Once Upon A Time In The West Review
Three men, attired in dusters, arrive at a small railway station in the middle of the Arizona desert. They look round, casually menace the grizzled attendant, and then they wait… A more apt beginning would be hard to find because, amongst many other things, Once Upon A Time in the West is a film about waiting. Waiting for a train, waiting to die, waiting for vengeance, waiting to see whether the ever-expanding railroad tracks or the inexorable force of change will be the first to destroy the old West. Waiting, above all, for history to work its alchemy and turn the present into myth, everyday life into legend, and living, breathing men and women into the dust beneath the feet of their descendents. The aforementioned three men will not have long to wait, as very soon Harmonica (Bronson), their quarry - and nemesis – will have affected the change rather sooner than they could have expected. But in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, no-one has long to wait. Not Frank (Fonda), the assassin; not Cheyenne (Robards), the outlaw; not Harmonica, the drifter; not even Jill McBain (Cardinale), the force of life who blasts into the destinies of all who meet her. The film is bathed in an awareness of mortality and of the inevitability of history, and it is this – among many other things – which makes it a genuinely profound work of art.
The story of Once Upon A Time in the West is very straightforward. Jill McBain, a whore from New Orleans, has secretly married a landowner named Brett McBain and travels to live with him at his ranch called ‘Sweetwater’, on the outskirts of a small Western town called Flagstone. However, on the day she arrives in Flagstone, Brett and his three children are killed by a mysterious assassin called Frank. Jill swears that she will avenge Brett’s death and all the signs seem to point to the culprit being Cheyenne, an itinerant bandit who travels with a rag-tag group of followers and hires himself as a gunman to anyone who pays well. But Cheyenne arrives at the ranch and protests his innocence and it soon becomes clear that the motive for the killing lies in the ever-advancing railroad and the valuable well that Red had discovered on his property. But where does Harmonica fit into all this and what is his connection to the cold-blooded Frank? Gradually, all becomes clear and the stage is set for one of the great confrontations of the Western genre.
It’s not hard to see why Paramount was enthused by the idea of this film. For one thing, Leone had just had a major hit for United Artists with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, launching Clint Eastwood’s career and radically rethinking the style of the Western. For another, it’s a classic plotline – as Christopher Frayling has pointed out, the roots of this story go back to John Ford’s The Iron Horse. Plenty of scope for action, juicy roles for stars to play, perhaps a bit of sex… Given this, it’s equally easy to see why they were so appalled when they first saw the film that Leone delivered. Whatever they wanted, they certainly didn’t want a slow-moving, thoughtful, heavily stylised art movie which was as much a comment on the genre as a product of it. Their heavily cut version flopped in the USA but Leone’s preferred original cut was reasonably successful in Europe and was a huge cult hit in France where it famously played for 5 years. It was only after a decade of neglect that it began to find a major following in America and began the process of becoming one of the most beloved Westerns of the 20th Century. I first saw it on British television in the late 1970s and was a little baffled by it. It appeared to be badly composed, extremely slow and uneventful. Little did I know how mistaken I was or that 25 years later it would be one of my favourite films.
My original reaction is quite revealing. What I took for bad composition turned out to be the cropping which had been wrought upon the defenceless original. In my ignorance, I didn’t know about such things and just assumed the film was badly made. In fact, as I am now very much aware, it’s one of the most beautifully composed movies ever made. Every single shot is carefully considered, making use of every single inch of the vast Techniscope frame. However, Leone’s use of it is quite unusual. Where some directors, amongst whom David Lean shall be nameless, use 2.35:1 to make pretty pictures, Leone uses it to emphasise various different facets of his narrative. Sometimes, we simply take in the awesome empty spaces of the desert. More often, we see close-ups of certain faces to reveal character or to emphasise incident. Sometimes, we get a huge landscape on two-thirds of the frame and an extreme close-up taking up the other third. Characters are carefully positioned to indicate intent, emotion or status. Leone uses his mise-en-scene to affect our reactions and stir our emotions and he knows when to let landscape speak for itself. But I swear that every frame is full of interest. Everything is there for a reason. Sometimes, as in the opening with Jack Elam and the fly, the effect is comic as the camera stares at a medium close-up of Elam’s face as he is bothered by the pesky insect. Sometimes, as in the massacre at Sweetwater, the effect is tragic as panning movement becomes stasis when McBain gets to the middle of the frame and is shot. Sometimes, it’s simply overwhelmingly moving, as when a crane shot takes us over the station house to reveal the evolving town of Flagstone. It’s appropriate at this point to mention Ennio Morricone’s extraordinary music score, composed before a single frame of the film was shot and played on-set. The music and the camera movements seem inextricably linked, as in that crane shot – the upward glide of the camera matching the soaring voice of the soprano to breathtaking effect. The intricacy of the camera moves was not unusual in European films at the time; the practice of post-synching dialogue gave directors much more freedom with the camera as they didn’t have to record sound. But the freedom of Leone’s camera marks the film out from other Westerns being made at the time in America which were largely studio bound. When Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch in 1969, his use of the wide frame and extensive location shooting seems as endebted to Leone as to the films of Ford and Anthony Mann.
