By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
Summary: Highly underrated, but a sure-fire masterpiece of a Western.
Review: At some point in the latter half of the 90’s, I remember flipping through channels on the television before landing on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t know the movie they were showing, but I could tell by the dress and terrain that it had to be a Western. As it happened, I had come in on one of the greatest Western finales ever shot. The driving music, the stark imagery, the shootout (the Western climax is always a shootout, it seems). As a child no older than eight, I was amazed and speechless. Afterword I ran upstairs to my father, who I knew liked Westerns, and, describing the scene best I could, asked him what the name of the movie was. He told me it was ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’. As it turns out, he missed the mark but hit the tree.
The movie I saw that day was Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, the last “real” Western from the man behind the famous ‘Dollars’ Trilogy, of which ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ was the final installment. I have to give my Dad credit for being close given my description as an inarticulate child. Certainly, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ bears many of Leone’s spaghetti western trademarks (epic showdowns, nameless anti-heroes, operatic music from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and gritty violence). And yet, looking a littler deeper, this film is actually a horse of a much different color.
The fundamental difference between ‘West’ and Leone’s earlier films is that, where as the ‘Dollars’ trilogy was a bit quirky and slightly ridiculous (a tone that works well for those movies, mind you) ‘West’ goes for a grander, dramatic approach. It’s very serious in a way Leone’s prior films hadn’t been. The story is as dark as any Western has ever been, a dark tale of greed, murder, and revenge; and yet it also celebrates the vibrancy, grandeur, and surprising complexity of the American West and its people. The West was, in many ways, the last “final frontier” for civilization. It was an untamed land, filled with danger and peril, and devoid of law and order. On the other hand it was a rugged and pure place, devoid of the corruptions of the modern world. One of the films themes, the coming of the railroad and thus, civilization, shows beautifully this conflict and tradeoff between the arrival of civilized-order and the loss of wild-innocence.
This theme of the dying west dovetails strangely well with the change in the Western film industry at the time of the film’s 1968 release. Up to that point, Westerns had been relative juggernauts, both on television and film, despite their lack of historical accuracy and often-insensitive depictions of Native Americans and Mexicans. By the late sixties, an increase in ethno-history, civil rights, and historical accuracy had begun to take their toll on the Classic Western’s credibility. By the seventies, classic television Westerns went off the air, and Revisionist Westerns pictures, much more somber and realistic, were taking precedent at the box office. These new approaches were intriguing and involving, and many of these Revisionist Westerns are outstanding films. However, they do lack the pure, undiluted spirit of the earlier films. In the West as well as in Western Films, a simple and pure world was traded for something less straightforward and less innocent.
Back to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, this film is one of the last to celebrate the Classic Western style, ironically directed by a man who was accused of ruining it with his earlier works. The key to the Classic Western was the central theme of men, lone warriors, standing against something larger than themselves, the vast, untamed West. Westerns are about the enduring human spirit against danger and evil. ‘Once Upon a Time in The West’‘s multi-layered tale of a stranger seeking retribution, a cold-blooded killer, an outlaw framed for murder, and a widow caught in the crossfire shows the many ways this spirit is tested and eventually overcomes. Thematically, this is one of the most powerful films, let alone Westerns, ever filmed.
In addition to the story, the actors in this film are just plain awesome, as is the music. Henry Fonda as the film’s villain was a surprisingly brilliant casting choice, as was Jason Robards (a very under-appreciated actor) as a bandit with a heart of gold. Charles Bronson adopts a role similar to the Man With No Name as a nameless, driven gunfighter, and he pulls it off well. Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress not too well-known in the States, delivers an especially moving performance as Jill, a widow who finds herself at the forefront of the film’s bloody tale.
Ennio Morricone has always been one of the best film composers ever, and, in no exaggeration, this is his best film score. His combination of electric guitars, harmonicas, operatic screaming and classical orchestration has never sounded more perfect than in this film. His ability to move from delicacy to driving power is nothing short of amazing. This score, worth owning independent of the film, is truly a masterpiece and adds brilliantly to this already stellar film.
‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s combination of story, acting, music, and style make it one of the best Westerns ever made and a wonderfully cathartic piece of story-telling. Though initially overlooked when first released, this film has grabbed people’s attention overtime, much the way it did for me as a child, and it is now revered as a classic. It’s worth watching for anyone who claims to be a fan of Westerns. I’m so very glad I was watching television that day…