Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Directed by Sergio Leone

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Sergio Leone didn’t want to make Once Upon a Time in the West.  He had worked his way through westerns by this point, having made the Dollars trilogy, the memorable Clint Eastwood films that culminated with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Those films, “spaghetti westerns,” were Leone’s reactions against the old cowboy films of the John Wayne era.  He made the line between the heroes and the bad guys less distinguishable as they were all driven by greed in some capacity.

Leone’s Dollars trilogy was like the gritty reboot to the cowboy genre that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were to the superhero genre.  By today’s standards the violence might look cartoonish, but for Leone the violence was much harder hitting than that of older westerns.  Those older movies glorified the hero and the lifestyle on the frontier, but Leone seemed to be out to show what life out there would have really been like.  His heroes and villains are both mired in grime, sweat, blood and filth.  The most iconographic shot of these movies is the intense close up of a gunslinger’s eyes as he prepares to make a split second decision which will determine if he lives or dies.

This shot, often of Eastwood’s leathery scowl, isn’t exactly pretty, but it’s… well I don’t know.  He contrasts these intense close ups with wide open shots of the flat vistas of the old west which, in his case, were often rolling hills somewhere in Italy.  These two types of shots, juxtaposed together, created a feeling of natural beauty but also of morbidity.  It’s a wonder his characters ever lived to be as old as they are.  They’re all somewhere in middle age, their hardened faces tanned and unshaven, their expressions plastered with the Eastwood-esque scowl or the smug smirk of a villain for whom death seems both unimaginable and somewhat welcome, at least until he finally dies, getting the comeuppance we’ve been waiting for.  And yet, based on how many people die, it seems unlikely they ever would have lasted this long.

In those films, the silent hero (Eastwood) rights some kind of wrong, but he has his own motivations for doing so.  There is always a long, tense buildup to a shootout that lasts only a few seconds if that, and the final two-man showdown is entirely predictable, completely unavoidable and nonetheless very exciting.

Leone is good at building the suspense, but his westerns still follow a convention, even if it’s one of his own creation.  In something like The Searchers, the climax deals with a large battle against the Native Americans, but it ends with the reunion of John Wayne and his niece.  It’s an uplifting image.  Leone’s films, on the other hand, end with someone dying and the other one just carrying on, not elated or defeated, just sort of there.  It’s a feeling that, for the gunslinger who lives, this day was nothing special.  He may have had dozens more just like it.  Despite the loud, sudden violence of a gunshot echoing through the landscape, taking a life isn’t that big of a deal.  The impression left with the audience is that this silent cowboy hero has been doing this all his life and will continue to do so until he’s the one who gets shot.  It’s not that he survived anything momentous, just that he lived another day, somewhat unlikely, in a world that’s desperately trying to kill him.

I guess those westerns feel very subversive, then.  With time I suppose they do seem to glorify Eastwood and his skill with a gun, but watching them in the context of what came before, they show an uncaring world ruled by greed, violence and a lack of empathy.  If our society ever reached that point, how the hell did any of us make it out alive?  And how the hell did we get to where we are today?  But then you’re left with a feeling that Leone wants you to know that we never really left that world, or so that’s the feeling I get.  We didn’t move on from the graveyard, we just built on top of it.  Sure, maybe the average person isn’t getting gunned down in the street (and yes I’m aware of what’s in the news), but maybe it’s just that the death and destruction in his westerns is more heavily veiled today.  The people who are out to get you might not shoot you in the back, but they’re out there.

Anyways, those are my thoughts and impressions about the Dollars trilogy, and I say all of that because Once Upon a Time in the West is different.  Paramount came to Leone with the offer to make another western, which he didn’t want to do, but from what I’ve read, they gave him a large budget and access to actor Henry Fonda, with whom Leone was somewhat enamored.  Basically Leone was given an offer he couldn’t refuse.  He had made a name for himself in this genre, and though he was ready to move on (he wanted his next film, which would come later, to be Once Upon a Time in America), the studios knew there was more money to be had here.  It’s like Christopher Nolan being done with Batman after The Dark Knight, but the studio knew there was a lot of money to be had with the third Batman movie.

So with this film, there are a lot of familiar scenes, storylines and character types.  Some familiar faces pop up, though the characters we get to know most well are Harmonica (Charles Heston), a Clint Eastwood-type silent hero, along with Manuel (Jason Robards), a man who is most like Ugly of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Then you have Frank (Henry Fonda), the villain.  Additionally there is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), who doesn’t do a whole lot other than provide the final note of hope for the film.

Like his other westerns, this film builds to a gunslinging showdown that we can see from a mile off.  Harmonica has something in mind for Frank, who is presented as an over the top villain much like the one in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  As in that 1966 film, we get an early scene in which Frank shoots down an entire family, and that’s all we need to know about his character.  The difference here is that Henry Fonda isn’t your prototypical villain.  He’s possibly most well known for playing the good guy in Twelve Angry Men, and his voice is soft, like that of a reassuring father.  Because of that it’s particularly uncomfortable to see him harass Jill and speak threateningly to a host of other characters.  I couldn’t tell if it was bad casting or brilliant.