Perhaps because of this extraordinary attention to framing and movement, the film does seem somewhat slower than the previous Leone westerns. In particular, it doesn’t share much in common with the blackly comic-horror of The Good the Bad and the Ugly and this may be one reason why American audiences initially rejected it. The pacing of Once Upon A Time In The West is languorous, giving us time to take in the mise-en-scene in the detail it deserves, and the simple plot line is embellished with numerous small character details and asides which are just as entertaining as the main narrative. I’m thinking in particular of the scene at Lionel Stander’s trading post which introduces us to Cheyenne and reveals a little more about the elliptical Harmonica. This was cut for the original US release but it not only gives us an insight into the characters, it’s funny and exciting. There’s an element of picaresque adventure in this film, something which came to the fore in Leone’s later films A Fistful of Dynamite and the marvellous Once Upon A Time in America. But despite the steady pace, the film is never boring because there’s always something to occupy the eye. Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography is consistently beautiful, finding unexpected shadings in the brown and yellow landscapes and making the most of the darker interiors. Occasionally, a self-consciously ‘arty’ shot is thrown in but these are done so well – the view of Cardinale from above her bed which we see through black netting – that they’re easy to forgive. Leone is also careful to keep his trademark shots in reserve so that when they come – notably the close-ups of the eyes – they have maximum impact.
Once Upon A Time in The West is an exciting and involving western. But it’s more than that. In an important sense, it’s a film about Westerns, devised by three men who loved the genre. The first stage of creating the film, according to Bernardo Bertolucci, came when himself, Leone and Dario Argento sat down and watched all their favourite American westerns. Leone seems to have been determined to reference the genre as much as possible in a manner which we might describe as post-modern. You might not, for example, understand why the opening is quite so funny and satisfying if you had never seen High Noon. It wouldn’t be practical to list all the films which are referenced but there are a number of vital influences. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is The Iron Horse, John Ford’s film about the coming of the railroads to the west. But other Ford westerns are equally significant. Parts of Leone’s film were shot in Monument Valley, that natural wonder which Ford used in nine of his movies. Ford frequently uses it for iconic effect, employing those great cathedral rocks as a monolithic comment on what will always be there no matter how much other things change – a theme which Leone is obsessed with in this film. There are also significant references to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, both in the use of the dusters and, more broadly, in the central theme of the relationship between fact and legend. The Wayne character in Ford’s film is somewhat similar to Cheyenne; an outlaw who has outgrown his time and has nothing to do but wait for history to render him obsolete. On the other hand, the figure of Jill McBain seems to have little to do with Ford’s films and is much more similar to one of Howard Hawks’ heroines; tough, unsentimental and resourceful. Her speech when she virtually dares Cheyenne to rape her because she will soon be able to scrub herself clean while he will be wallowing in his own dirt is a great moment, especially for a director who had never shown much interest in women. A third American director of Westerns who seems to be an important influence is Anthony Mann, whose genre films overflowed with cynicism and bitter realism. Mann would have probably approved of the lack of sentimentality on Leone’s part – the killing of the child at the beginning, the harsh treatment of the disabled railroad agent Morton – and I think he might have applauded the decision to cast Henry Fonda as the sadistic bad guy.
Henry Fonda does himself arouse memories of other films and I presume that this was entirely intentional. For most of his career, Fonda played the nice, upstanding liberal hero whose task was to ensure justice for the oppressed. He was cast as Young Mr Lincoln, Wyatt Earp and flourished in roles such as the doubter in Twelve Angry Men. In other words, no-one doubted that Fonda represented that America that always proclaimed itself the land of the free and the saviour of the downtrodden. Consequently, Leone’s decision to cast him as a bad guy is a gloriously ironic joke and it seems that, after initial reservations, Fonda was happy to play along. Indeed, the creation of Frank – mercenary assassin and would-be businessman – is one of Fonda’s finest achievements and his steely, unemotional performance is very striking. The casting of Charles Bronson and Jason Robards was less revolutionary, although Robards was best known as a distinguished stage actor and had never played a role like Cheyenne before. Bronson was not a star in 1968 but would soon become one, partly thanks to this film which got him noticed in Europe. Claudia Cardinale, on the other hand, was a star and her presence was one of the guarantees which originally got the film into production. Her work in this film is, in the opinion of this writer, the very best she ever did and her extraordinary beauty is just what is needed to convince us that Jill could have made Brett McBain fall head-over-heels in love with her. She also has strength of character which leaps off the screen, somewhat reminiscent of Vivien Leigh at the end of Gone With The Wind and even more reminiscent of Bette Davis in numerous Warner Brothers movies of the 1940s. I should also mention the performance of the fifth major cast member; the elegant, precise Gabrielle Ferzetti. A well known figure in the Italian theatre, Ferzetti’s charisma is well used as a contrast to his character’s physical and moral weakness. After this film, he went on to an equally memorable role as the crime boss Draco (and Bond’s father-in-law) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Fans of American westerns will be amused to see Jack Elam and Woody Strode as two of the ill-fated gunmen who wait for Harmonica.
