Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
I doubt I will have much new or original to say about Sergio Leone’s C’era Una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West). This is a film widely considered one of the all-time great Westerns in film history. I very much feel like the last person in the world to see and comment on it. In an effort to at least be honest and stick with only my own thoughts, I’m writing this initially in longhand while watching, so at least my thoughts will be my own, even if they’ve been uttered by hundreds (or thousands) before me.
The genius of C’era Una Volta il West can be seen in the way the first act unfolds. Leone introduces us to the principle players in stages, giving us enough of a glimpse to define each character without a complete picture. We start with a long tension-building sequence as three men wait for a train. The train arrives and a man appears on the platform. This is Harmonica (Charles Bronson). The three men have been sent to kill him by someone named Frank. One short burst of violence later, and Harmonica is patching up a wounded arm while the other thre lie dead. And that’s all the introduction for Harmonica we need.
Next, we go to Sweetwater, a patch of desert that houses the McBain family. The McBains own a piece of land that holds the only good water for miles—a necessary spot for a station when the railroad comes through. This means everybody wants the land, so it’s not surprising when a gang of outlaws shows up and guns down the entire family. As the last remaining McBain, a young boy, stands looking at the killers who have murdered his father, brother, and sister, the leader Frank (Henry Fonda) guns him down.
This is pure cinematic genius on almost every level. First, it absolutely identifies Frank as heartless and ruthless. Second, it’s Henry Fonda. For more than a generation, Fonda portrayed the sorts of characters people identified with nd wanted to be. In film after film (The Ox-Bow Incident, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath), he was the guy with the highest ideals and the staunchest moral character. And the first thing we see him do is gun down a child in cold blood. It’s as if Leone is telling us that he’s giving himself license to do anything he wishes, no matter how much we might object.
Our next meeting is with Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), the wife of the recently-slain McBain and sudden owner of Sweetwater. Before she discovers this, she stops on her way at a small outpost. It’s here we meet Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an outlaw who may or may not have a history with Harmonica. Jill McBain’s first act as the mistress of Sweetwater is to bury her family. Her second is to protect her land from all comers. Frank and his crew have framed Cheyenne for the murder of her family in an effort to protect their real boss, railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti).
All of this pins together with surprising ease. Morton wants the land for the train and sends Frank to do the dirty work. Harmonica has a long-seated grudge against Frank that comes out in the course of the film. Cheyenne is more or less trying to protect his own reputation, not wanting to claim any crimes that aren’t really his. And, of course, it all ends in shooting because this is a Western, and you can’t get to the end without smoking irons and guys getting shot off the roof of a saloon, or perhaps a theater under construction.
It may not be fair to suggest that C’era Una Volta il West is, in almost every respect of the plot, a completely standard Western. It blends two of the most traditional, stereotypical Western sagas into one, the standard revenge plot between gunmen and the “here comes the train” westward expansion. To hit the trifecta, it only needed cattlemen vs. farmers. But here’s the thing: it does both of these plots about as well as anyone ever has.
There are moments when Leone’s penchant for building tension by having nothing happen goes on too long, but only a couple of times. Most of the time, it’s damned effective. The opening 10 minutes, culminating in Harmonica’s laying low of three thugs, for instance, happens with very little motion on screen and virtually no dialogue. It’s just waiting, and it’s enthralling the whole time. In that respect, while it runs about the same length as Leone’s more famous The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it also suffers much less need of editing. Throw in great performances by Bronson, Fonda, Cardinale, and Robards, and you have a film that may be a bit predictable in plot and a shade overlong, but that does not disappoint in any respect.
A note on Jason Robards—this guy is a two-time Oscar winner, and no one seems to remember him. He deserves better, and you should hunt down some of his movies and watch them. The man was a hell of an actor, and in this film, it’s impossible not to watch him when he’s on screen.
The final two notes regard things for which Leone is rightly regarded. First, the cinematography here is spectacular. Wide open spaces and desolate landscapes that truly offer a sense of this open country. Beautiful stuff. Second, Leone tapped the great Ennio Morricone for the soundtrack. Few do a soundtrack as well as Morricone in general, and few do it as well as he does here. The blend of old and new, the repeated themes with different instruments, picked up by a harmonica in key places…it’s filled with musical cues that actually help keep the story straight. You can’t ask for more from the music than that, can you?