Before we get to that expected showdown, though, the long story is filled with scenes of occasional action and scenes that seem laden with thematic imagery about what the old west represents.  Where his other westerns were destructive, subverting older films of the same genre, this one feels like an homage.  Though there is still the death and violence we expect in a Leone western, so much of this movie discusses the future.

Jill arrives at her new home, straight from Louisiana, to find that her betrothed and his family have been slaughtered (by Frank).  The family’s house sits in another wide open, empty landscape, but the McBain to which she was set to marry had a plan.  He knew that the railroad was heading west and needed stations on its route.  He also knew that this piece of land has the only water around (under the ground) for miles around.  The McBains were building for the future, but Frank got there first.

There is a lot that happens in the middle of the story that feels unimportant, outside the two plot lines of Harmonica versus Frank and Jill trying to scrap together a life from the shreds of the one she arrived to.  This film runs close to three hours, and I can see where some of the criticism comes from.  In some ways this feels like a rip off of the Dollars trilogy.  Leone does what he did before, but just not quite as well.  Harmonica feels like the second choice to Eastwood and like Heston just watched what Eastwood did and tried to do it the same.  Similarly Fonda’s villain feels like the long lost brother of the same character type in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

This film, today, is very well-regarded.  If it’s considered a step below the other westerns Leone made, it’s not by much.  But based on some light research, this film was seen as a lazy effort at the time.

Roger Ebert wrote that, “the movie stretches on for nearly three hours, with intermission, and provides two false alarms before it finally ends. In between, we’re given a plot complex enough for Antonioni, involving killers, land rights, railroads, long-delayed revenge, mistaken identity, love triangles, double-crosses and shoot-outs. We’re well into the second hour of the movie before the plot becomes quite clear.”

And the New York Times review added, “Once Upon the Time in the West is the biggest, longest, most expensive Leone Western to date, and, in many ways, the most absurd…  …Granting the fact that it is quite bad, “Once Upon the Time in the West” is almost always interesting, wobbling, as it does, between being an epic lampoon and a serious homage to the men who created the dreams of Leone’s childhood.”

On a scene by scene basis, this film feels as good as any of the others he’s made.  The film begins with a long scene of three men waiting for a train to arrive.  They wait for what feels like hours and what feels like ten minutes of screen time.  It’s never boring because the longer the quiet lasts in a Leone western, the tighter the suspense.  You just know something will come of it.

And adding to that, the quiet seems to be a point of the story too.  Sure the old west was dangerous, but it might just also have been painfully boring.  What are these greedy, violent outlaws really fighting for?  Yeah they might steal some money, reap some kind of bounty for a man’s head, but then what?  There is no existentialism among the cowboys, I suppose, but the opening scene of this argument is ready to introduce it.

I felt like this was the final thesis of Leone about life in the old west.  It’s not worthy of glorification because it’s violent and pointless.  When the train arrives, so does Harmonica, and we meet him as a skilled marksman who shoots down each of these outlaws.  It’s a great introduction to the character and to the film, but my personally theorized existential themes prove only to be a red herring.  The rest of this film mostly covers the same ground as his last three westerns, except for, possibly, the railroad.

What I like about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is that it’s about more than just cowboys.  When I went back to re-watch it recently, I had completely forgotten about Eastwood’s character’s run-in with the Civil War.  The film had a lot to say about violence and its pointlessness as Eastwood meets a general and then watches from afar as he runs into certain death in a battle that means very little.  It’s a sequence in which plot takes a back seat, and the importance of the narrative becomes much more symbolic.

Leone does the same thing here with the railroad.  We return to it occasionally throughout the story.  We see it being slowly built, and the man who bankrolls Frank’s violence lives in a train car until he, like just about everyone, dies.  There isn’t a whole lot to say about the plot except that it builds to a climactic showdown between Harmonica and Frank (as Harmonica gets revenge for something from his past which feels mostly disconnected from the rest of the story), before the film ends with Jill and her growing station.

She feeds the men who work there for her, and the camera cranes up and away so we can see the scope of the construction project as the railroad finally reaches them.  The film, in this way, ends on a positive note, and for the first time in any of Leone’s four westerns, there is a feeling of hope and of growth.  It might be the first time you look at any of these characters and feel even an ounce of pride that you might descend from them (ignoring the casual racism and, you know, stuff like that from this time period).

One of the most impactful shots in this film is of Monument Valley, located on the Utah and Arizona border.  This location was made most famous through John Ford movies like The Searchers.  Most of Leone’s past westerns were shot in Italy, and while some of this is in Italy too, there was clearly a strong desire for the Monument Valley scene, made more impactful by the fact that so much of the movie was shot half a world away.

Once Upon a Time in the West seems to be about America more than his other westerns. Those pictures were in response to westerns that, to him, felt too vanilla, too soft, too heroic.  His characters are much more grimy than the John Wayne cowboy hero, and his early films, while not trying to be realistic by any means, wanted to show a more grim version of the frontier life.  With this film, however, Leone pays homage to the westerns he once tried to satirize.  It certainly isn’t his best film, it’s probably a little sloppy and scattered, but it’s made with much of the same energy and, ultimately, a little more compassion as he says goodbye to the genre which made him famous.

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