Queued Up #4: Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)

Queued Up blog posts are movie reviews of films that I watch through Netflix DVD Home Delivery or on Netflix Watch Instantly. Once Upon A Time in the West is available through Netflix DVD Home Delivery.

Once Upon A Time in the West. Dir. Sergio Leone. Paramount Pictures, 1968. 165 mins.

In 1966 Sergio released the final installment of his “Man with No Name” series with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The series made a movie star out of Clint Eastwood, who after getting his first lead role in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) would go on to star in nearly fifty films, and re-established the western as a movie theater staple through the 70s. The Spaghetti western, as it would be called by American film critics because of the Italian directors, including Leone, who led the resurgence, is a sub-genre of the classic Hollywood western genre that steered clear of traditional western themes, like the idealistic lawman in so many John Wayne films, were more violent like Revisionist Westerns, and were largely low budget features, relying on the Southeast of Spain as a stand-in for the American West.

Sergio Leone’s next film, Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), started his next series, a trilogy of epic films including Duck, You Sucker (1971) (also known as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon A Time… the Revolution) and Once Upon A Time in America (1984). While it is considered another entry in the Spaghetti Western genre (maybe only because Leone is Italian), it seems to be a celebration of classic westerns (paying homage to High Noon (1952), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956), Stagecoach (1939), and countless others) while holding fast to the aesthetics that made his “Man with No Name” films popular. With a cast of all-star western actors, Leone examine’s the death of the Wild West and the cowboy, through the lens of the great westerns that created the collective idea of that idealistic time and place.

Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) Dir. Sergio Leone

Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a tuberculosis riddled railway tycoon, has brought this line to the fictional town of Flagstone, Arizona (a combination of Flagstaff and Tombstone perhaps?) in hopes of extending to the Pacific Ocean and making it transcontinental. With the need for water for his steam engines at a premium, a plot of land, called Sweetwater (a real, small town in AZ), just outside of Flagstone is essential for realizing his dream. The plot of land had been purchased by Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) who knew of the value of the water source. Morton sends hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda playing against type), to force McBain off of the land. Frank takes it a step further and kills the entire McBain clan. He has framed the crime on local outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) by leaving traces of his notorious gang’s duster coat.

An unnamed harmonica-playing drifter, later dubbed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) by Cheyenne, is hunting down Frank. In the first scene of the film he is met by three gunmen sent by Frank at a train station, whom he quickly strikes down. At a roadhouse Harmonica runs into Cheyenne, who had just escaped from the authorities, and alerts him to the fact that the three men sent by Frank were dressed like his men.

Jill McBain (Claudia Carindale), the new bride of Brett McBain, has made her way from New Orleans to Flagstone, Arizona to join her new husband. Since the rest of her family has been killed she has become the sole owner of Sweetwater, a problem that Frank and Morton did not prepare for. Frank and Morton decide to go after Jill, and Harmonica decides to protect her in an attempt to get a meeting with Frank. Cheyenne meets with Jill to make her aware of the danger that Frank presents, and to clear his name. When building supplies are shipped to Sweetwater, Harmonica learns that if a train station is not completed by the time the railway reaches the property Jill will lose it. Cheyenne volunteers his men to help build the Station and the new town of Sweetwater when the profits of the town are made clear. Frank, also realizing the potential profits, decides to go against Morton, and tries to buy Sweetwater for cheap through criminal methods.

One of the most explored themes of revisionist westerns is the place of the cowboy in the modern world, and Once Upon A Time in the West is no exception. Usually the changing world which is leaving the Wild West behind is signified by the locomotive. This new technology created boom towns and eventually left them to rot. It brought sophistication, and it brought money. Morton, and to a lesser extent Jill, are the characters that represent the death of the cowboy existence, while Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank are the characters standing in the way of progress.

During an interaction before their classic showdown at the end of the film, Frank explains to Harmonica the problem he faced trying to adapt to the business lifestyle of Morton.

Frank: Morton once told me I could never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him knowing you were around somewhere alive.
Harmonica: So you found out you’re not a businessman after all.
Frank: Just a man.
Harmonica: An ancient race. Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.
Frank: The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now – not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now you’ll tell me what you’re after.

Harmonica and Frank, and also Cheyenne, are members of a dying race. A race that settles disputes with steel as opposed to cash. One that does not settle down or sacrifice independence. A race defined by masculinity. Frank tries to turn into a businessman, as seen by his decision to try and buy off Harmonica, after he has bought Sweetwater for Jill later in the film. He does not try and intimidate Harmonica, but rather outbid him (although only by a dollar). The three cowboys see the end of an era approaching and they respond in drastically different ways. Frank tries to take Morton’s place as the railway tycoon. Cheyenne nearly convinces himself to start a new life with Jill in Sweetwater (symbolized by him shaving his beard), but only turns away when the sound of a gunshot makes him realize his mistake. And Harmonica will go to his grave as a cowboy. He is never tempted to give up his live. He is fueled by revenge and he will die alone. Even his response to Jill when asked if he will come back to Sweetwater someday (an insincere, but respectful “someday”), reveals his incompatibility with even a casual relationship.

