Serendipity has always played a big part in life as well as the movies, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in Sergio Leone's seminal Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). After The Good The Bad and The Ugly Leone, a man of few words potently placed (often with glib satire) elsewhere in the genre, publicly announced his retirement from making spaghetti westerns. Offers came and went but Leone remained staunch and determined in his refusal to return to the genre until Paramount offered a substantial budget and access to Henry Fonda, Leone's all-time favorite star whom he had never worked with before.
At Leone's request Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento were brought in to develop the property in 1966, spending almost a year watching, then deconstructing the classic Hollywood western for their inspiration. Conscious of the fact that his lengthy run times were severely paired down for general release in America, Leone commissioned Sergio Donati to help refine and edit their screenplay. For Once Upon A Time in the West Leone broke many of his own traditions, including allowing his characters to evolve on screen. His motif of the railroad (aka civilization and culture) come to disrupt the mythical properties of the unspoiled west, Leone’s characters are left standing after the gun-fighting - representatives of this transformation. Running parallel in theme is Leone's last stand for the west’s mythical heroes, villains and legends. With his curious preservation of these legacies, part glowing tribute/part revisionist deconstruction, Once Upon A Time in the West would eventually stand at a crossroads within the western genre, bridging that ancient Hollywood tradition for gallant heroes with a much more contemporary strain decrypting the anti-heroic disruption of mankind upon this natural landscape.
Always more interested in the rituals preceding violence than the act of violence itself, Donati and Leone's screenplay for Once Upon A Time in the West features sparse dialogue and lengthy sequences with very little action, though hardly little story development. The narrative centers primarily on two epic conflicts taking place in the fictional town of Flagstone (actually an amalgam of location work shot in Spain and Utah); the first, the deed of a cold-blooded murder, the second a transgression that leads to bitter revenge. The impetus for all the carnage is a parcel of land known as Sweetwater bought by Brett McBain (Frank Wolff); a lonely settler who foresaw a way to capitalize on the railroad. Desiring Sweetwater for himself, the railroad's crippled baron, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sends his hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda) and his men to intimidate McBain and lay claim to the property.
Instead, Frank takes considerable pleasure in murdering the entire McBain family (father, and three young children) while planting evidence to suggest that the bandit Cheyenne (Richard Robards) is responsible for their slaughter. Earlier, Frank also sent three of his best men to the station to meet Harmonica (Charles Bronson); a mystery man and the only gun who could challenge him. Dispatching Frank's men in short order, Harmonica meets up with Cheyenne in a cantina and informs him that he is being set up by Frank. Meanwhile, McBain's new bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives too late in Flagstone and is met by the town's folk already preparing the family’s funerals.
Harmonica and Cheyenne become smitten with Jill. Harmonica explains to Cheyenne that unless the station is built by the time the tracks reach the McBain property she will lose Sweetwater. Cheyenne puts his men to work to build Jill her station. Outraged at Frank for having defied him, Morton offers Jill a deal on her property. This betrayal turns mate against master with the die cast for a showdown. Frank rapes Jill and then forces her to sell the property in an auction, believing that he will be its only bidder. Instead, Harmonica holds Cheyenne at gunpoint to make his own bid for Sweetwater, using money acquired for turning Cheyenne in to pay for the land himself. Harmonica then sells Sweetwater back to Jill. Paid by Morton, Frank's men attempt to kill him. But Harmonica now comes to Frank's defense so that he may have the privilege of killing Frank himself.
During their final showdown Frank demands that Harmonica identify himself. In a flashback it is revealed that Frank killed Harmonica's older brother by tying a noose around his neck and forcing Harmonica - then a mere boy - to support him on his shoulders, knowing that the child would be unable to do this indefinitely. Harmonica shoots Frank dead and places a harmonica in his mouth to make his own revenge complete. Her arch nemesis gone, Jill supervises construction of the depot near her property as the train comes through. Cheyenne reveals to Harmonica that during his earlier confrontation with Morton's men he has been mortally wounded. He collapses and dies in Harmonica's arms and is carried off into the sunset by Harmonica as the railroad – that perennial symbol of a new burgeoning on the horizon - looms larger than ever in the foreground.
From a purely narrative perspective Once Upon A Time In the West is an imperfect film. Having the bandit Cheyenne become our heroic figure is problematic. If he's a bandit, then we never really see him at his most ruthless. If anything, he's an over-the-hill nobleman sheathed in the aura of his own pretend. It's also rather unlikely, having seen the cold-blooded-ness of Frank firsthand, that his men would suddenly forget themselves for a few pieces of gold and turn against him for Morton or anyone else. But there is so much style and superb characterizations to be had throughout we can easily forget such shortcomings in story development and still have a relatively coherent viewing experience.
Casting the film proved a challenge. Initially, Henry Fonda turned down Leone presumably because he did not want to play against type as the heavy. This decision Fonda regretted, then reconsidered only after friend and spaghetti western veteran Eli Wallach advised him to do the film. Charles Bronson was hired for Harmonica, but only after Clint Eastwood refused to do the film and James Coburn demanded too much money to play the part instead. Robert Ryan backed out of playing the Sheriff for a bigger part in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.
Two tragedies also marred the production. The first involved actor Al Mulock who played a supporting role as Knuckles in the film's opening confrontation between Harmonica and Frank's men. The actor committed suicide in full costume shortly after his scenes had been shot in Spain by leaping from his hotel room. Two years later Frank Wolff (McBain) followed Mulock's lead by jumping from his hotel suite in Rome.
As Leone suspected his 165 minute international cut was ruthlessly butchered for the American release. As a result the film did poorly at the box office. Viewed today in its restored version one cannot help but admire the brilliant light touches in Leone's sustained pacing. Performances throughout are powerful, haunting and peerless. For a film so generous in its scope and size, Once Upon A Time in the West seems a remarkably intimate affair in retrospect as it effortlessly unfolds with ever-compelling detail about its conflicted characters.
Paramount Home Video's Blu-ray is not quite as impressive as expected. Sourced from restored elements the image exhibits exceptional fine detail throughout. However, colors seem to lack in the bold richness we've come to expect from the Blu-ray format. Comparing the Blu-ray image with Paramount's stellar 2-disc DVD reveals the Blu-ray's color palette as less warm. The Blu-ray favors a blue/brown schematic rather than the DVD's more ruddy brown/gold hues. Contrast remain nicely realized. Blacks are deep and velvety smooth. Whites are pristine.
Sonically, the DTS soundtrack fairs only marginally better. Ennio Morricone's magnificent score is the real benefactor here. But dialogue continues to sound strident, thin and frontal. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD and include a litany of short featurettes that cumulatively assemble as one lengthy and comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)