Sergio Leone’s follow-up to the “Man With No Name” film trilogy was probably not what anyone expected, but international audiences seemed better able to cope with the surprise than their American counterparts. Once Upon a Time in the West initially bombed in the States despite being a smash hit overseas. Only in retrospect have we conferred upon this film its proper status as a unique classic, as different from the director’s previous work as it was from the more traditional Hollywood conventions it inverted at the same time it was playing homage to them.
Frank (Henry Fonda) is a cold-blooded gunman working for a crippled rail baron named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), whose driving desire is for his railroad to reach the Pacific Ocean before he dies of a crippling bone disease. To that end, Morton needs a local farmer, Brett McBain (Frank Wolfe) run off his land near the town of Flagstone. Frank interprets these instructions rather creatively by slaughtering McBain and his family, framing a local bandit named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the crime. Unknown to anyone, however, McBain had already married a woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who left behind a bit of a past in New Orleans. She arrives in Flagstone to find herself already a widow and at the focal point of a brewing battle over her land. Also in the mix is a nameless gunslinger (Charles Bronson), who announces his presence with a harmonica and seems to have unfinished business with Frank.
When they do you in, pray it's somebody who knows where to shoot..
A stock Hollywood western would play out the same story in probably half the time, but Leone is content to take his time. It takes him almost a third of the film to get all of his players on stage, but when he finally does get the pieces in place, we are rewarded with a satisfying complex story, the moral landscape as gray and shadowy as the physical one is dusty.
Once Upon a Time does share enough stylistic commonalities with the director’s earlier films to recognize it as the work of Sergio Leone, but the tone seems vastly different. “The Man with No Name” movies were almost comically operatic in their nihilism, but I would describe the style of this movie as more like “mythic realism.” Leone’s west seems vast and lived in, falling apart at the same time it’s being built, but populated with characters that are unapologetically larger than life. The title sets the mythic tone of the story and the large international cast steps confidently onto the stage he’s set.
The real masterstroke was casting Henry Fonda, whose image as the all-American good guy goes all the way back to Tom Joad, as the pitiless villain who has no compunction about shooting the young son of Brett McBain because a member of Frank’s gang called the boss by name. His reputation and the performance completely sell the idea of a despicable man who largely avoids being shot in the back at every turn with cold-blooded superficial charm.
Almost invisible under his scraggly whiskers, Jason Robards is a hard-edged version of the sort of gruff, fatherly characters he was famous for. Charles Bronson gets as close as anyone to playing the Clint Eastwood “man with no name” character, but Harmonica is unique enough not to continually remind you of the iconic man in a pancho, although there are points in this film where you wish he’d put the damn harp down and shoot something.
For a film that features no fewer than three characters that can be accurately described as gunfighters, Once Upon a Time in the West features surprisingly little gunplay over its nearly three-hour length. Sergio Leone has said that he was always more interested in the build up to violence, the ritual that proceeds it, than the violence itself. The film’s famous opening sequence, in which three gunmen wait for a train at a desolate station, lasts for eight minutes, punctuated at the end by mere seconds of gunfire. An eight-minute sequence in which nothing seems to happen for the first seven minutes and thirty seconds, should be interminably boring but in the hands of a stylist like Leone, ever squeak of the windmill, every creak of the board under someone’s boots is like another turn of the screw.
As the woman at the center of a bloody struggle for her land, Claudia Cardinale has been forced into a role that is too passive, too willing to let the men around her sort things out with guns. Of course, this film was made by an Italian of a different generation, so we can hardly expect miracles in that department. A more modern take on the story would have given Jill McBain a more assertive place in the conflict, and the actress would certainly have been able to handle a character with more spit and fire. As it is, she has little to do but stand around and look desirable, which she obviously does quite easily.
Those expecting a more conventional horse opera or just a follow-up to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly will probably find their patience sorely tested. If you’re willing to stick things out and let yourself be drawn into the film’s completely individual vibe, you will be rewarded with a unique movie experience.