EMPIRE ESSAY: Once Upon A Time In The West Review

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A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad in this long frontier epic. Mysterious pasts and the strength of loyalties is explored amid lightning fast gun battles and stylish vistas.


Once Upon A Time In The West is The Good, The Bad, The Ugly And The Blonde. Made after Sergio Leone's seminal Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood, it is a true epic. Like High Noon (1952), the film opens with three caricature bad men (Woody Strode, Al Mulock and Jack Elam) waiting for a train, larger-than-life figures in a desolate landscape.

Nearly three hours later, as the film closes, the West and its people have changed. The sole survivor is Jill McBain (Cardinale), the ex-whore last seen at another railway station, taking water to the crowds of labourers toiling, now the shooting is over, to build a town (Sweetwater) and a future.
The left-leaning script, from a story by future directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, loves these decent folk, but it isn't about them. Before the town can be built, blood has to be shed. It takes an hour to introduce the four main characters, an almost ridiculous exaggeration of the scene-setting in earlier Leone westerns. We spend more than 10 minutes with those doomed badmen, watching them cope with dripping water and buzzing flies, before a train chuffs in and pulls out, leaving them face-to-face with a mystery man, Harmonica (Bronson). In a gag at the expense of Leone's work with composer Ennio Morricone, the opening titles play over natural sound. When the anticipated theme cuts in, the characters in the film hear it — a joke elaborated on in Mel Brookes' Blazing Saddles (1974) — and swiftly learn that the newcomer is as fast with a gun as he is slow with the mouth organ.

The next set-up also brings on a set of characters who don't last long — the family of Brett McBain (Frank Wolff). An outdoor reception is being set up for McBain's new bride, but snipers cut down Brett, his older son and daughter. The younger son, a six-year-old, peers up at the duster-coated killers who stalk out of the wilderness. We see, in astonishment, that blue-eyed Henry Fonda, established as a paragon of western decency in John Ford movies, is playing Frank, the stone cold killer whose first on-screen act is to shoot dead the little boy (later, to confirm his dastardy, he kicks a cripple's crutch away). Jill shows up at a nearby station and, en route to the homestead, is taken into a dingy bar where she meets the fourth major character, Cheyenne (Robards), a whiskery, life-loving outlaw in the spirit of Eli Wallach's Tuco. Finally, the plot kicks in.

Frank is working for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the crippled railroad tycoon ("You leave a slime behind you like a snail, two beautiful shiny rails")
who is building a coast-to-coast line, and has killed McBain because he owns a parcel of land which will become a watering station. Frank's gang are wearing those distinctive long coats because they're associated with Cheyenne's bunch, and the outlaw can conveniently take the blame.
Harmonica is looking for Frank, intending to avenge (as it turns out) the murder of his brother, a flamboyantly horrid moment revealed in a flashback during the final face-off. He hooks up with Cheyenne and Jill to foil Morton's schemes on the principle that Frank's pretensions to becoming "a businessman" have to be shredded before he can be lured into the Leone-trademarked widescreen duel.

The killers all depart this world, with the avenger (he gives the dying Frank the harmonica back and becomes another Man With No Name) taking Cheyenne's corpse out into the desert, but Jill endures and the town survives its bloody birth. Most "serious" westerns are novelistic, offering character as well as landscape and unusual or archetypal plotting. Leone's films are more like panoramic paintings — the people are deliberately vague, characterised as much by their clothes and surroundings as by the things they say and do. It's a difficult approach, and Leone found it harder to hit on subjects worth making — he directed only two films in the remaining 20 years of his life. But here it pays off with scene after scene of pictorial beauty invested with real emotion (for which Morricone can take a lot of credit).

Here, the plains of Spain are augmented by sequences shot in the very homeland of the American western, John Ford's beloved Monument Valley, and the iconic Eastwood is set aside in favour of a walking embodiment of the Hollywood West who is not so much cast against type as allowed to reveal the cruelty and ruthlessness that was always a part of even his most heroic characters.

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If Henry Fonda can be a child-killer, then the West is indeed consigned to the "once upon a time."