Perhaps not the best known of Sergio Leone’s westerns - since it doesn’t star Clint Eastwood - Once Upon a Time in the West is still considered by many to be the ultimate western.
Something to do with death
Even though Once Upon a Time in the West is lacking in the Clint Eastwood-department, we are once again introduced to a man with no name. Charles Bronson is the man with the harmonica, a man that “ instead of talking, he plays, and when he better play, he talks”. Harmonica is looking for Frank, a man that is immediately established as someone with really low moral fibre (it’s therefore rather surprising that he is played by Henry Fonda, who made a career as “the good guy”, that however was the exact reason behind the casting choice). He’s actually so ruthless that he won’t hesitate to shoot a kid in the face. Frank works as an enforcer for railroad industrialist Morton and tends to leave a trail of bodies in his wake. Harmonicas motives aren’t explained right away but it is rather obvious for any friend of the genre that he is looking for vengeance. For what exactly, will only be revealed, “at the point of dying”.
Set in a period of turmoil, Once upon a Time in the West revolves around a dying type of men, being pushed out by a new kind of prospectors looking for other things than the gold of the old days. Moneymen with a different kind of code, and Morton is one of those men. For him, it’s not personal, merely business. The events that follow are set in and around the fictional town of Flagstone.
Being a multi-character piece, Once upon a Time in the West is also carried by Jason Robards as the charming bandit Cheyenne, and for the first and only time in a film by Leone, a female lead in Jill McBaine (played by Italian bombshell Claudia Cardinale), a former New Orleans prostitute in search for a new, more stable life. A dream that is immediately ruined by Frank and his men as her new founded family is brutally murdered in a fight for control over the regions only water source. A key piece of land for the railroad tycoon’s expansion plans.
There is no coincidence that Once Upon a Time in the West consists of more characters than any other Leone-western as everything in this film reaches for the epic. The opening credits scene last over ten minutes, the Flagstone set cost as much as A Fistful of Dollars did, and Leone flew over the Atlantic to shoot Jill’s carriage ride (a meaningless scene, story-wise) because he thought the grandness of Monument Valley was key to establish the setting of the film (and also for him to pay homage to western legend John Ford).
Once Upon a Time in the West was an instant success when released in Europe. The film opened in Italy on 21st December 1968 and managed to make its money back on the Italian revenues alone. The film found its greatest audience in France where it’s still one of the most successful films ever released and in some theatres it ran for as long as four years.
Despite the success with the Dollars trilogy the film failed to make an impression when it opened in the US in May 1969. An alternate cut was released by the studio (removing 22 minutes, including the scene where Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne meet for the first time and Cheyenne’s death scene) but without positive effect. The critics weren’t impressed either.
It did however catch a cult following and also managed to influence many of the New Hollywood filmmakers, and directors such as Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter and John Boorman have all been praising the film. In later years Quentin Tarantino has been one of the more vocal supporters.
Once Upon a Time in the West is today generally considered a masterpiece. In 2009 the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.
As always, the score was composed by Ennio Morricone. This time however, a different approach were used when creating the film's soundtrack. Assisted by guidelines from Leone, Morricone made most of the music before filming began and it was then used by Leone on set while filming. It was Leone's wishes that having the music played on set would inspire the actors to even greater performances. It was also a tool to help create the right kind of movement that would resonate with the music.
The soundtrack cover
Leitmotifs where used for all four main characters and they are all heavily used through out the film. Harmonica's theme has since then been reused many times. A re-orchestrated version can be heard in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and in its sequel At World's End. It has also become popular to use as entrance music for martial artists, including K1 fighter Remy Bonjasky.