Once Upon A Time In The West


ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST —–at least when a cookie-jarred politician has to eat crow in public, they have their shell-shocked wife standing by to show she’s there for him (and everything she can get). Your humbled servant must face the cracked mirror alone, on a keyboard—twice in the same week, yet, but if one purports to live by the Code of the West(erns), one doesn’t run from a gunfight, but at one. Brave words from the cubicle. As with an overdue apology to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I’m once again “reversing a Custer decision” by changing my original shrug-take on this 1968 spaghetti six-gun saga to belatedly applaud its thematic audacity, pictorial beauty and directorial panache. *

How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.”


The Old West (alla Romana): one-time good time girl ‘Jill’ (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in ‘Flagstone’ to settle into married life in nearby ‘Sweetwater’. But her husband and his children have been murdered by the cold-as-blue-ice hired gun ‘Frank’ (Henry Fonda—“Lincoln Guns Down a Kid!”), working for physically crippled, morally corrupt railroad bigshot ‘Morton’ (Gabriele Ferzetti, urbane even on crutches). Their respective paths cross with airily talkative outlaw ‘Cheyenne’ (Jason Robards) and the mysterious ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson) who says as little as possible but speaks volumes with his ever-present mouth organ and omnipresent steely gaze. Who means what to whom, and what means anything to any of them?


You should learn to live as if you didn’t exist” is a line I want to use on somebody before I croak, but as Frank says about corporate might, when sitting behind the tycoon’s desk,  “It’s almost like holding a gun… only much more powerful.”  Earlier, Harmonica informs Cheyenne “I saw three of these dusters a short time ago. They were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men.” Cheyenne shrugs “So?”  Harmonica clarifies: “Inside the men, there were three bullets.”  Undeterred, Cheyenne charms the contested lady with “You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was – for an hour or for a month – he must have been a happy man.”


There’s quite a bit of talk—and some lengthy pensive silences—in a prodigious 164 minute whopper that bides its own sweet time between the inevitable gunshots that spur plot and settle scores. Yet it’s not sound or silence, but the look that kills here (kill in the good way—although don’t completely discount the efficacy of a .44).

Director Sergio Leone and pals Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento (talk about a gang of outlaws!) spent weeks re-watching scores of classic Hollywood westerns before coming up with the story that became a script Leone co-wrote with Sergio Donati. The shoot took cast & crew to Arizona’s Monument Valley (a Fordly paean), along with a shorter hop to the usual desert-subbing areas of handy Spain. A good $5,000,000 was laid on, four times as much as Leone expended on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (half went for the cast fees) in order to top his Eastwood trio in sweep and depth, and pay homage to the seemingly (at the time) vanishing western genre.

Less of a comic book than Clint’s gundowns, it’s more serious-minded and self-consciously arty; the deliberate pacing demands a fair dollop of patience.  Stunner widescreen cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli gives it a sense of isolated, timeless grandeur and mythic destiny (heroic/savage/poetic/ironic/all at once), even in scenes populated by just a few people, such as the bravura slow-burn opening sequence, a tense, funny, fascinating 12-minute buildup to a 3-on-1 gunfight that lasts a few seconds: Bronson vs. Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock.**


Aside from her being ravishing, it’s a bit difficult to judge Cardinale’s performance, as she’s dubbed. Robards is relaxed, though the editing’s narrative gaps do his Cheyenne a disservice. Bronson, at 46, had been a favorite supporting actor for years, but the huge success of this movie in Europe, and his subsequent skyrocket popularity there, brought him home a few years later to a good decade run of action hits in the States, before he began to phone it in during the 80s. The crackerjack surprise for everyone was Americana pillar Fonda, at 62 playing easily—and with his usual expertise–by far the nastiest role of his career. Way back, he’d been an arrogant martinet in 1948s seminal cavalry classic Fort Apache, and the same year as this did a grizzled bad guy in Firecreek, but they pale next to his calm, assured malevolence here, those piercing blue eyes reflecting not the normal warm ‘Hank’ decency, but something deep and dark, cold as gun-metal.


