Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the best westerns ever made. And to think that director Sergio Leone didn’t even want to make it because he was tired of doing westerns. He couldn’t find any interest in a film he wanted to make titled Once Upon a Time in
America, so he resorted to doing what he was
best known for in the U.S. It wouldn’t be until the 1980s before he
would finally get to make that other film.
Despite the fact that this wasn’t his first choice he put together a
great cast and story. It includes not
two antagonists, but four or even five – all with their own agendas that cause
them to sometimes join with one another and sometimes to oppose one another. That complexity is rare in westerns, whose
stock in trade is easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. Perhaps this complexity came from the fact
that the film was co-written by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario
Argento. The latter two would go on to
become successful directors in their own right.
The film opens with three men (two of them played by western character actors Jack Elam and Woody Strode) waiting for a train to arrive. It very consciously echoes the classic western High Noon (1952). Leone wanted the stars of his last film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, and Eli Wallach – to cameo as these three men, but that didn’t work out. The scene is one of the more famous film openings for how long and drawn out it is. It emphasizes the boredom of the location of the station, as well as the resolve of the men waiting. Sound becomes very important as every drop of water and creak of a windmill vane become more and more apparent as time goes on.
There are a lot of looks exchanged by the men as well. And when one of them is being played by Jack Elam, even just a shot of him staring is enough to be entertaining. He certainly had a unique look because of his eyes, perfect for playing the kinds of characters he did in westerns.
Eventually the train arrives and we meet the first of the main characters, a “man with no name” played by Charles Bronson. He is supposed to meet a man named Frank, but these other men were sent instead. They are there to kill him, but this man kills them instead. He then heads into town.
We now meet the second of the main characters – Frank himself. A distant ranch named Sweetwater is getting ready for the arrival of a new bride for the man who owns it. Just then shots ring out and all of the people there fall dead, except for a small boy. The camera pans up from the boots of one of the shooters, there is a close up of his face, and we get a big surprise – it is Henry Fonda, whose character of Frank proceeds to shoot the boy so that no witnesses are left. This very clearly establishes that one of the most well known “good guy” actors out there is most definitely not playing to type in this film.
Speaking of eyes, Fonda originally showed up for filming with a mustache and brown contact lenses to play the evil character. Leone immediately had him shave and get rid of the lenses. He wanted every viewer to immediately recognize Fonda as the bad guy so evil he will gun down a small child without thinking about it.
We meet the third main character – the bride who comes into town. She is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) and while riding to the ranch, she meets the last of the main characters –
(Jason Robards). They, along with the
man from the train, all end up in the same saloon. Cheyenne
dubs that man “Harmonica” because he is always playing one. Harmonica lets Cheyenne
(a man with a bad reputation) know that the men at the train wore the same
dusters as the ones Cheyenne
and his men wear. It is as if someone
was trying to frame Cheyenne
for Harmonica’s death.
When Jill gets to the ranch and finds everyone dead, and a duster just like
Cheyenne’s left behind, a
warrant for Cheyenne’s
arrest is issued. He ends up out at Jill’s
ranch and swears that while he may be a bad man, even he wouldn’t kill a little
kid. Meanwhile, we find out Frank is
working for a rich railroad baron named Morton and it was at Morton’s orders
that Frank killed everyone at the Sweetwater ranch.
Why did he do that, though? The mystery deepens when tons of lumber get delivered to the ranch – enough to build several buildings. Jill’s murdered husband had paid cash for it all ahead of time. What is it for? And what is Harmonica doing trying to get a meeting with Frank, especially after Frank’s men tried to kill him? And will
Cheyenne be able to continue to dodge the authorities? And will Frank be content to keep working for
the rich man or might he get some ideas of his own?
As you can tell, there are a bunch of interesting storylines, as well as a several running mysteries. We find out the answers to all of them by the time the film is done. And as complex as the story gets, this film still satisfies those people looking for all the usual things they would expect from a western. There is a man on man gunfight. There are intrigues around the railroad. There are people looking to steal other’s property. There is someone looking to get revenge for a killing of a relative.
In short, this film has a little something for everyone. The only negative thing I have to say about it is really silly – Claudia Cardinale wore the most humungous 1960s false eyelashes in the film. They were so distracting and out of place that I laughed a few times during scenes that were supposed to be serious. If that’s the biggest thing I can complain about, though, then this film must be pretty damn good. Unless you just absolutely hate westerns, I highly recommend you see this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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