It’s very hard to be objective about Once Upon A Time In The West as it is the kind of film which either leaves you cold or makes you fall hopelessly in love with it. Everything about it has the hallmark of precise craftsmanship. The production design by Carlo Simi is especially impeccable; using hundreds of old photographs, Simi created a historically realistic look which had rarely been seen in a western. The makeshift town which seems to be evolving before our eyes was later a key part of genre films, from Clint Eastwood’s Leone-infuenced High Plains Drifter to Fred Schepsi’s quirky Barbarosa. This design, along with the terse, witty dialogue and the unforgettable music score come together with the performances and Leone’s astute direction to create a film which is just about perfect. Leone said - the quote is included on the back of the DVD cover - that this was a film in which the lead characters, except for Jill, have a complete awareness that they will not be alive by the end of the story. But, paradoxically, the film itself is bursting with life and a passionate love for a time and place which, though historically recent, seem infinitely remote from our everyday experience. That love comes through and stops the film being depressing. The sadness of the film is tempered by the knowledge that accepting the inevitability of tragedy, coming to terms with one’s place in history and accepting change are things which might, possibly, bring us to some kind of redemption.
I think it's fair to say that Once Upon A Time In The West was one of the most eagerly awaited DVDs of the year. Thankfully, the chaps at Paramount have done us proud and produced a DVD special edition which is essential viewing for all fans of the Western genre.
The film is framed in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is, in a word, stunning. There are a few minor problems; a little artifacting here, some grain there, but generally the film looks as good here as I think it ever will do. Painstaking restoration has been carried out and in terms of sharpness and detail, it looks like it was made yesterday. The colours come across beautifully as well. A measure of the success of the transfer is that the dark shades and contrasts in the rest-stop sequence are as impressive as the brash colours of the exteriors. I can’t seriously fault this picture and it deserves full marks – especially considering the mediocre quality of the print which has been shown several times on BBC 2.
There are a number of soundtracks on the disc but, sadly, the only English track is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. The US release contains the restored Mono soundtrack, which makes it preferable to this UK release for anyone who wants to see the film as it was originally presented. However, the 5.1 track isn't all that bad as these things go. Dialogue, such as there is, is largely monophonic and the surround channels are exploited to good effect with the music and the ambient effects. The .1 LFE is also used well for gunshots and the like.
A number of extra features have been included. The best of these is the audio commentary. This is a collection of comments on the film, some scene-specific and some more general, from various admirers. The most interesting contributions are from Sir Christopher Frayling. Author of the great Leone biography "Something to Do With Death" and the seminal "Spaghetti Westerns", Frayling is a substantial figure with lots to say about Leone and the genre. He talks us through the opening, pointing out all manner of things, and then pops up on various occasions later on. Of all the people on the track, Frayling is the one who has the most valuable things to say. Dr Sheldon Hall is reasonably interesting but tends to compel your inattention due to his droning voice. Alex Cox and John Carpenter sound like fanboys on an outing and their contributions are a little redundant, although Cox makes a couple of interesting points. John Milius is as amusing as usual but his comments are limited to some minor observations and an account of his friendship with Leone. There are also entertaining comments from Bernardo Bertolucci and Claudia Cardinale. This commentary track is fully subtitled in English and three other languages.
The second disc contains the rest of the bonus materials. Firstly, we get three documentaries on the making of the film; An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin and Something To Do With Death. In total, these last about 70 minutes and they show every sign of being one long featurette which has been cut into three parts. It’s full of interesting material, notably interviews with the cinematographer, and a small amount of archive footage of Leone. But some of the material is repeated in the commentary and by the time you’ve sat through 159 minutes of that commentary track it’s unlikely that the featurettes will hold many surprises for you. But they’re still well worth a look, especially for newcomers to the film. These three featurettes are presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1. We also get a brief documentary about the coming of the railroads in so far as they relate to the film. This provides some valuable historical perspective and is framed in anamorphic 1.85:1. All these featurettes are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and are subtitled in English and a number of other languages.
Two stills galleries are included. The first is called “Locations:Then and Now” and it presents a selection of locations from the film as they appeared then and as they look now. This is backed by Morricone’s music and lasts for just under 5 minutes. The second is a Production Stills Gallery, lasting five minutes and also backed by the film score. Finally, there are profiles of the five main cast members and the original trailer, framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The trailer is not subtitled.
The menus are well designed and very atmospheric, backed by Morricone’s music score. There are a reasonably generous 33 chapter stops.
Once Upon A Time In The West is probably not the greatest Western ever made - I'd give pride of place to either The Wild Bunch or The Searchers - but I think it is the best of all the Italian Westerns. Operatic, surprisingly thoughtful and ultimately very poignant, it's the kind of filmmaking which makes you want to laugh out loud with joy. This DVD is a superb presentation of the film and is generally recommended - although you might want to consider getting the otherwise identical R1 release in order to have the original mono soundtrack.