Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Director: Sergio Leone

★★★★★

C’era una volta il West is an epic, widescreen, Spaghetti Western directed by the great Sergio Leone. The cinematography is incredible and the score, again written by Ennio Morricone, is extraordinary. After the release of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), Leone decided to retire from making Western movies, however, Paramount approached him about creating a new Western film with Henry Fonda (he agreed). Clint Eastwood turned down the opportunity for the lead role so Leone pursued Charles Bronson instead. He agreed and the film was shot on locations in Spain, Italy, and the Monument Valley in Arizona. Once Upon a Time in the West is a bit of an acquired taste, not unlike Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It pushes the boundaries of what a Western film can do. Sergio Leone considered Once Upon a Time in the West to be the first installment of his ‘Once Upon A Time’ trilogy, followed by Duck, You Sucker! (1971), a Spaghetti Western set during the Mexican Revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), an American crime film.

Unlike Leone’s Dollars trilogy, which is also brilliant, Once Upon a Time in the West is a somber and reflective film featuring wide sweeping shots of the old west and minimal dialogue. In many ways, Morricone’s score plays a much larger role in the film than any dialogue (each character has his or her own thematic music -most notably a haunting harmonica tune). Apparently, Leone was greatly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943).

The setting is Flagstone, a fictional town of the old west (perhaps a reference to ‘Flagstaff’ Arizona). The plot sees the coming of the railroad and vengeance against a killer. The central struggle is over a plot of land called ‘Sweetwater’ which contains some of the region’s only source of potable water. the film opens with the mesmerizing and hauntingly silent scene scene of a harmonica-playing gunslinger (played by Charles Bronson) as he slowly approaches on a screeching train and kills three hired assassins at the train station. He seeks revenge against a soulless killer for an old score left unsettled (played by Henry Fonda) and has a rocky relationship with a bandit named “Cheyenne” (played by Jason Robards). Meanwhile, a widow named Jill McBain arrives (played by Claudia Cardinale). She claims to be the owner of the Sweetwater land and is in need of protection. Conflicts arise over the wealthy landowner -the true enemy of the film. The film ends in a dramatic shootout. In some ways the film is a eulogy to the old west -a place once populated by Native Americans, cowboys, and home to a vast empty silence that is disrupted by the din of westward expansion (i.e. the railroad).

Once Upon a Time in the West is surely a brilliant movie, incredible in scope, but if forced to choose I would prefer his lower budget ‘Dollars’ trilogy films.

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