Why to watch C’era Una Volta il West: As good a Western as you’ll find.
Why not to watch: If I have to nitpick, the Italian actors don’t match their dubbing, but that’s really it.
lol, yeah, even I've seen this one (though it wasn't that long ago). I reviewed it for MILF. I'm pretty sure I said something along the lines of "If I liked westerns, I'd absolutely love this movie. But I don't love westerns, so I only really liked it." But I do agree that this is pretty much as good as epic westerns get.ReplyDelete
(Correction: Oops... lol, it was for my own site in August for the 50/50... It was A Fistful of Dollars I reviewed on MILF. Ah, well...)Delete
I didn't actually pay attention to the where or when of your review--I just remembered that you had watched it and liked it more than you thought you would.Delete
Maybe this is one of those films you can talk about "bonding" with...
That opening scene is legendary. It would make the movie stand out even if it was the only thing to it. Super close ups, creaking signpost, sweat drops trickling down gritty stubble. This is tension building and story introduction at its best.ReplyDelete
Steve, I was only just ahead of you and caught this movie for the first time last spring. Right from the start, it was gripping and I still can't figure out why it took so long for me to see it. I'm thinking it was probably the length, but that was a silly reason. There's so much to like in this movie, and you're definitely right about Robards. I also really liked Bronson's laid-back yet determined approach as Harmonica. I'm not that familiar with a lot of his work, so it was cool to see him play such a great character.ReplyDelete
Fantastic review... one that does great justice to the movie. You are right about the fact that it's often difficult to say something new about a movie about which so much has already been said. And yet reading your review felt like taking in a breath of fresh air. Once Upon a Time in the West is an all time favorite films of mine, one of the Westerns ever made. Leone, Morricone, Fonda, Robards, Cardinale and Bronson perpetually hold the viewer in a transfixion:ReplyDelete
Please do take some time out to check out my review of the film:
@Nick--I remembered that you had reviewed it, and read yours after I posted mine. I think I liked it more than you did, but I tend to like Westerns a little more than you do.Delete
@TSorensen--Absolutely! And the hell of it is that I can't really explain why it works. It just does.
@Dan--I think Bronson's best film is The Great Escape, but this is one where he gives us a great performance. Robards is the unsung hero for me, though. Like you, I think the length is what put me off.
@Murtaza--Thanks for the kind words, although I'm not sure I deserve them. Checking your review out...now.
Dear God, how I fell in love with this the first time I saw it. Even now, this remains probably second only to Gone With the Wind in my personal list of favorite films from the Book. I'm currently at just under 700 films checked off the list, and this is without a doubt in my top 3. Just... awesome, in every way.ReplyDelete
This may be considered sacrilege, but I actually think Leone does stretch the intro sequence unnecessarily. Still a great movie, though.ReplyDelete
@Adol--The Searchers is still the quintessential Western for me, but I'd rank this in the upper, upper echelon.Delete
@Nicolas--I don't agree, but I understand why you get there. Any other director, and I'd almost certainly agree.
I completely agree on those first two intros; they really let you know what you are going to be dealing with in regards to these characters.ReplyDelete
This is easily my favorite Leone film and one of the best westerns ever made.
Like you, I'd have to reach to find something negative about it. The only thing that bugged me, and it was a little thing, is the huge, 1960s, fake eyelashes that Cardinale was wearing were so out of place that I noticed them. Usually I'm oblivious to things like that.
I have to admit, I never noticed her eyelashes. There are times when I struggle for a reason to see it or skip it. This was definitely one of those times.Delete
Very nice write up. Like, well, everyone else, I really love this one, and you and I are both not big fans of westerns.ReplyDelete
This is a long movie that doesn't feel long. It feels just right, in pretty much every way.
For me, I loved the casting of Henry Fonda against type. It was a significant portion of my positive reaction to the film, seeing with glee how easily Fonda was able to convince us of his all-consuming evil nature. Who'd have thought it?
Agreed--Fonda is a big sell.Delete
I don't hate Westerns; I just rarely choose them because I'd almost always rather watch something else. That, and when I do really like one, I'm always a little surprised.