By Tara Zdancewicz
With a simple Google search of the film Once Upon a Time in the West thousands of results pop up detailing the Western’s magnificence. Coming in at #5 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Top Westerns List and #30 on IMDB’s Top Rated Movies list, this film has indisputably made an impact on cinema. However, along with those glowing marks comes a multitude of blogs where viewers vent their frustrations about the blatant misogyny found in the film. Despite being distinguished, as a Western, Once Upon a Time in the West inherently has some problematic connotations.
In his work An Introduction to Genre Theory, literary and film theorist David Chandler discusses various approaches to genres. He contends that typically genre is defined by content and iconography as well as style or form. Just like the multitude of Westerns that preceded Once Upon a Time in the West, the film has many analogous content conventions. There are expansive dusty fields where rugged cowboys equipped with guns and brimmed hats roam on horseback. There is inevitably a quick draw duel and dangerous interactions in a saloon. Leone’s film seems to hit all the marks on the western checklist. Interestingly, the structure of the film is not so generic of the genre. Through the use of close-ups and zooms in, Once Upon a Time in the West is cinematographically a melodrama. The legendary Ennio Morricone created a soundtrack that swells whenever characters come on to the screen. Riddled with one-liners that straddle the line between witty and cheesy, the dialogue and plot also add to the melodramatic mood of the film.
Chandler highlights fellow theorist Steve Neale’s theory which states that genres are based off of repeated similarities but it is the differences that keep the audiences coming back for more. While Leone repeated all of the typical genre content conventions of a Western in Once Upon a Time in the West, he refreshed the film by differing the style. Another way he did this was through his use of extreme violence. With the Production Code ending in 1968, the director did suppress showing graphic content. From explicitly presenting a man’s face with a gunshot wound to showing dead children, Leone made the most of the newly-found freedom he had.
Chandler details how genre acts as the first step for the audience to understand the film they are watching. There are expectations formed based on years of watching the same repeated genre conventions over and over again. This creates an ideal viewer for each genre that can correlate with a specific class, age, gender, and/or ethnicity. With the repeated themes of masculinity and toughness, the typical character of damsel in distress, and the othering of minority characters, Westerns have a very specific ideal viewer: a white man. This is exactly the case of Once Upon a Time in the West, as viewers follow the overtly masculine characters of Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne as they fight over land owned by the newly widowed Jill. All major characters are white and the only glimpse of a minority figure is that of slaves being imported from a train. The treatment of Jill is less than equal as she endures an attempted rape, countless sexist remarks, and repeated harassment from an array of vehement men. It makes sense that so many people have an issue with this film. The ideal Western viewer can be constrictive for works of a certain genre; viewers are pigeonholed into looking through a lens that is most likely not their own.
As contemporary auteurs such as Kelly Reichart (Certain Women) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) are driving the Western genre away from sexism and racism, Once Upon a Time in the West remains an utterly enjoyable movie that changed the landscape of the Western. Nothing about the plot is revolutionary to the genre. The story is actually quite simple: men are fighting over a widow’s land. Stylistically, Leone employs the same long shots and extreme close-ups that he used in his past westerns. Once Upon a Time in the West’s biggest contribution to the western genre is that of pace. This film is by no means an action-packed Western with a duel every few minutes. Instead, Leone takes his time building up to the climax of the epic film, but only after two and a half hours of character building. The viewer truly gets the chance to empathize with all of the characters and understand the dangers they face. While many of his films have included magnificent character development, this is Leone’s masterpiece in terms of depth of story. Because there is not a gunfight every ten minutes, Leone proved that Westerns did not have to be purely action; this genre could be a layered form on storytelling. While the Western as a genre may have problems, Once Upon a Time in the West is undoubtedly one of the most important Westerns ever made.