Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

C'era una volta il West

(Dir: Sergio Leone – Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robarts, Gabriele Ferzetti, Keenan Wynn, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Al Mulock, Paolo Stoppa, Frank Wolff, Lionel Stander, Marco Zuanelli – Music: Ennio Morricone)

Once Upon a Time in the West

 

When he had finished The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone thought he had said all about the frontier, and wanted to pass on to another transitory phase in the violent history of the New World, the gang wars of the 1920's. But in 1967 nobody was interested in Once upon a Time in America, so one more time he went back to the genre he had redefined with his Dollars Trilogy. With Once upon a time in the West. Leone nevertheless broke away from the action packed tradition of his previous films. Leone intended his movie as a reverie on the End of the West as well as a comment of the western movie genre. In most countries the original Italian title of the movie, C'era una volta il West, wasn't translated correctly: it reads Once upon a Time there was the West. It was not a film set in the West, but a film about the West – and about the western. It would be a dark, melancholic movie, a movie that would administer the last sacraments to a dying genre and its myths and would express all pessimistic ideas of its maker on mankind. But it would also be about the new era advancing and the birth of a great nation.

United Artists, who had distributed the Dollars Trilogy, offered Leone big names like Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck and Warren Beatty, but he had set his mind on Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson and would finally make the film for Paramount. A first draught of the script was written by Bernardo Bertolucci, the future director of Novecento and The Last Emperor, who had accepted the job because he admired Leone and was out of money. His writings were reworked by Leone himself and another young man who has since then made himself a name as a director, Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria). In the script numerous moments from classic American westerns were recycled to create the ultimate vision on the dying West. Leone still thought the result was too intellectual for its own good, and asked Sergio Donati (who had already contributed to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) to prune it from some of its superfluities.

The now famous opening scene with the three men waiting for the train, sets the tone for the entire movie. Their slow movements, accompanied by the sounds of dripping water, a squeaking windmill and a buzzing fly, reflect the tortoise pace of the narrative. Even the sudden outbursts of violence are announced by a scene of Jack Elam stopping the telegraph machine by brute force. Throughout the movie panoramic shots are alternated with extreme close-ups to create a feeling of proximity and immediacy in a vast forlornness. The tone is solemn throughout the entire film, almost ceremonious, and there are relatively few (admittedly very violent, often sadistic) action scenes. Like Leone stated, Once upon a Time in the West is a dance of death: all of the characters, except Claudia Cardinale, are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive. French author Giré has observed that the long dusters the men are wearing, make them look like pall-bearers, suggesting that they're about to take part in a funeral ceremony. The dusters return several times in the movie, always as a sign of death and destruction, most prominently in the massacre at the McBain farm, with Frank and his hired killers striding towards little Jimmy McBain on the plaintive tones of Morricone's soundtrack.

The two great themes that had determined the western over the years are present in the movie: the way the west was won and the vengeance tale. But there's no glorification of either of them. Railroad man Morton is dying from tuberculosis, but still obsessed by reaching the western coastline. In his death scene we see him crawling towards a puddle of muddy water in desert. The avenger of the movie, Harmonica, is very much the antipode of the business man Morton - his business is strictly personal - but at the same time he has a lot with in him in common. Like Morton he's is an obsessed man, so consumed by revenge that he has no longer an identity of his own; when asked for his name, he answers with dead people's names. Of course Morton represents the new era, the unpitying economic boom, and some have interpreted the movie (not completely without reason) as a vitriolic comment on industrial capitalism, but Leone was more into psycho-analysis than Marxism. Slovakian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has related the Harmonica character to Lacan's conception of 'subjective destitution': Harmonica can only preserve a minimum of coherence of a childhood trauma through a form of personal madness, which translates in an identification with the harmonica: he plays when he's supposed to talk, and talks when he's supposed to play. 

