Once Upon a Time in the West Review


Once Upon a Time in the West is like the ultimate adult fairy tale. It takes place long ago in a land far away (if not in distance, than in memory). It features clearly defined protagonists and antagonists, and in the end, just about everything is as it should be. But it’s a hard road getting there, and this road absolutely does not reward impatient viewers. Part of this film’s mystique is the unhurried fashion in which director Sergio Leone elects to tell his story. I adored it for this quality, but if you aren’t willing to sit through long dialogue-less passages, this might not be the film for you.

The film begins with what might be my favorite opening scene of all time (rivaling the wedding party in The Godfather and the dawn of man in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Three men wait for a train. One deals with a pesky fly, another with an overhead drip. The third just cracks his knuckles and watches a dog. Their intentions are quite obviously nefarious, but we don’t know who they are or what they’re here to do. And we don’t need to, for as the train approaches, the tension is palpable. And when a man with a harmonica (Charles Bronson) disembarks the train, plays a choice tune, and kills these men, we know we’re in for something special.

We never learn the name of the man with the harmonica, but he becomes an integral part of this tale. He’s searching for a man named Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless gang leader who has just murdered a Mr. McBain and his three kids. He doesn’t realize there’s a newly married Mrs. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) on her way out west to join her family. When she arrives, she’s understandably shocked and feels quite helpless being alone in a strange place. However, her resolve wins over an ex-convict named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica, and together, they work to thwart a plan by Frank and railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to take the McBain plot of land.

I think 2001 is the only film I’ve ever seen with such assuredness in its languid pacing. Leone relishes his beautiful surroundings, giving the viewer the chance to soak it all in. He relies on his actors’ looks and movements to build tension, rather than words or cheap plot twists. And while there are obvious “white hats” and “black hats,” Leone’s characters are incredibly three-dimensional, and he takes the time to give us a good sense of who they are, where they came from, and what they’ve experienced.

The actors are just perfectly cast and give outstanding performances. Charles Bronson creates one of the most iconic characters in the history of the western genre. Harmonica is so mysterious—just lurking in the shadows, riffing on the same few legendary harmonica notes for the film’s first hour or so. But he’s so motivated that we don’t question his intentions as anything but good.

Jason Robards has the least important role of the main foursome. He has some of the best comedic lines in the film, and his M.O. is pretty much clear from the time he’s introduced. But he’s still a very compelling figure, and I found it fascinating to see Robards—who I’m most familiar with from his work in All the President’s Men and Magnolia—appear in a period piece like this.

Claudia Cardinale’s character is like a western version of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She’s vulnerable but tough. She wants to survive on her own, but doesn’t really know how to in this strange environment (she comes from New Orleans). The way she deals with men is fascinating (there are hints of a relationship with all three men), but in the end, she’s her own woman and must learn to live that way.

Henry Fonda gives the best performance of the bunch, however. Playing against type, his Frank is absolutely vicious and heartless, but we don’t hate him like many other notorious villains. There are hints of an everyman in Frank. Maybe he’s made some bad choices or something. Whatever the case, he, like all of the characters, has a very interesting presence. They are totally compelling and make this film as special as it is.

Also noteworthy is the timeless score, which is punctuated by Harmonica’s tune. Leone uses it frequently, though he does have some moments in which the setting provides its own diegetic score. But whether the sounds are coming from the brilliant mind of Ennio Morricone or a creaky windmill near the train station, they’re all just perfect. Leone was clearly quite meticulous with crafting this film.

Is Once Upon a Time in the West the greatest western ever? From my vantage point, yes, but I haven’t seen a number of the supposed all-time greats. But this film is just awe-inspiring. It absolutely has everything I want out of a motion picture, and while I absolutely recognize it’s not for everyone, I think what Leone does is masterful.

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