again Leone draws out the scene, like that with the matador and the bull, for its full dramatic effect.  We learn at this point that Harmonica’s single-minded mission has always been to take revenge for a murder Frank committed long ago.

There are still some other narrative threads to be tied up, though.  Harmonica and then Cheyenne take their leave of Jill and head to unknown destinies.  Only afterwards do we learn that Cheyenne received a fatal wound sometime earlier, apparently at the railway car shootout mentioned in Act 4. This means that when Cheyenne was having coffee with Jill in Act 5, he was suffering from a mortal gunshot wound.

The final long shot shows Jill attending to the railway construction workers, while Harmonica departs on horseback with Cheyenne’s dead body.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a varied cinematic potpourri, with both effective and ineffective elements.  The weaknesses are mainly associated with the narrative, itself.  Certainly it lacks sufficient realism, even for a horse opera. Though we are generally willing largely to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the mythology of the Old West, some of the things depicted here are too much of a stretch even under those circumstances.  For example, Harmonica and Frank meet several times during the story, during which they could have come to their final accounting.  But instead, though we know they are bent on killing one another, they merely engage in aphoristic discourse. 

Another narrative weakness is the issue of the Cheyenne character.  Why is he so prominent in this story? Setting aside the unrealism of the extended time period during which he shows no ill effects despite suffering from the effects of a concealed mortal wound, his entire character seems to be an odd throw-in to this story.  He is a notorious outlaw who freely kills Frank’s men on occasions, and yet at other times he seems to be thoughtful and sensitive to others. 

A third weakness to the film is the insensitivity to killing (the film has a vast body count) and the celebration of vengeance as a worthy mission to undertake.  Harmonica, the presumed hero of the story, has no other interest than to satisfy his thirst for revenge.  We don’t even know why he wants revenge until the very end, but his relentless pursuit of old-fashioned “justice” is chilling.

And yet the film does have its undeniable strengths.  Leone’s magisterial cinematography is so compelling that it is an artistic end in itself.  His use of deep-focus shots in depth goes further than just about any film I have seen. And these shots don’t just stand out on their own, but are woven into a visual tapestry that fits together into a smooth-flowing dreamworld.  On top of that is Leone’s characteristic coupling of wide-view long shots and extreme close-ups. This creates a more intense and interior emotional involvement in what is being presented. 

In general, Leone understands that presence requires neighboring absence, and so sound requires closely occurring silence. Thus with respect to the temporal interweaving of effects, the use of sound in the two opening killing scenes is notable. In that wonderful first scene at the train station, the sound of the squeaky windmill and the buzzing fly portend something awful that is about to happen.  And in the second killing scene, at the McBain residence, the momentary cessation of the cricket buzzing is eerily disturbing and cause for existential alarm.

The grandest use of sound, of course, is the musical score, which drives the "inner” emotional narrative that is always under construction in the viewer’s mind.  Ennio Morricone has surpassed himself here by constructing a score that does justice to Leone’s monumental cinematography.  Each of the four main characters has a musical theme that serves as an aural motif for when he or she makes an appearance.  The way these themes are blended together during interactive scenes of the principal characters adds further to the cognitive experience. As usual with the Leone-Morricone collaboration, the score was produced before the shooting was begun so that Leone could engage in the shooting with the musical themes in his mind.  But on this occasion and since the film was, as usual, not shot with synchronous sound (all sound was dubbed in the editing phase), Leone had Morricone’s music playing on the set during the shooting.  This was used to inspire the acting performances with the operatic mood that Leone wanted to achieve.

Leone also liked to use the technique of slow disclosure to great effect.  For example, for a long time we don’t know why the McBains were murdered or why Harmonica is after Frank.  The slow disclosure of Jill’s screen entry enables the viewer to have a slowly revealed and circumspect view of Jill's character and the Western town that she has traveled to.  These slow-disclosure effects, in combination with Leone’s juxtapositions of long landscape shots with extreme close-ups, build up a pervasive sense of tension and expectation that runs throughout the film. 

Some reviewers have remarked that Once Upon a Time in the West has, more than Leone’s earlier films, characters that are deeper and that evolve during the course of the story.  I don’t think this is true.  The four main characters are types, as listed above, that don’t change much during the story.  What is unique here, though, is the fact that these principal characters spend much of their time trying to make out what makes the other main characters tick. In that sense they show some empathetic instincts that engage our attention. Like the viewers watching the film, they are all trying to figure out what is going on and why. 

So what is ultimately going on with all these characters?  Are there larger themes above that of revenge?  I would say so.  And I would say that the story is more than just a depiction of the coming of technological civilization, as symbolized by the railroad, to a barbarous territory.  All societies and civilizations have their narratives that underlie how they see themselves.  The Old West had its own narratives, too, about integrity and manhood, toughness and independence.  This film presumes that the viewer from the outset is very familiar with that Old West mythology, and this is supplemented by the inclusion of a number of familiar Hollywood images  (e.g. Monument Valley) and character actors, including Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Woody Strode, and Lionel Stander. In this connection the film often invokes, and sometimes inverts, some of the classic Old Western film themes from American cinema, as typified by the productions of John Ford.

In particular, Frank represents the ultimate narcissistic adulteration of these characteristics – a representation of how simple Old West norms can be perverted in the direction of nihilistic perfidy. Jill, on the other hand, represents compassion, compromise, and working for a communal harmony.  The fact that Leone had this character played by the extraordinarily beautiful Claudia Cardinale (to me, the most beautiful of all screen actresses) is an indication that this was the real hero (heroine) of his story.  She is not just a passively pretty image; instead her soulful, expressive eyes and her graceful physical movements indicate that she wants to be compassionately involved with those around her.  Her character does not force a programmatic scheme of how to act on others; instead she is willing to compromise and make the best of any situation. 

This suggests to me that an underlying theme of this film is that American promotion of simplistic and self-righteous independence (and hence selfishness), as exemplified by the Old West mythology, was passing away.  It was time for a new cooperative sense of humanism to take its place. In that sense we can see Once Upon a Time in the West for the masterfully expressionistic elegy for the overdue passing of the Old West narrative that it really is.

  1. Most of the film was shot in Spain, but there was some exterior shooting done in Arizona.


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great review... arguably the best that I have read on the internet yet!

I see that you chose to gave it a rating of four despite the various flaws that you seem to have pointed out.

Well, that is the beauty of Leone's cinema and you have summed it beautifully: a viewer is enamored more by the individual parts than by the end product. Whenever I watch a Leone film I get so absorbed that I choose to overlook any kinds of weaknesses. I will not even think twice before I would suspend my disbelief... or, perhaps, I am not even allowed to think twice... such is the bewitching charm of his films on me (his collaborators are no less brilliant).

This could easily have been the most complete Western that Leone even made. Leone ingeniously blends to of his favorite themes: greed and revenge. I, for one, cannot think of another filmmaker who could do it better than Leone... just like no one other writer could outmatch Dumas while dealing with these two motifs.

Here's the link to my review of the film (an updated version of the review I had written a long time back at IMDb):


elktownship pennsylvania said...

Does anyone know where he Sweetwater Auctionw as filmed, the house that the auction takes place in?

Walt Oxer said...

Where is the film script for this movie, it’s one of the best westerns ever ,cast were superb.Camera work brill’