Both characters, Morton as well as Harmonica, also seem to reflect some typical fears for impotence and infertility of the middle-aged man Leone was when he made the movie. This becomes clear when they're compared with their narrative counterpoint, Jill. She represents everything these two men are not: she brings love and fertility to the arid world of the male-dominated railroad and the town in the desert. It's after her arrival that Leone surprises us with that magnificent crane shot over the train station, revealing the bustling young town of Flagstone as the first rays of the morning sun, as if Jill's presence literally lightens up the town. While the Old West is dying, the New West, the Nation, is taking shape, and Jill is the only character of the movie who belongs to both worlds.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill

Two questions keep the narrative going: why did that redheaded Irishman McBain build his house in the desert and what the hell is Harmonica after? It soon transpires that Morton ordered his henchman Frank to scare of the McBain family, because he needs their land and wants to have it as cheap as possible. But Frank killed them instead, saying that “people scare better when they're dying”. To cover up the killings, Frank has successfully put the blame (using the 'dusters of death') on a wandering outlaw called Cheyenne. Both Harmonica and Cheyenne belong to the Old West, but Harmonica is the more intellectual type, who understands things eluding to Cheyenne. His premonitions about other Mortons coming along to wipe out 'the ancient race', illustrate the idea that the anonymous businessman ('money') will always trump over the brute force of the individual ('the gun'). It's an insight Cheyenne only slowly acquires: when he first meets Mr. Morton he only sees a crippled man who leaves a trail behind him. It's only later that he understands what menace is exactly constituted by everything 'Mr. Choo Choo' stands for. And then, in some kind of 'gratuitous act', he kills the man who has destroyed his world.

Unlike Harmonica and Cheyenne, Frank aspires to cross the threshold of the New West. His aspirations, and the way he tries to realize them, clearly betray the Italian background of the people who created the character. He learns about that one weapon, strong enough to beat all others, and when he sits behind the businessman's desk, he says it feels 'like holding a gun, only much more powerful'. The auction scene shows how much he has learned from Morton: just like Morton instructed Frank to scare off the McBains (so he could buy their properties for a good price), Frank has instructed his men to scare off other possible buyers during the auction, so he'll have the merchandise for the price he has in mind. In other words: the auction is settled before it even takes place. This is what Italians call “the invisible hand of the mafia”: things seem to take their own line, but everything has been fixed in advance, as if a pre-recorded scene is played before your eyes. There's an early scene that indicates that Frank eventually will not cross the threshold: when he hears a noise behind his back, made by Morton behind his desk, he instinctively reaches for his gun. Frank won't ever be a businessman, will always be 'just a man', a member of that ancient race. This insight will lead him to the place where he can find the man who has been trailing him all the time – and confront him, like a real man would always do.

The final duel closes the ritual dance of death, entangling the movie's motives and disentangling them at the same time. Harmonica's flashback is one of the most powerful images in narrative art, breathtakingly beautiful, so intense you almost feel the noose tighten around your own neck. It's in this moment that this dialectic opposition between space and immediacy, the essence of Leone's technique, reaches his climax. Note that Frank, by confronting Harmonica, is sort of redeemed: if killing Frank is a cathartic act to Harmonica, dying like a man is a redemptive process to Frank. The circle is closed, an era has ended, and he – Frank – was an essential part of it, as essential as his opponents.

Like in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Leone uses a triangular model in which characters aren't simply good or bad, but only comparatively so. We tend to identify Harmonica as 'good', mainly for film historic reasons (he's dressed like a hero, he's the avenger, he's less evil than the supposed villain), but like Frank he has that cold feeling of death within him, as Cheyenne puts it, so he won't have the woman, although she'll have him. If the 'message' of The Good, the bad and the Ugly was that history was cruel and meaningless (I've never seen so many men wasted so badly), the message of Once upon in the West is that history is relentless and that man cannot outrun his destiny. Several (mainly French) critics have compared Leone to French author Céline (Voyage to the end of the Night): Like in Céline's novels, Leone's character seem trapped like rats who must gnaw through their own leg in order to release themselves. Cathartic to Harmonica, redemptive to Frank, to both men the final duel means the end. Frank must die in order to be a man, Harmonica must leave because the very act that sets him free, has dissolved the very aim of his life.

