It’s too easy now. Forty-two years later, you would be a fool to say that Once Upon a Time in the West is anything short of a masterpiece. If you were alive in the 1970s and old enough to matter, however, you could have been one of the few and lucky who recognized its brilliance when criticsand box office audiences disagreed. Rushing to its defense were other directors who claimed it was the greatest Western ever made. It marks the end of an era, putting to rest once and for all the idealistic, classic Western of pre-war cinema. Sergio Leone presents the penultimate fairy tale Western, even using "Once Upon a…" in the title to set the storybook tone.
The first two scenes of West take twenty-five minutes to unfold; each scene uses a scant amount of dialogue, just enough to establish the scene. Those first two scenes set the precedent. The entire film is told in looks and glances, harmonica rips and longing eyes. Every shot is a painting, telling an entire story, twist included. When Harmonica is introduced a train whirs by to reveal that someone did get off the train, much to the surprise of the three men pursuing him. Or when Cheyenne lifts his glass to drink and his handcuffs are revealed. Or when Morton and Frank draw their weapons; Frank cocks his six shooter only to realize that Morton is holding a stack of money. A perfect punctuation to a perfect scene. A thoughtful reveal that captivated the characters in the story and the audience. There are no wasted moments, no extraneous shots, everything fits beautifully into the specific framework Leone had created.
To reference an earlier Leone film, Charles Bronson’s Harmonica is the Good, Henry Fonda’s Frank is the Bad and Jason Robards’s Cheyenne is the Ugly. Leone even recycled the idea of the Good and the Ugly working together; Harmonica uses Cheyenne’s bounty to buy Mrs. McBane’s land knowing that Cheyenne’s gang will free him. Leone also chose to leave Harmonica nameless, much like Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man with no Name, aside from the title they give him based on his musical abilities. Not much is known of Harmonica, except that he plays his instrument instead of speaking and he can shoot with the best of them. Harmonica’s actions remain cryptic until the very end of each scene. When he rips Mrs. McBane’s dress, you are left to wonder if perhaps you misjudged the Man with no Name. And then the plan comes into focus, like the flashback during the final gun battle that explains Frank’s history with Harmonica.
Frank is a cold-blooded killer; his introduction into the film is oft discussed as jarring. The consummate good guy, Henry Fonda, is holding the gun that just killed McBane’s youngest child. Leone finally got his wish to work with Fonda and to use him to turn the Western myth on its ear. While Frank and Harmonica are great, my favorite character is the ugly Cheyenne. Cheyenne is the face of the West. He is neither good nor bad, in the mythical sense, he is in actuality the truth of the moment. And the truth is ugly. He is a man born from a whore in an unfair world in a changing time who understands he has to do what he has to do to get by. He fights his urges regarding Mrs. McBane, but he is not a saint and, in reference to his actions, asks the widow McBane to, “pretend like nothing happened.” In the end Cheyenne has to die because he is not the noble hero, he is the truth that does not fit in the mythical West.
Frequent collaborator, Ennio Morricone provides the electric guitar-riddled soundtrack. The music builds as the film progresses, but like everything in West it is used sparingly. The sound is integral to the film. McBane’s family is killed just as he notices the wind muffling the ambience of his farm. Harmonica warns the widow McBane to duck when she hears some strange sounds. Leone admitted to toying with the windmill and the other noises during the McBane slaughter as an homage to The Searchers.
The death scenes in West are the last of a, excuse me, dying breed. This is where legends went to die. It takes Frank a full minute to twist around, fall to the ground, learn the truth and finally hit the dust. Leone took his time, mining every moment, waiting for the last second to explain Harmonica’s past and put Frank to rest. Cheyenne lasts through the final gunfight, delivering sub textual line again and again to the widow McBane, only to drop off his horse and succumb to the gunshot wound in his stomach. He can’t stand to let Harmonica see him die, the rugged truth of the West refuses to die before the noble, storybook hero.
Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento spent a year constructing a story that would serve as a tribute to Hollywood’s classic westerns. They wanted to take all the conventions and work against them, paying tribute but at the same time progressing. In doing so they ushered in an era, during the 70’s, of films that contributed to destroying the myth of the western. Films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and the works of Sam Peckinpah. I will not pretend to know, at least not by watching West, all the films Leone referenced, but I can see several films and directors that have referenced him. West’s influence surpasses the Western genre and ripples into the films of directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Watching West, I realized where Tarantino found justification to create Inglorious Bastards’ elaborate scenes. The opening scene of Inglorious is titled “Once Upon a time in Nazi occupied France”, not to mention that Tarantino borrowed music from West for Kill Bill.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a remarkable film that takes its time to deliver a powerful storybook western. Leone squeezes everything from the actors, his collaborators and the landscape, creating a mythical west where gunslingers, criminals and lawmen battle it out. It may be too easy to appreciate it now, but it is not too late to begin.