After the escalating grandiosity of the three Clint Eastwood/Man With No Name "dollars" Westerns, Sergio Leone went all out for scale in this monumental movie. It opens with a riff on High Noon as three expressive gunmen - Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock - wait for a train, bothered by a drip of water and a buzzing fly, and Leone stretches out what ought to be dead screen time into an operatic crescendo of suspense (scored by the great Ennio Morricone) that pays off when a granite-faced Bronson, stepping into the Eastwood No-Name role as the vengeance-seeking Harmonica, arrives in a shimmering haze to face down the killers in a few brief, eventful seconds.
As much a meditation on the Western itself as it is an action movie rooted in American history, this casts an iconic Henry Fonda to trash his Wyatt Earp image as Frank, the blue-eyed killer who cheerfully slaughters an entire frontier family down to an angelic boy child but is well aware that his partnership with a crippled railroad tycoon is also an abandonment of his outlaw lifestyle and an admission that his times are over.
It's the most political of Leone's oat operas, indicting the corrupt railroad which, as it bulldozes across the landscape, displacing innocent people and hiring outlaw flunkeys to shift inconvenient settlers who won't unsettle easily. Rapaciously capitalist civilisation taints the wide open spaces, but the plot follows Bronson's obsessive quest to bring down Fonda, the sadist who hanged his brother, while widow Cardinale tries to fend off the railroad tycoons and bandido Robards just wants to be left in peace.
With its amazing widescreen compositions and epic running time, this Western truly wins points for length and width.