1960s, Italian cinema, Western

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


C’era una volta il West

Director: Sergio Leone

By Roderick Heath

Sergio Leone’s colossal reputation amongst cineastes is, considered objectively, rather odd, considering that he was only credited with directing seven films, with nearly all of them certifiable greats: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1966), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), Duck, You Sucker (1972), Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The ironies stack up when considering that apart from his credited debut, The Colossus of Rhodes, Leone, who could barely speak English, set all of his films in the United States. Most of them were essayed in a genre, the western, that was beginning to die out, and worse yet, defined a subgenre that generally was derided and considered absurd at the time they glutted the world’s fleapit movie theatres.

To actually watch a Leone film is to erase all concerns about his reputation; love his style or loathe it, it is unmistakeable. The vastness of his widescreen compositions clashing with ultra-close-ups of leathery faces and staring eyes, the spacious narratives and eccentrically shaped scenes, the slow-burn structures and bullfight-like climaxes, the taciturn heroes, tarty heroines, and incessantly zany Ennio Morricone scores, burnt themselves very quickly into the pop-cultural imagination, even if they actually took some time to be recognised as something rare and wonderful and not mere Euro-eccentricity and cheap imitation run amok. I first encountered Once Upon a Time in the West through a send-up of it on a children’s television program in the early 1980s in which, as in the film’s immortally weird opening, a swarthy gunman is harassed by a fly. The parody gunman kept trying to shoot the damn thing when it rested on his face, only to reappear later with new plasters over the missing pieces of his steadily decreasing physiognomy.

The real opening sustains nearly 10 minutes of silence, as three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Frank Wolff) wait for a train, contending with pesky insects, dripping water and nerve-fraying ambient sounds, before the haunting refrain of a harmonica announces the arrival of the man known only by his instrument of choice. Within a blink, the three gunmen are dead. Long waits for rapid displays of violence are the key Leone trait, but usually they had Morricone’s swirling orchestrations to fill them out. This sequence dispenses with the music and proves that it’s the pure thrill of genius film construction that is so hypnotic.

Leone’s feel for mise-en-scène, conjuring a rough-hewn western landscape possessed of a deep, tactile reality, was something remarkable. Every frame in his films drip with sensuousness—you feel the heat, taste the dust, smell the sweat. Even Once Upon a Time in the West’s interiors, shot at the Cinecitta studio, look for all the world like structures battered together by frontier carpenters.

Leone made Italian baroque and American grit mesh so easily one could hardly imagine how absurd the idea is on the face of it. The phrase “cultural appropriation” gets tossed around a lot, whilst the concept of cultural affinity never gets much airtime, but Leone seemed to find real affinity with American subjects. And yet he and Sam Peckinpah radically reshaped the western, to the point where they removed the supporting props from the western mythology,by substituting for its ironclad moral laws and essential innocence an altogether darker sensibility that was both more psychologically realistic and intrinsically brutal.

But where Peckinpah was fond of exploring the ambiguities of modern morality and character in a rugged setting, Leone’s fellow ’60s Italian director Vittorio Cotofavi called spaghetti westerns “neo-mythologism”—the reshaping of the western along the lines of Roman and Greek mythology, the mainstays of an Italian cinema had produced endless Hercules and Maciste films during the ’50s and ’60s. The western had largely been, in its classical form, endless variations on St. George and the Dragon, the traditional heroes idealised as defenders of social values in rough and rude realms. Leone’s own early work was in the Italian cinema’s mythological genres with pre-modern roots, and he carried something of their less easily defined morality over to the western. What that boiled down to was that Leone’s heroes were hard to distinguish from his villains, differentiated less by attitude or ethical codes than by motives and to whom, rather than why, they dealt out brute force.

Of course, Leone’s films don’t exactly lack heroes or villains, but the distance between Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name or Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, and Alan Ladd’s Shane and Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is obvious. Leone’s are always outside of society, and bound to codes more defined by loyalty and desire for revenge. The very title of this film shows Leone’s hand. An epic, in strict poetic definition, is defined as a tale involving the founding of a nation, a precept Once Upon a Time in the West certainly fulfills as its plot sees the encroaching railway sweep out the last of the macho titans, but not without its own distinct level of pseudo-Marxist criticality. Nearly unique amongst Leone’s films, it had input from other major creative forces, story cowriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and in particular, the former’s politics and the latter’s fondness for female central characters inflected the film. Leone never did a straight love story, and a recurring gag of Once Upon a Time in the West is that Harmonica continually engages in sexually charged situations with heroine Jill (Claudia Cardinale) whilst never actually engaging with her; only villain Frank (Henry Fonda) actually beds her.

Despite the often raw encounters between men and women that punctuate many of Peckinpah’s and Leone’s films, they were both perfervidly romantic directors, always inflecting their machismo with an ironically intense feel for the complexities and fleeting pleasures of femininity. Unlike Peckinpah, who was exploring his cynicism over the state of modern male-female relations, Leone presents overt, extraordinarily romantic qualities with Morricone’s soaring choruses, the charged close-ups and longing eyes of Cardinale here or the gauzy flashbacks that riddle For a Few Dollars More and Duck, You Sucker evoking lost loves and sorry betrayal, conceive romance as something lovely and utterly impossible, leading finally to the rudest of romantic shocks in Once Upon a Time in America.

By all accounts Leone was initially reluctant to do a film with a female central character here, but you’d never know it, in light of the film’s rich conceptualisation of Jill, a plaything of the supermen about her, and yet utterly self-contained and dedicated to self-preservation through wiles and guile. Her transition from whore to empress, predicted by Jason Robard’s scruffily noble brigand Cheyenne when he suggests she reminds him of his mother (“the biggest whore and the finest lady”), entwined with the transformation from wilderness to civilisation, is the theme that ties the tale together. The men in the film either die or ride away to nothingness.

