Empire “Masterpiece” #108 / Issue #281 / November, 2012
The clue’s in the title: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fairy story, a mythologised version of the American West, peopled with immediately recognisable archetypes. It’s also a commentary on the Western genre itself, and a celebration in the form of a kind of “greatest hits”, full of references to other films and filmmakers: John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Shane, The Searchers, High Noon, and so on.
Spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Leone, along with collaborators like Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, conceived Once Upon a Time as a very different beast to the Dollars trilogy that preceded it. Where the Dollars films had built up to a huge action-packed story of double-crossing, treasure-seeking mercenaries intersecting with the American Civil war in the epic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time is, at least in narrative terms, a much smaller tale.
It’s about Jill (Claudia Cardinale) leaving her life as a whore in the big city to marry the widower McBain who, she learns on her arrival, has been murdered to get him off railway land.
Working against railroad magnate Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) and his henchman Frank (Henry Fonda) is Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica”, a mysterious figure with a personal grudge gradually revealed in ominous flashbacks. And there’s also the rather peripheral Cheyenne (Jason Robards), leader of a group of bandits that Frank has tried to frame for the McBain killing.
Less important than the narrative however, is the style. Once Upon a Time in the West is a long film in which it often feels like almost nothing happens – it’s no coincidence that a similarly lengthy, uneventful, mesmerising film from this year is titled Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. 45 minutes pass before all the characters are properly introduced, during which time little transpires barring Cardinale and Bronson arriving on trains, and Fonda gunning down the McBain clan. Robards just drinks some gin and divests himself of a pair of handcuffs. The justly famous opening credits roll against a backdrop of three gunslingers waiting on a railway platform. Jack Elam is bothered by a fly, Woody Strode catches drips of water in his hat, and Al Mulock cracks his knuckles, for ten minutes, to the sound of a windmill that needs oiling, before all three are shot on Bronson’s arrival and never referred to again (Leone’s original plan was that the dead men should be Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleefe and Eli Wallach. The latter two were up for it. Eastwood wasn’t so amused).
It’s an extension of the filmmaking style that created the grandiose gunfight at the end of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, where the players stare at each other in ever increasing close-ups for minutes on end until the eruption of the final violence. Here, everyone stares at everyone else for the best part of three hours. It’s mad and wonderful. Often called “operatic”, Leone himself referred to it as “a ballet of violence”. This “art” Western didn’t play well in America, but was far more popular in Europe: you could still see it in Parisian cinemas six years after its initial release.
Once Upon A Time in the West draws attention to its artifice, and in doing so, draws attention to that of its genre. There’s no narrative need for Cardinale to ride through Monument Valley on her way to her new homestead at Sweetwater: it happens because that’s what the West looks like in John Ford movies, and was especially what Leone wanted to show off in the mega widescreen of his cinematographer Tonnino Delli Colli. Ennio Morricone’s score was so central to the film’s vibe that it was recorded before shooting started, and played on set, used to choreograph complicated camera moves like the crane shot of the bustling town.
The United States of America, as a newly-created nation with no historical myths or legends to call its own, immediately began creating its own mythological heritage (the first Western film is generally acknowledged to be 1903’s The Great Train Robbery), and the end of that history was generally agreed to be the arrival of the railways that tamed the Wild West. Hence the archetype of the villainous railroad tycoon and his henchman muscle, and as with all the archetypes in Once Upon a Time in America, he’s exaggerated by Leone – an Italian director with an Italian crew spending Paramount’s American money – into something bigger than life. In reality, no railroad at that time – vaguely the 1860s – was ever conceived as stretching from coast to coast, and yet Morton appears to have begun construction way out east, and intends to see the Pacific ocean before his debilitating illness overcomes him. It’s a fantasy railroad in a fantasy America.
Equally archetypal is Bronson as “Harmonica”, so named for a tendency to constantly play the same three notes on a mouth organ.
Eastwood’s characters actually had names like Joe and Manco in the Dollars films, but Bronson’s is literally a Man With No Name, a gnarled gunslinger with a slightly supernatural air. Eastwood was just preternaturally good with a pistol, whereas Bronson casually survives being badly shot at the start of the film, and has a puckish ability to magically appear when his presence in scenes hasn’t previously been noted.
Robards’ character is the itinerant scruffbag: the “ugly” to Bronson’s “good” and Fonda’s “bad”. Cardinale is unique in Leone’s films as a strong central female figure, but is still not much more than a riff on the Whore With the Heart of Gold. Even the supposedly extraordinary casting against type of Henry Fonda isn’t without precedent. He may not have played a cold-eyed killer before, but Ford had certainly noted his potential as a villain: he’s on the right side of the law in Fort Apache, but he’s still a dick.
So the game isn’t originality, but Everything More Iconic Than Everyone Else. Westerns – even great Westerns – would follow, directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Eastwood himself, but Once Upon a Time in the West still feels like the genre’s final word.