DVD Review of Once Upon A Time In The West
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/06


  I had never seen the uncut version of Sergio Leone’s famed Once Upon A Time In The West, before stumbling across the DVD at a bargain price. I had seen major portions of it, chopped up by censors, studio heads, and the nitwits who need to run commercials for local television stations. While intriguing I did not think it could hold up to his justly praised Once Upon A Time In America. I was wrong. It does, and in its own way is just as good, or great. Whereas America is amazingly complex, and follows the lives of several gangsters, West is sparse, amazingly straightforward, yet surreal- having been released fifteen years before America, in 1969. Instead of having affinities more in tune with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Apocalypse Now it resonates with the tv series The Prisoner and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  The film is quite surreal, depending far more on what is shown (imagine that- a film where the visuals are the most important element!) than what is said. In two hours and forty five minutes there’s a reputed only fifteen pages of dialogue; most of that cryptic and seeming torn from a Beckett play, rather than being at home in a Western, a genre I generally detest for all the American triumphalism and John Waynean braggadocio, celebrating the worst aspects of the Ugly American. Yet, this film is loaded with symbolism, and a very simple plot. A land speculator named McBain is killed, along with his family, as he awaits his new wife’s arrival from New Orleans. She is Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a gorgeous ex-prostitute. The murder is ordered by a man named Morton (Gabriele Ferzettii), a robber baron railroad man whose physical handicap leaves him a prisoner on his train (much in the mode of a 19th Century James Bond supervillain), and who employs a killer named Frank (Henry Fonda), who actually does the deed. On his tail is an unnamed man named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), for the instrument he plays, and also a bandit gang leader named Cheyenne (Jason Robards), whom Frank has framed for the crime.

  The film follows the interactions of the four main characters, and all of them- save Jill- who represents the new way, the coming of civilization that the railroad represents, are doomed. McBain’s property was to be the center of a new Arizona town, and worth lots of money- thus the motive for murder. Harmonica is haunted by visions of a figure coming out of the desert for him, Frank dreams of supplanting Morton, to become a tyrant businessman, rather than a tyrant gunslinger, and Cheyenne just dreams of settling down, preferably with Jill, but she has her sights set on Harmonica, who has no interests, save killing Frank. The why is the key to the film, as Harmonica already killed three of Frank’s men in the opening scene at a railroad station. After a series of moves, countermoves, and doublecrosses, Cheyenne ends up heading off to jail, only to escape from Morton, and ending up with Morton and his goons dead, as well as being left with mortal wounds. Jill seduces Frank, who is doublecrossed by his own men, bought off by Morton, only to be saved by Harmonica, and the two have a final classic showdown. Frank could have killed Harmonica on several occasions, but is intrigued when he claims to be several of the men Frank has killed. He needs to find out Harmonica’s motivation first.

  Right before the showdown, an escaped Cheyenne meets up with Jill, as the railroad crews bear down on her land. There, they see the two other men ready to end their game. Yet, they don’t watch the duel. Harmonica and Frank square off, and after a long deep pan and closeup into Harmonica’s gaze we finally see that the figure in the desert is Frank, as a young man, walking to Harmonica, whose brother is perched on his shoulders. If he fails to hold him up his brother will hang. Frank smirks, and places a harmonica in the young Harmonica’s mouth, and now we see the reason for the vengeance. Just as this is revealed, we cut to the duel. Harmonica beats Frank to the draw, and Frank is stunned, as he buckles to the ground. He is evidently one of those ‘fastest in the….’ shootists, who has finally met his match. As he’s dying he asks harmonica who he is, and Harmonica shoves the same harmonica in his mouth as Frank had done to him years earlier. Frank understands, and dies. Harmonica and Cheyenne then leave Jill behind, until Cheyenne reveals he was shot and is dying. When dead, Harmonica rides off with his body, and Jill comes out bearing water to the thirsty railroad workers.

  The commentary, by film experts and historians such as John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian and Leone biographer Sir Chirstopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, as well Cardinale and director Bernardo Bertolucci- a co-writer of the film, is sterling, highlighting many facts most commentaries do not. A second disc has some good special features- including several excellent documentaries- An Opera Of Violence, The Wages Of Sin, and Something To Do With Death- on several aspects of the film, as well its original trailer. Is it just me, or did trailer making become a lost art in the last twenty or so years?

  As for the film, it is surreal, yet also hyper-realistic in its use of the scenery of Monument Valley, and the great faces of many of its character actors- from Jack Elam and Woody Strode in small, early roles, to Lionel Stander and Keenan Wynn in later roles. There are scenes that ring true, even as they are also pure symbolism, such as Cardinale’s close association with water and self-image, Bronson’s almost magical sliding in and out of frame, and the way Frank radiates more real menace in a lip curl than Hannibal Lecter can in a whole film. The film damns Romanticism, even as its title celebrates it. It dazzlingly inverts clichés and, most importantly, realizes that film can and should make use of time, and long shots and scenes. MTV has destroyed much of appreciation of the brilliance that long scenes can hold. This is never truer than the film’s start, where three gunman waiting at a train station for someone or something that is coming on the next train. No explanation, no conversation; not a word is said, yet they deal with water drips, flies, and knuckle cracking. Fifteen minutes pass before what they are waiting for arrives, yet it’s a visual and aural feast for pure cinemaphiles, on par with 2001’s opening scenes of prehistoric humans.

  Throughout the film, glares, scowls, and small facial twinges convey emotion far more effectively than most pallid dialogue. And the grandiose scenes of natural beauty are something even David Lean would admire. The four musical themes attached to the main characters are highly effective. There are also many great lines in the film. Two of the best are when Harmonica is told by one of Frank’s henchmen, after asking if a horse was brought for him, that it ‘looks like we’re shy one horse.’ Harmonica replies, ‘You brought two too many.’ The other is when Frank, after being queried on his methodology, says, ‘People scare better when they’re dyin’.’ Touches like this, and even the title, lend credence to the idea that, like his later Once Upon A Time In America, this film is nothing but someone’s dream of the West, not the real thing. Yet, both within and without, people must wake up to modern America. Damn!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

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