Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

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…

Classic Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Violent, epic, touching, and even comical at times, this film is quite the ride.

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

Review:  Somewhere in the West lies buried an enormous sum in gold, and three men know about it.  Three violent, self-centered men, each of whom would just as soon kill the others if he had the chance.  The only problem is that no one quite knows exactly where this treasure is. Each man knows only a piece of the puzzle, forcing him to work with the others.  Thus begins a rampant odyssey as these men fight both the elements and each other in their search for gold.  Not only that, but the American Civil War is unfolding all around them, and more than once, they get caught in the crossfire.

This is the setting of one of the oddest, yet most well done westerns in existence.  Director Sergio Leone and crew take all the tropes about spaghetti westerns, twist them sideways, and stick them smack-dab in the middle of what should be a much more grandiose film.  So, yes, all those showdowns and shootouts and morally ambiguous characters are here; yes, Clint Eastwood is back as the Man with No Name one last time; and yes, all that crazy music and camera work is here.  It’s all been seen before, right?  Well, sort of, but when you throw large-scale Civil War battles and treasure hunts into the mix, this truly becomes a horse of a different color.

It’s a film that thrives on contrast and hyperbole, a western with a backdrop of war, and that’s what makes it so effective.  In the western, everything is comically exaggerated.  Gunslingers aren’t just good with their weapons, they’re gods literally capable of hitting targets a half-mile away.  Standoff’s aren’t just paced out, they’re dragged out for a full five minutes as tension sky-rockets.  The score isn’t just exciting and energetic, it’s an over-the-top bombastic joy ride, as composer Ennio Morricone mixes howls, yells, and screams along with his usual and diverse array of instruments in this iconic film score.

In the backdrop of the war, however, a near polar opposite is found.  Soldiers are shown realistically wounded, and a true sense of loss is felt as you see multitudes of dieing Union and Confederate men.  Rather than catering to one side or the other, the film shows the good and bad aspects of both factions, making it all the more saddening to see them fight.  Morricone provides his most touching pieces yet for these moments, combining trumpets, violins, and even human moans into truly moving music.

Complementing the story and music is the casting.  Clint Eastwood, in his final spaghetti western, delivers as the fast drawin’ and cigar chomping Man with No Name.  But in this movie, he’s known as The Good.  Lee Van Cleef returns this time as a most sinister and reprehensible killer (The Bad) and, in my opinion, one of the best screen villains of all time.  Newcomer Eli Wallach gives quite the performance as the sometimes-idiotic-sometimes-deadly outlaw, Tuco, (The Ugly).  Interestingly enough, it’s Tuco who steals the show.  He gets the most screen-time, the most lines, and the most back-story; and is arguably the most human of the three.  However, it’s Eastwood who is the most remembered of the three.  Something about the silent toughness that permeates his character wedged its way into the public consciousness, and to this day, he continues to influence the anti-heroes of film and television.

Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are great spaghetti westerns, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is different.  Sure, it too is a fantastic Italian-made western.  Sure, it’s a great western in general.  But first and foremost, it is an outstanding film.  It transcends any and all classifications or genres and delivers one unique story, the effect, of which, would influence countless pictures to come.  Combining tragedy with action and comedy, it’s the sort of film a man like Quentin Tarantino would have made had he been making films in the sixties.  The film itself, vastly more than its prequels, has become a true classic.  Even people who’ve never seen the film know the name.  In short, it’s the best spaghetti western, it contends for the best western period, and it is without a doubt, one of the most entertaining movies ever made.  Even to people who are not fans of these kinds of movies, I encourage them to give it a watch.  I give this film my highest recommendation.