By Kris Tronerud
Once Upon A Time In The West (C’era Una Volta il West) • 1968 • Directed by Sergio Leone
In 1966, after the commercial failure of his first two movies, (and well before the smash international success of The Conformist and Last Tango In Paris), fledgling director Bernardo Bertolucci found himself at a professional and personal dead end, and fled, as he often did, to repair to the movies and re-energize himself. He decided on a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and, in one of those happy coincidences that seem to figure in the back stories of so many film classics, present in the projection room were, not only TGTBATU’s newly successful director Sergio Leone, but a young critic looking for an ‘in’ in the film industry, future horror great Dario Argento. When asked by Leone why he liked the film so much, Bertolucci blurted out that he admired the fact that Leone, like John Ford, rather than prettifying horses in profile, filmed ‘their arses from behind”. After a stunned silence, the Ford-worshipping Leone replied “We must make a film together sometime”. While this suggested partnership might have gone against the grain of the young Marxist’s usual filmic tendencies, Bertolucci was (like his entire generation of European directors) also an infatuated Hollywood film buff; and, as he later admitted, “I dreamed… of making a film that (simply) gave pleasure to everyone”. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, as the film which grew out of this chance meeting was arguably (with the possible exception of Ford’s The Searchers) the greatest Western ever made: the epic, astonishing and mesmerizing Once Upon A Time In The West.
The unlikely trio then spent the next few months holed up together brainstorming — all three enthusiastically revisiting their favorite movie moments, with Leone acting out his vision of the nascent film in a what must have been a hilarious combination of mime, Italian, and his non-speakers notion of movie-English. From these spirited sessions (oh, for one of those now omni-present ‘making-of’ video crews in Sergio Leone’s apartment) grew a treatment which used the legendary tropes of the Hollywood Western as a backdrop for an elegiac, melancholy tribute to the passing of an era: the day of the rugged-individual western anti-hero giving way to the encroachment of the modern era, personified by the relentless approach of a continent-spanning railroad. “The damn thing has caught up with me again” remarks an old-timer as he passes a rail crew at work; while this theme became commonplace in the ‘70s, largely through Leone-phile Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant quartet Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, it was quite the fresh concept in 1967. The treatment was then brought to life by frequent Leone collaborator Sergio Donati, whose elegant, mournful (and eminently quotable) dialogue brings an otherwise missing mythic resonance to OUATITW. It is a tribute to the astonishing clarity of Leone’s vision and storytelling craft (and Donati’s superb screenplay) that OUATITW is not the dry intellectual exercise that might, from its genesis, have been predicted; but rather a seamless absorption of its influences into an absolutely original and riveting whole; a sensual, visually resplendent treat for the senses that packs an unforgettable emotional wallop at its center.
“It is essential that all the details seem right, never invented. A fairy tale captures the imagination most when the setting is as realistic as possible”
— Sergio Leone
As rancher Brett McBain prepares a welcoming feast for his soon-to-arrive bride Jill — a beautiful but world weary New Orleans prostitute lured to the backwater town of Sweetwater [conveniently located about a half mile from Monument Valley] by McBain’s promises of wealth and a secure family life — he and his entire family are brutally slaughtered by Frank, a brilliant and ruthless assassin in the employ of crippled railroad baron Morton, who covets McBain’s ranch for its crucial water-bearing location on the last leg of his railroad’s advance. After a desperate Jill ransacks the ranch in a futile attempt to find McBain’s supposed wealth, she decides to head back to Bourbon Street in defeat. Unbeknownst to her, two mysterious guardian angels, the enigmatic Harmonica, who has a long standing score to settle with Frank, and wily outlaw Cheyenne, who is smitten with Jill, and resentful of being framed for the massacre; have figured out why the homestead is so valuable, and encourage her to stand her ground while they settle accounts with Morton and Frank. This blatantly typical Western plot is delivered with such grand and overpowering style however, that it is not until after many repeated and awe-struck viewings that the seasoned viewer begins to wonder just how the film, with its long, silent pauses, screen-high close-ups of iconic faces, absurdly attenuated showdowns and multitude of references (and downright steals) from classic westerns, works at all. But work, and work magnificently, it does; for in this, his masterpiece, Leone’s still unequalled ability to ground his ”fairy tales” in a setting of lovingly rendered visual detail and haunting sonic ambience is on full display.
