Plot: There’s a single piece of land around Flagstone with water on it, and rail baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) aims to have it, knowing the new railroad will have to stop there. He sends his henchman Frank (Henry Fonda) to scare the land’s owner, McBain (Frank Wolff), but Frank kills him instead and pins it on a known bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Meanwhile, a mysterious gunslinger with a score to settle (Charles Bronson) and McBain’s new wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), arrive in town.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Once Upon a Time in the West which is widely regarded as one of the greatest Westerns of all time and it’s easy to see why; it is pretty much a perfect movie with stunning cinematography, a sublime music score from the legendary Ennio Morricone and one of the most amazing casts you’ll ever see including Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and Henry Fonda.
Every single frame of this movie could be turned into a painting and look like a work of art with Monument Valley never looking more majestic.
It explores the themes of greed, revenge and the death of the Old West remaining a grand operatic tale that is never predictable with characters doing the unexpected. With some Spaghetti Westerns, if you watch them now some moments may be unintentionally funny but this movie has aged like a fine wine and is every bit as incredible as it was when it was released 50 years ago.
Modern audiences may struggle with its deliberate pacing and overlong close-ups but I devour every moment and consider it arguably my favourite Sergio Leone movie. I prefer it to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly as despite its runtime I feel the pacing is a little tighter and the story is more interesting but don’t tell anyone I said that…
Once Upon a Time has been a huge influence on many filmmakers especially Quentin Tarantino who described it as “the movie that made me consider filmmaking” and it’s clear on many of his works.
Charles Bronson is at his best and looks like he was carved out of stone as he is at his stoic best playing a stranger known only as Harmonica due to him playing the instrument to mark his entrance. Then we have Jason Robards as the outlaw with a heart Cheyenne who teams up with Harmonica to protect widow Jill McBain. Robards brings some humour to proceedings but he is very believable and is suitably menacing when he needs to be. People who think strong female characters are a new thing clearly haven’t watched movies over 10 years old as Jill is as strong as you can get never actually asking for help and quite capable of looking after herself, even the threat of rape doesn’t faze her with lines like “If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself, and even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory!” She is jaded by the loss of her family but not broken and continues on with her life.
Henry Fonda was rarely better than in this movie; his glacial eyes made him perfectly cast as the antagonist Frank who (like all the best villains) isn’t as generic as you’d maybe expect. He knows he has to change with the times and wants to become more of a businessman but he can’t let go of being a criminal which is really what he is.
The script is as sharp as ever with some sparkling dialogue like “How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants” or “He not only plays. He can shoot too.”
In terms of action there are several shoot-outs but this movie is all about tension and build-up which is more exciting than the majority of action scenes. Leone was a master of creating atmospherics by using sound to build tension; the creaking of the windmill during the opening sequence works in ramping up the sense of foreboding as the camera goes past each of the three gunmen as they await the train.
There are enough set-pieces to keep genre fans interested and the finale is the stuff of classic Westerns.
Interestingly enough Sergio Leone wanted the cast from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly together at the train station in the opening sequence. According to Deep Focus Review apparently ”Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach agreed to reprise their roles in the proposed cameo, but Leone and Eastwood had a heavily publicized falling out that prevented him from appearing and the idea from coming to fruition. Nevertheless, Leone hired rugged-faced Western icons Woody Strode, Jack Elam, and Al Mulock which worked out just as well”.
I could literally talk about this movie for hours but I’ll finish up by saying that after 50 years Sergio Leone’s seminal Western remains a masterpiece and if you haven’t seen it then take a day off work and indulge yourself as you will be swept up in beautiful visuals, pitch perfect performances and one of the greatest music scores in cinema history.