To most fans The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is Leone's best film, but Once upon a Time in the West is the critic's choice. Ironically the first critical reactions were far from unanimously positive. Due to lukewarm previews it was abridged by some twenty minutes in most countries. It nevertheless was popular in Europe and Japan, and it became one of the most endurable successes over the years worldwide, but especially in Germany and France, where it's still shown in theaters regularly. In the US the complete version was only released in 1984. Morricone' score is with 5 million copies sold the most successful of his career. The score was written in advance and parts of it were played on the set. It was innovative in the sense that each character had its own theme or leitmotiv. It's said that  Leone thought of casting Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the three gunmen waiting for the train, but gave up the idea when Clint turned the offer down. The film had a lasting impact on future generations of film makers, both in Hollywood and the rest of the world. It also generated some misunderstandings, mainly due to the device of  recycling key moments from classic American westerns. Christopher Frayling counted no less than some 300 clear references. They're mainly responsible for Leone being regarded by many as a post-modern film maker. It's true that Leone uses some stylistic devices that are now identified with postmodern narrative art, but he never saw his movies as auto-referential genre pieces referring to no hors-texte, that is any possible reality outside the work of art. He was always keen on period detail and repeatedly underlined that his depiction of the historic West was more correct than that of most Hollywood directors. It's also true that the distinction between higher and lower art forms seem to fall through when applied to his work, but he wouldn't ever have supported the idea of abrogating this distinction. Actually he thought highly of himself and saw most of his fellow Italian western directors as fumblers. A second misunderstanding is that Once upon a time in the West is more American in feel than his previous westerns. It's more serious in tone, and it's dubious if it can be called a genuine spaghetti western (a genre, as Howard Hughes put it, associated with fast action and much bloodletting), but it's deeply Italian in style and meaning. Leone's characters are driven by revenge or greed, not by a sense of community, like in the films of John Ford. For that reason in Leone's film the cavalry fort could never serve as a save haven in a hostile world. To the Italian Leone family and clan are the save haven, and they protects the individual the individual against this very 'community', usually experienced as dangerous and hostile. In Ford's movies the cavalry fort is a symbol heralding the civilization of the wilderness. In Once upon a Time in the West the railroad is a sign of rigorous, pitiless future. But there's still a bit of hope left. A drop of water in the middle of the desert. Sweetwater. The final message of the movie is an optimistic one, with Claudia Cardinale founding the matriarchate. By making her the mistress of Sweetwater, Leone literally makes her the mother of a new nation.

VERSIONS/DVDs – All previous releases became redundant after the Paramount 2xDVD release of the movie, the so-called Special Collector's Edition. Both the R1 and R2 have the uncut version of the movie, running respectively 2h45mns (R1) and 2h38mns (R2, 4% PAL-speedup). They both have the same set of extras, but the R1 offers the original English Mono track, lacking on the R2. For obvious reasons the R2 has subtitles in virtually every European language – as well as Arabic and Hebrew -  and German and Spanish language tracks. The Italian CVC release has only Italian audio and no subtitles. It runs 2h50mns in PAL, which means it is 12 minutes longer than the international English language version, but there are no extra scenes, except for one short scene with Harmonica strapping his wounded arm after waking up at the train station. It simply is an alternative cut of the movie, with some scenes (the opening scene for instance) lasting a bit longer and some alternative shots used in other scenes (notably the arrival of the train bringing Jill to Flagstone). You can study a comparison of the image quality of the three DVDs by DVD Beaver here: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdcompare/onceuponatimeinthewest.htm

 I've never watched the R1, but judging from the screenshots the R1 and R2 have similar image quality. A much heard complaint about the releases was that colours were too bright: Leone had filtered the images to give the movie a more ochreous-brown colour palette. The original colours have been respected much better on the Italian disc, but the image lacks sharpness. The audio is better on the Italian disc though, especially as far as Morricone's score is concerned: the music on the R1 disc (I haven't heard the R2) sounds a bit thin.

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