In The Good The Bad and The Ugly, it’s the crunching of boots and hooves on the rocky landscape and the sensual workings of weaponry that pervade the soundscape; in OUATITW, it’s the sounds of nature that form its aura of destiny, menace and timelessness. No less than the great Ennio Morricone (whose lush, romantic score is one of the great soundtracks in cinema) graciously suggested (inspired by his interest in Musique Concrète), that the only accompaniment to its 10 minute classic opening scene — in which a trio of gunsels, including Western character greats Woody Strode and Jack Elam, wait for Harmonica at a deserted train station — should be a ’symphony’ made up of creaking doors and floorboards, whistling wind, buzzing insects, dripping water, and the now instantly recognizable squeaking of the station windmill (which was nearly erased from film history by an over-eager grip who attempted to oil it), and which is now the sole accompaniment to the film’s DVD menu. Key also to OUATITW’s power is Leone’s uncanny ability to infuse his deadpan sincerity with a touch of sly parody, and, with impeccable timing, push scene after scene to an exaggerated level of emotional intensity, (OUATITW is often, and accurately, described as operatic) that, in lesser hands would have quickly devolved into unintentional humor. Even OUATITW’s most blatant lifts, such as the sudden cessation of the cicadas’ buzzing which signals the terrible violence to come (a direct grab from The Searchers) are so completely sifted into Leone’s potent mix of sight, sound and emotion that they seem, to the hypnotized first time viewer, to be utterly new. It has also been suggested by Donati (who, like many of the mercurial Leone’s collaborators, viewed the maestro with a peculiar blend of love and loathing) that Leone, who, by all accounts often tried to project a cultural savvy that he did not in fact possess, actually didn’t recognize many of Bertolucci and Argento’s film references, resulting in his completely original treatment of them. Given the genius of OUATITW, it hardly seems to matter.
Frank: Nothing matters now… Not the land, not the money, not the woman… I came here to see you.
Harmonica: So you found out you’re not a businessman at all?
Frank: No, just a man.
Harmonica: An ancient race…
It is easy to dwell on the stunning setpeices that form the structure of OUATITW: the opening time-stands-still train station duel, the sun-bleached, hissing dance of death of the McBain family massacre, the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank, and, of course, the astonishing extended traveling boom sequence that follows Jill’s arrival at the train station, follows her through the ticket office window, and, to the swelling strains of Morricone’s Jill’s Theme, rises to reveal the dusty town of Sweetwater in a shot that seems, in a few moments, to evoke our entire imagined history of the Old West. Key however, to the impact of these sequences, and of the entire film, is its perfect, historic, and, in at least one case, nearly accidental, casting.
Henry Fonda was unimpressed by the early, hastily produced English version of Donati’s screenplay (later beautifully translated for the screen by expatriate actor Mickey Knox) and had turned down the role of Frank; old pal Eli Wallach, who had been equally skeptical about accepting his career-defining role in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, persuaded Fonda to sample Leone’s work in the director’s company. After a day-long screening of the entire ‘Dollars’ trilogy, Fonda reportedly emerged from the dark and said ”Where’s the contract?” Still, after several weeks of out-of-sequence filming Fonda didn’t yet have a clear notion of Leone’s intentions, until the time came to shoot the massacre, which culminates in Frank gunning down a small child in cold blood. Fonda later described what he knew the audience’s reaction would be: “Jesus Christ, it’s Henry Fonda!” Playing utterly against type, Fonda’s Frank is no stock villain; moody, brilliant and sensual, Frank understands that his gunfighter world is disappearing, and that business will soon become the new tool of the criminal, but in the end, after usurping the power of the dying Morton, Frank also understands that he’s not Morton at all, and rides off to his final meeting with Harmonica with the doomed dignity of a villain in a Greek tragedy.
As the laconic gunfighter with a past, Charles Bronson created an archetype that populated countless westerns to come, and was immortalized in the classic French comic Blueberry by Jean (Moebius) Giraud; but the role was first offered to, or considered for, Clint Eastwood, James Coburn, Terence Stamp, and incredibly, Warren Beatty and Rock Hudson (!) before Leone finally offered it to Bronson, who made it very much his own, and created his own iconic screen persona in the process. Jason Robards was considered by the producers to be both too unreliable, and too much a stage actor for the part of Cheyenne, yet his roguish bandit who’s “not such a bad sort” is the heart of OUATITW’s rich, and un-cloying sentimentality, playing off the stoic Harmonica with an eye-twinkling humor that suffuses the film’s leisurely, and often very funny, middle sequence on Morton’s train. As Morton, the doomed industrialist who dreams of reaching the sea with his railroad line, Gabriele Ferzetti (L’Avventura) is so convincing in conveying the dying tycoon’s agonizing realization of his dream’s swift disintegration, that, despite his many misdeeds, we are moved to pity as he crawls out into the desert to die, thinking, in his delirium, that a puddle of water from the steam engine is his longed-for Pacific Ocean. And as Jill, Claudia Cardinale (along with being, in that moment, quite possibly the most beautiful creature ever to grace the screen) delivers Jill’s difficult mixture of innocence, cynicism, and self-preservation with an intelligent, poignant believability that never descends into hooker-with-a heart-of-gold territory.
While it is, at once a film which can be read as cowboy fairy tale or epic historical drama, knowing parody or as the ultimate film buff’s spot-the-reference trivia game, in the end, Once Upon a Time in the West is beyond categorization; it exists in its own rarified atmosphere, a dreamlike fantasy wrought in unparalleled craftsmanship whose reputation, as the years pass, only grows with each new generation of viewers. There, is, literally, no other film like it.
The author wishes to express his appreciation for, and highest recommendation of, Christopher Frayling’s monumental Leone biography “Something To Do With Death”, whose extraordinary insights and biographical information were so helpful in writing this article.