Famously, Leone cast Fonda as Frank, inverting the actor’s image as the pillar of decency, but the role recalls how well he played charged aggression in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and destructive remoteness in Fort Apache (1948). Introduced committing mass murder, shooting a child in the face for the sake of saving the railway company of Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) a few thousand dollars, Frank threatens to unite the evils of modern capitalism and the classical strong man. He is kept in check finally by the vengeful progress of Harmonica, but also by his own weird ethics that remained tied to the ideals of the “ancient race,” as Harmonica calls their breed of super-warrior, explicating the mythological concept. Fonda’s restraint was always his hallmark, and though he clearly relishes the villainous role, tackling it with a virility he rarely got to display, he resists any temptation to go broad.

Like that opening sequence, other scenes in the film are like perfect units, virtual short films in themselves, especially the final confrontation of Harmonica and Frank, which is so precise in its staging, dialogue, and use of a flashback that it could stand entirely alone as a summary of the genre—the greatest gunfight of them all. Harmonica’s recollections of a younger Frank walking out of a desert haze recur throughout the film, until the final revelation of the cruelty that has set Harmonica in his relentless quest is revealed, in a crane shot that’s damn near miraculous in its composition and conception. Harmonica, tucking his instrument, the totem of his history and vengeance, between the dying Frank’s teeth, delivers the most pitiless and deserved of comeuppances. The whole film is littered with such brilliant little flourishes, from, say, the sound of waves that accompanies Morton’s fantasias of manifest destiny in studying a painting of the sea, and then his ignominious fate, expiring by a muddy pool, to Cheyenne trying to stay alive long enough to fight off Frank if Harmonica can’t defeat him, all while only seeming to shave and drink Jill’s coffee. And that, really, is why Leone is such a remarkable figure—he represents the filmmaker as virtual god in full command, playing out sequences entirely according to his own feel for cinematic cause and effect.

Which is not to ignore the dramatic qualities of the film. The sparse dialogue by Mickey Knox is often funny and memorable, and the acting from the key leads impeccable. The always wonderful Cardinale is as luscious as ever, and Bronson, who could be a good actor on the few occasions it was required of him, plays Harmonica with concise authority, his stout, stony physique and petrified glare suggesting some living piece of the landscape having torn itself free to mete out hard justice. But for me, Robards steals the film with his droll, droning performance as a warrior passing his prime: his final demand that Harmonica leave him because he doesn’t want Harmonica to see him die is Leone’s most affecting scene. Once Upon a Time in the West is still one of the highpoints of cinema.


9 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

  1. Rod says:

    I’d say, as it did with Mario Bava, some of it sprang from his long experience working on film sets, at the coalface as it were, gaining an extremely tactile understanding of how to achieve images – he was a technician beyond compare as well as a creator. Beyond that, it seems to have been very much a generational prerogative. Once neo-realism burnt itself out, and the transitional directors like Fellini, Antonioni, and Visconti began experimenting more boldly with expressive artifice, a new (though not all young) wave of directors in Italy followed their lead – Leone, Bava, Freda, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Argento, and others I’m sure, all of whom dabbled in high style (except for Pasolini – he went back to something like naturalism). They all seemed to seize a window of opportunity in popular cinema where the whole screen could be used something like a canvas (and also when cinema needed to define itself very distinctly from television – these days of course most directors treat it like a large TV screen).


  2. I do miss the marriage of lush images and compelling narrative you describe. These days, a lot of well-regarding filmmakers seem content to be a feast for the eyes, or the mind, but not both. Don’t you think there is something rather natural about the “fresco” stories these Italians tell, an artistic tradition that goes back centuries?


  3. Rod says:

    Almost certainly, and a general stress on high-tensile visual composition is a common feature of classic Italian cinema which surely betrays a great learning in visually communicative mediums. But that generation also had the benefit of the era’s zeitgeist – Leone’s films are also pop-art.


  4. Jimmy Crackhorns says:

    This movie has been one of my favorites for many many years now. I’m lucky I had it on my iPod when I got stuck overnight at LAX airport tonight. Wikipedia has a really good detailed write up on this movie. It is a true epic that only Leone could have pulled off. The cinematography, the musical score, the excellent actors, and a really great set of stories woven together.
    This movie is truly like a great vintage wine…it gets better with age because this kind of movie will never be made again….and it becomes more and more refreshing with each passing decade. The only other actor might have liked to see in this film is Eli Wallach…but when I think how/where he would have fit in I can’t see any room for his charactor!


  5. Rod says:

    Oh, man, convenient or not, I couldn’t stand seeing this reduced to an iPod. The colours, the use of space…
    Apparently Leone wanted to have the three gunslingers at the start to be Wallach, Van Cleef, and Eastwood, but he couldn’t get them together at the right time.


  6. F. Anderssen says:

    An timeless masterpiece – everything is done with such understated effect. The vistas add depth to the film, the camera angles give us evocative angles that only a Leone could do. And it is only when the whole is remembered or watched again that it becomes multiple times the sum of the parts.


  7. Stephen says:

    Leone’s use of sound should be stressed (the only comparable director in this respect might be Tarkovsky). The squeaking waterwheel in Once Upon a Time in the West is matched by the ringing telephone in Once Upon a Time in America – I can’t hear an old-fashioned phone sound nowadays without the whole film flashing to mind. And the combination of the waterwheel with the sudden scream of the approaching engine … many examples in his work.


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