Leone’s invaluable composer Ennio Morricone dished up the lush score, which gets raves as a masterwork; myself I much prefer his epochal creation for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  To Mark ears this one feels overdone, like it belongs in another movie. Write-ups often use “operatic” to describe it. To each their own. The music swells indicate we’re supposed to be stirred by emotion deeper than mere excitement and to me that just accentuates a flaw of the film, of any of these Euro-westerns: the characters, writing and situations are so patently unreal that while I may be amused by the battles and byplay or impressed by the style—and I am—I don’t believe any of it for a minute and so can’t get a heart-rush over cardboard cut-outs. I’m interested in these figures, but I don’t care about any of them. The ritualistic stuff is a lot of fun, though, and Leone’s direction delivers that in spades, with that superb cinematography never less than arresting. Those closeups are wonderful. The length is not a problem if you settle in and put your feet up; in fact some curious storyline gaps and behavioral leaps indicate it must have been a good deal longer before trimming.

Once Upon a Time in the West 13

Not that well-reviewed initially, posterity has brought it accolades up the Winchester.  I can’t fully side with the All-Time-Great crowd, but it is for sure an involving, beautifully crafted piece of work, one that will reward repeated viewings (I first saw it on TV, edited, and was—no surprise—only mildly satisfied). Is this Sergio’s best?  It may be his most fully realized expression of craft, but I think The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is more plain fun.  Cineastes likely would disagree (and sneer-grin like Fonda’s Frank), but I’d bet regular movie fans would draw down with me on this one. Listening to people go on about ‘direction’ and enduring their not-always-informed meanderings on the “hidden meanings” behind one fellow’s work or that one’s “hack job” can be as painful as hearing a wine snob blab about ‘nose’ when all you want to do is get the damn cork out. Key: when you hear someone drop oeuvre into the conversation, unless they’re actually from Paris and/or really attractive, bolt for the nearest horse.


It didn’t do well in the U.S., earning but $5,300,000, 60th place for the year, but it was a runaway #1 hit in France and #3 in Germany. With hired guns Keenan Wynn, Frank Wolff and Lionel Stander.


* From the There Aren’t Enough Crows in Nebraska Dept: doffing my coonskin cap to a couple cowboy classics is one thing, but you’d need Julie Christie and Claudia Cardinale to wrap me in barb wire and hold me down to force sitting through Jules and Jim again.  “A man’s got to know his limitations.


** Trivially pursuing…

…the Indian woman who gets away from the train station opener was Hawaiian Princess Luukialuana (Luana) Kalaeloa. She was the wife of Woody Strode…

…42-year-old Al Mulock (‘Knuckles’, 3rd train station gunman) committed suicide during production in Spain by jumping off a hotel, in full costume. Production Manager Claudio Mancini and screenwriter Mickey Knox witnessed Mulock’s falling body pass by their window. Knox recalled that as Mancini put Mulock in his car to drive him to the hospital, Leone, putting project primacy ahead of personnel, let alone pity, gabbed “Get the costume! We need the costume!”  Three years later, Frank Wolff, who played ‘McBain’, also killed himself, in a Rome hotel. American-ex-pat Wolff had done well in European films; he had a great part in Kazan’s America America. He was only a year older than Al Mulock…

15 Hats 5

…from the ‘It Ain’t Like It Used To Be, But It’ll Do‘ Dept: Robert Ryan, in Europe picking up stray pay in awful movies like Anzio and Custer Of The West, initially accepted the sheriff cameo done by Keenan Wynn, but thankfully backed out for a larger, more crucial role, cussing “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing, gutter trash” in The Wild Bunch...

…five years before he’d start his directing career, 18-year-old ladder-climber John Landis did some of the stunt work…

…Jack Elam, whose voice was plenty familiar, was dubbed for some reason, by Bruno Persa. Cardinale was dubbed by Joyce Gordon. Ms. Gordon was amused to read a review praising Cardinale for her command of the English language, and commented ”It’s an anonymous kind of gratification.” Claudia’s English was good enough for The Professionals, so I don’t know why Leone bothered. It’s not as though anyone would be fooled thinking she was American. I’m never consulted on such matters….



2 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time In The West

  1. I have no axe to grind with any of your comments. Hated it years ago as a young teenager. Too long and I was bored. Now it’s like a mythical faerie tale and I love it more with each viewing. For me it’s probably in my top 5 westerns all time. On the music, it’s Claudia’s theme that gets me. It’s stirring and I love how it turns up in the odd commercial or something I come across. I’ve always thought it would have been so much more fun had Eastwood agreed to a cameo that apparently Eli and Lee Van had said yes to as the three men awaiting Bronson at the train station. Fun yes but probably distracting in the end. Eastwood had moved on while Eli and Lee Van were just getting started with their run of Italian westerns.

  2. This is a masterpiece. Beautiful to look at. A film all about emotion and human connection. The music is gorgeous. As much as I love it, I can totally understand and accept why some people find this film slow or boring.

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