The character that represents the newly introduced sophistication is Morton. The aspect of his character that speaks the most to this theme is his tuberculous. His days are numbered. This disease is spreading through his body, much like the railways are coursing across the American Frontier. The cowboy is a typical representation of masculinity, and because of his disorder Morton is less of a man than the three other main male characters of this story. Cheyenne likens his capitalistic tendencies to a snail, “It’s easy to find you. Bastard! I don’t have to kill you now. You leave a slime behind you like a snail. Two beautiful shiny rails.” The use of slime to describe his business can describe the way the railways are destroying the natural aspects of the frontier lifestyle, which includes Cheyenne’s lifestyle. And like Frank’s decision to act like Morton, Morton deciding to take action like an outlaw (ordering the death of the McBains, and the death of Frank), leads to his ultimate demise.

Along the same line of the death of a lifestyle, with the introduction of connectivity through the railways, Leone uses aspects of classic westerns to suggest the death of the western genre. After finishing his “Man with No Name” series, Leone was looking to step away from the western. Planning on making what would eventually become Once Upon A Time in America nearly twenty years later, Paramount provided Leone a large budget to make another western, with the chance to cast Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Once Upon A Time in the West is a conglomeration of western plots, themes, and characters, with classic western actors (Fonda, Bronson, and Robards). Fonda plays the role of the black hat, looking to get out of the outlaw lifestyle. Having the audience associate Fonda’s tradition role as the white hat makes you question the validity of the classic western. No one is good, nor bad. Even Harmonica, who demonstrates the most noble of qualities throughout the film, is selfish in his quest for revenge. He has a chance to kill Frank, when Frank is being hunted down by his own men, but he does the opposite and fights off his would be killers. Even the name of the film suggests the end of the western. “Once Upon A Time”, the start of a fairy tale, that is more allegory than based on a true story, and a story of past generation than present day.

While thematically Once Upon A Time in the West, does not present ideas that are new to the modern moviegoer, the patience that Leone takes creating atmosphere, especially in the world of the western, and the liberty with which he focuses on character expression with the use of close-ups and extreme close-ups, are interesting stylistic choices. Typically going into a western film I am expecting run of the mill photography, and this film blew me away. The first scene alone is deserving of a viewing. Three silent outlaws approach a train station and wait for Harmonica to arrive. Leone isn’t preoccupied with advancing the plot or appease action-hungry viewers. Natural sound floods the screen. A creaky windmill, knuckles cracking, a fly buzzing in the face a member of the trio, and water drops from a water tank. A telegraph ticker explodes with a message from afar, and the mechanical sound is harsh compared to the rest of the noise. The train finally comes into earshot, and after nearly 12 minutes the natural sound is interrupted by the boisterous harmonica theme that will follow Harmonica through the film.

The next scene is similarly impressive with its use of sound. Cicadas drown out nearly everything else as Brett McBain and his son hunt. At two times during this scene the cicadas stop. The McBains take notice of this absence of noise. They are waiting for something to happen, and you as a viewer get the same sense of dread. Having the first time pass with nothing happening makes the second instance even more nerving, and sure enough that’s when the massacre starts.

Along with the natural sound, the score by Ennio Morricone is great. It is highly regarded as one of the key aspects of the film that sets it apart from many westerns. Each character has their own theme which plays throughout the film. Harmonica’s theme is the most recognizable, but Cheyennes is used most effectively. Cheyenne is the most comedic role and his theme plays for laughs perfectly, with a pause towards the end of the song. (Honestly is sounds very similar to the main theme of Showtime’s Dexter.)

As movie genres go, westerns is definitely not on the top of my list. I’m highly skeptical, but in the past two years or so I have given more westerns a chance and have been surprised with films like High Noon and Rio Bravo. Once Upon A Time in the West is another film I can add to that list. While it is fairly lengthy (nearly three hours), I enjoyed the thought that clearly went into the plot, characterization, and cinematography. The Henry Fonda character is effective as the villain but not in a manacle, inhuman fashion. Even if you are turned off by westerns, I would give Once Upon A Time in the West a shot.

10 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★★★★★

[Frank draws on Morton as he pulls out money to show him]

“You see, Frank, there are many kinds of weapons. And the only one that can stop that is this. Now, shall we get back to our little problem?” – Morton


Other Observations:

♦ I love finding polish movie posters online and this is a great example of how Polish posters can differ from American ones –

♦ I felt of all the classic western references in this film, High Noon was the best. I’m thinking of the scene where Harmonica watches out for Frank from the balcony, as his men come after him. Harmonica makes a comment to Frank to tell him that one of his men is on the roof of the building he is standing underneath. The man is sticking his gun over the roof, creating a shadow over a painted clock, just past noon. The whole scene plays out like the showdown scene of High Noon. In addition, the first scene of Once Upon A Time in the West resembles the scene in High Noon, where the outlaws are waiting for their boss.



  1. My only complaint about this film: Charles Bronson should have had a mustache.

  2. S. Stephens · · Reply

    WOW! Absolutely. That sweaty close-up could have only been improved with the ‘stache.

  3. I think GBU is the better film (in my top ten, for sure), but OUATITW is so bloody amazing. Somebody recently told me they stopped watching the movie five minutes in because the opening sequence went on too long and was boring. So I kicked him in the balls.

    Snaky: “Looks like we’re shy one horse.”
    Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”

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