Once Upon a Time in the West: When the Railroad Came to Town


onceuponatimewestThis film wasn’t always loved. At its U.S. premiere, Paramount listened to critics who thought Sergio Leone’s new Western was too long and slow, and edited it down to 145 minutes. Whole scenes were cut and the movie under-performed at the box office. Its standing has improved over the years and it is now widely considered one of the best Westerns ever made, especially after being celebrated by several influential filmmakers. That is funny when you consider the fact that Leone didn’t even want to make it in the first place.

Sweetwater is a piece of land acquired by Brett McBain (Frank Wolff). He wisely realized that it is the only place nearby where there is water and that the new railroad will have to pass it since steam locomotives depend on water. However, railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) wants Sweetwater for himself and sends a hired killer, Frank (Henry Fonda), to eliminate the competition. This is done in the cruelest way possible, as Frank and his men murder not only McBain but his three children.

Later, two newcomers cause a stir. Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a prostitute who married McBain before he bought Sweetwater, is now suddenly the sole owner… and there’s a mysterious man (Charles Bronson) called “Harmonica” who is looking for Frank for unknown reasons.

Homage to the old classics
After his “Dollar” trilogy, Leone was done with Westerns. Well, at least until Paramount threw a lot of money at him and said that he could use Henry Fonda. Intrigued, Leone sat down with two other Italians who were later to become prominent filmmakers themselves, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. They watched a lot of Westerns and decided that this new film should be a homage to the old classics, but done in Leone’s way. This became the foundation for a screenplay that was ultimately written by Leone and Sergio Donati.

One of the most brilliant decisions was to make Fonda a bad guy, and a spectacularly cruel one at that. Fonda hesitated until he learned how effective his first scene would be, an appearance meant to shock audiences who only expected kind and decent behavior from him. This became one of the star’s finest efforts, and the same is true for Bronson who is essentially repeating Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name character from the “Dollar” trilogy, but making it his own, mysteriously playing a harmonica. That part is alternately silly and eerie, but becomes very emotional near the end when we learn his background story and connection to Frank. Jason Robards is also memorable as a bandit called Cheyenne who ends up playing an important role, but Cardinale is just as vital to the film as Fonda and Bronson, a richer female character than we expected from Leone after his Westerns with Eastwood.

Film buffs will have fun recognizing all the references to classic Westerns; Leone’s admiration for Kurosawa is also intact, especially in its many slow sequences that grow almost hypnotic before they are interrupted by fast flashes of violence. Editing plays a key role in creating those moments, but cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli also give us breathtaking, sometimes intimidating, widescreen views of the landscape and its dangerous inhabitants.

Leone takes his time telling a story that is decidedly darker, more complex and less humorous than the “Dollar” trilogy, one that addresses some of the nasty consequences of an unregulated business exploding into the West and changing it, for better and worse. It IS a long movie, but the characters, cast, the way Leone blends ingredients that are earnest and playful, and on top of it that emotional Ennio Morricone score, are reasons enough to feel exhausted after experiencing it.

Once Upon a Time in the West 1968-U.S.-Italy. 165 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Fulvio Morsella. Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati. Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli. Music: Ennio Morricone. Editing: Nino Baragli. Cast: Charles Bronson (Harmonica), Henry Fonda (Frank), Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa… Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Lionel Stander, Keenan Wynn.

Trivia: Italian title: C’era una volta il West.

Last word: “When I used Claudia […], in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, she represented the birth of American matriarchy. Because women had enormous weight in America. And they still have. Because they are truly the padrone [owners, masters] of America. Therefore, when they are put into a film, I think they have to be put in for a distinct purpose and have a reason to exist. Not as some superficial or gratuitous presence. You see in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ the whole film moves around her [Cardinale]. If you take her out, there’s no more film. She’s the central motor of the entire happening.” (Leone, American Suburb X)

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